My goal for two decades has been to see what those higher-performing charters are doing that other schools, both regular and charter, could use. The most effective charter approaches appear to be longer school days, better training of teachers and principals, higher learning standards and close contact with each student.
The pandemic has shown that many high-performing charters have an additional advantage that traditional schools are unlikely to duplicate. The best charter systems often have stronger and more consistent leadership because they avoid the political pressures and shifting policies inherent in America’s democratic approach to school administration.
Elections frequently change the composition of the public school boards that select superintendents and set other policies. The average tenure of a schools superintendent is only five or six years. Teachers unions do wonderful things, but they also influence school board decisions on when to switch from remote to in-school instruction, leading to bitter disputes in many districts.
Charters by contrast usually do not have elected school boards or unionized teachers. The most successful charter systems at the moment are often led by people who have been in charge a long time.
Richard Barth, chief executive of the foundation that oversees the nation’s largest charter network, KIPP, has had that job for 16 years. Dave Levin, who co-founded KIPP 27 years ago, is still on its board. JoAnn Gama, chief executive of the IDEA charter network, co-founded the organization 21 years ago. Norman Atkins, board chair of the Uncommon Schools network, co-founded its first school 24 years ago. Dacia Toll, chief executive of Achievement First, co-founded that charter network 18 years ago. Eva Moskowitz, chief executive of the Success Academy schools, co-founded her network 15 years ago. Michael and Olga Block co-founded the BASIS schools and have led them for 23 years.
That makes a difference. Those leaders won’t last forever. Their systems will eventually be run by other people. But they have had the time to build and sustain cultures that have produced strong responses to the coronavirus.
KIPP, with 255 schools nationwide, purchased 140,000 devices last fall to make sure all students could participate in remote learning, director of media relations Maria Alcón-Heraux said. Over 90 percent of the students who were enrolled in October 2019 were back in October 2020 or had completed the highest grade. KIPP raised $2 million for grants to KIPP alumni in college who need help with tuition, housing, food and other expenses.
The IDEA network, with 120 schools in Texas and Louisiana, was able by last October to give all parents a choice of in-person or remote instruction. The network’s enrollment growth continued. In the new school year it had 3,500 more students than initially projected, chief operations officer Irma Munoz said.
The Uncommon Schools network, with 55 schools in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, is “making thousands of calls weekly to check in with families, to see where we can help beyond school,” said chief media officer Barbara Martinez. When the network went to full remote in March last year it made sure high schools were getting students ready for college and released a series of elementary and middle school filmed lessons that were free to the public. Daily attendance has been in the 80 to 90 percent range, compared with the 90s before the pandemic.
Success Academy, with 47 schools in New York City, had to contend with widespread closing of the buildings it shares with regular public schools. It made sure it had remote devices for all students and reported 97 percent attendance when it reopened March 19, 2020, according to chief public affairs officer Ann Powell.
At Achievement First, with 37 schools in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, “we have an average daily attendance of 95 percent, and 93 percent of the students who were enrolled in our schools in January 2020 were still enrolled as of January 2021,” said Amanda Pinto, senior director for strategic communications.
YES Prep, with 21 schools in Houston, had 93.5 percent of students enrolled in September 2019 who were still there in September 2020, said Angela Rodriguez, director of communications and marketing. Elementary school students and those in grades six through 12 with special needs who wanted in-class learning were back in school as recently as October.
KIPP, IDEA, Uncommon, Success Academy, Achievement First and YES Prep serve mostly students from low-income families.
BASIS, with mostly middle-class students in 29 schools in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and D.C., was able to offer a choice of in-person or distance learning to most families, except in D.C. and Flagstaff, Ariz., because of local coronavirus conditions. “About 60 percent of our families chose distance learning and about 40 percent chose in-person learning, with significant differences by school, depending on location,” said chief executive Peter Bezanson.
Traditional public schools will benefit if they find ways, as some charters have, to expand the school day, improve training, raise learning standards and deepen contacts with students. Those approaches however tend to cost more money, which some charters have been able to raise from foundations and the federal government because of their classroom successes.
The American system of elected school boards will hamper learning cultures. But I think most people, including me, prefer to stick with democracy, at least in traditional schools. That’s a feeling, not an argument, but it’s powerful. We will just have to work harder to ensure we make all of our schools better.