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20 Years of Innovation towards Eliminating the Achievement Gap

During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents and advocates from all parts of the country. We asked some of these individuals to tell us why they are a part of the charter schools movement. While college and graduate student loan debt and interest rates have made headlines recently (and with good reason), we should not forget that many of the children in this country do not reach college because of the shortcomings of our national public education system. Indeed, the most important civil rights issue challenging our country today is the equal right to and the availability of a high quality k-12 education for all children, regardless of their ethnic background or socio-economic status. As we approach the end of the school year and reflect on public education in the United States, this week, we celebrate National Charter Schools Week, and the upcoming 20th anniversary of the first public  charter school (founded in Minnesota in 1992). The development of public charter schools in the early 1990s was rooted in a quest to, provide parents with a variety of public school options, free schools from bureaucracies and bring accountability to a long-ailing system of education. In my 14 years at Jumoke Academy, a public K-8 charter school in Hartford, CT, I have seen what can happen when committed teachers and school administrators confront the high needs of a low-income and minority population head on. Jumoke was founded in 1997 by my mother, Thelma Ellis Dickerson, a lifelong advocate for education reform and former president of the Hartford Board of Education, to eliminate the achievement gap for the city of Hartford. It was her fervent belief that, “if we provided a safe, supportive but rigorous learning environment for children, staffed with high-quality teachers who challenged students to learn at the highest levels, we could change the face of public education in the city of Hartford for the absolute better.” My mother passed away this February, however Jumoke continues to represent all that she thought public school education can be for urban children. Our students consistently score on the list of top ten performing urban schools in Connecticut, according to an independent report by ConnCan. Our academic results clearly demonstrate that an urban school with a 100 percent minority population can not only close the achievement gap, it can also equal and often outperform more affluent communities. Jumoke is just one of the more than 5,000 public charter schools seeking to change the outcomes of the over two million students they serve across the country. In low-income, urban communities, public charter schools are targeting those most in need and working to raise the bar on public education through innovation, choice and parental empowerment. In Detroit, the high school graduation rate for charter schools was 80 percent, compared to 60 percent from traditional public schools. In Los Angeles, charter schools outperformed the Los Angeles Unified School District traditional public schools, on average, across all grade levels on the Academic Performance Index in the 2010-11 school year. In Washington, D.C., charter schools have a 21 percent higher graduation rate than Washington DC Public Schools. Studies out of charter-rich states like Arizona and California show that public charter schools are producing innovations that are being adopted by traditional schools districts. And in some districts, increased student achievement in neighboring traditional public schools suggests charter competition is raising the bar for all schools. Despite the success that the charter movement has seen, there is still considerable inequity between charter and traditional public schools when it comes to per student state and federal appropriations. Charters are, on average, receiving less money per-pupil than the corresponding public schools in their areas. Additionally, there are still nine states that lack charter school laws, leaving families in those states without adequate public education alternatives for their children. Let us seize National Charter School Week as an opportunity to celebrate the efforts of lifelong civil rights and education reform advocates like my mother, reflect on the successes and lessons learned from the charter school movement, expose the still present, still painful, inequalities in our public education system, and continue to strive for something better for America’s children. NCSW Blog Michael Sharpe           Author: Michael Sharpe is the Chief Executive Officer of Jumoke Academy in Hartford, CT. He is the president of the Connecticut Charter School Association, board member of the National Charter School Leadership Council, and founding member of the Legacy Project and Family Urban Schools of Excellence, (F.U.S.E).