Posts by Nora Kern


Nora Kern


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Public Charter Schools Top U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools Rankings

Today, the U.S. News & World Report released its 2013 Best High Schools Rankings, and 28 public charter schools are among the top 100. Three public charter high schools are ranked in the top 10: BASIS Tucson (#2), Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology (#3), and BASIS Scottsdale (#5).

U.S. News teamed up with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to produce the 2013 rankings. Public high schools were evaluatedby their students’ performance on state-mandated assessments, minority and economically disadvantaged student performance, and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exam results to determine preparedness for college-level work.

Public charter school representation in the top 100 of the U.S. News Best High Schools Rankings has grown dramatically over the past five years:

  • 10 public charter schools in 2009
  • 18 public charter schools in 2010
  • 18 public charter schools in 2011
  • 17 public charter schools in 2012
  • 28 public charter schools in 2013

Based on the two major rankings released this year, 28 is a lucky number for public charter high schools (28 public charter schools were also on the Washington Post’s top 100 Challenge Index rankings last week). Place your bets now for Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools rankings.

Congratulations to these charter schools recognized as the top public high schools in the nation!

US News Rankings 2013








Image via U.S. News & World Report website

Nora Kern


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Public Charter Schools Hold Top Rankings on Washington Post’s Challenge Index

Recently, the Washington Post released the results of its annual Challenge Index rankings. The index score is calculated by the number of college-level tests given at a school in 2012, divided by the number of graduates that year (education columnist Jay Mathews answers Challenge Index FAQs here). Also noted are the percentage of students who come from families that qualify for lunch subsidies and the percentage of graduates who passed at least one college-level test during their high school career, indicators called equity and excellence for the Challenge Index.

This year, 28 public charter schools are among the 2012-2013 Challenge Index top 100 schools—including the #1 American Indian Public Charter (Oakland, CA), #4 Corbett Charter (Corbett, OR), #8 Signature (Evansville, IN), and #10 Gwinnett School of Math, Science & Tech (Lawrenceville, GA).

Having a public charter school at the top of the Challenge Index is not a new occurrence. In last year’s 2011-2012 Challenge Index, BASIS Tucson held the top rank. A total of 25 public charter schools ranked among the top 100 schools—including three charter schools in the top 10.

In 2010-2011 (the last year that we have grade configuration information for traditional public schools), there were 2,186 public charter schools serving the high school grades and 25,513 traditional public schools with high school grades. So public charter schools were 8.6 percent of the total number of high schools, yet comprised 17 percent of the Challenge Index ranked schools in the top 100 schools.

In the past three years, public charter schools have grown from 17 percent, to 25 percent, and this year 28 percent of the schools in the top 100 Challenge Index high schools. Public charter schools are over-represented on this ranking list, and the percentage is growing. Congratulations to these public charter schools being recognized for providing a rigorous academic experience for their students.

Challenge Index





Image via Washington Post

Nora Kern


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Model Law March Madness

With the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament under way, we’ve all become experts in bracketology (see President Obama’s picks here). But how would the tournament play out if teams advanced according to their state’s ranking on our model law?

In the Midwest region, we’d see an immediate fall of the number one seed. As one of only eight states that does not allow parents the opportunity to choose a public charter school for their child, Kentucky-based Louisville would quickly be knocked out. Second seed Duke would also be eliminated in the first round—New York-based Albany holds the eighth spot on our model law, while North Carolina is twenty-fourth. Despite its eighth seed in the tournament rankings, Colorado State’s home base holds the fourth strongest public charter school legislation in the nation, which would carry it to win the Midwest region.

The West region would advance according to the top tournament seed. Gonzaga is located in Washington, which comes in third on our model law rankings. Unlike in actual tournamet play, this high model law ranking would easily carry the first seed Gonzaga to win the region. On the other side of the bracket, Ohio State University falls in the bottom half of the 42 states with public charter school legislation, and would be upset by Iona’s New York-based ranking as one of the top ten states on our model law.

In the East, we’d see strong several strong contenders: Indiana (ranked 9 on our model law) would vie with California (seventh spot on the model law), and Butler (Pennsylvania is 19th on our model law) would duke it out with Colorado (fourth in the model law rankings)—which would go on to win the East region.

Finally, the South region would behold the ultimate Cinderella story. Minnesota tops our model law rankings, which would carry the 11 seed to win the entire tournament.

While we would not recommend actually filling out your bracket according to this methodology, this theoretical tournament bracket does point out states that are committed to improving the statutes that enable a thriving public charter school sector.

Model Law Bracket 1



Model law map


Nora Kern


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A Moment of Truth for the No Excuses Public Charter Schools

An article by Robert Pondiscio in the Spring edition of Education Next looks at “no excuses” public charter school networks (CMOs) at a critical juncture. These networks stake their reputation on college-prep coursework and college acceptance rates, but is their focus actually translating into college completion? Now is the “put up, or shut up” moment for networks like KIPP, who has 1,000 former students in college in the 2012-13 school year. The number will surge to 10,000 KIPP graduates in colleges in just three academic years.

Schools like KIPP and YES Prep, who tout their graduates’ college acceptance rates, are also transparent about their struggle to boost college completion rates. The six-year college completion rate for KIPP middle school graduates is 33 percent. Despite YES Prep’s 100 percent college acceptance rate, their six-year college completion rate is 41 percent.

But true to their no excuses credo, these networks are aggressively forging ahead with ways to support their graduates through the uphill battle to a college degree. Besides academic preparedness, there are many obstacles to college success, ranging from difficulty completing financial aid forms to the myriad distractions that come with campus life. To address these issues, KIPP and other no excuses charter networks are forming partnerships with colleges which aim to demystify college life and create meaningful support networks for minority and first-generation college attendees. Additionally, character education emphasizing “grit” and perseverance is increasingly being incorporated into the charter school cultures. Even with the odds against them—only one out of every 12 low-income black and Hispanic students who are accepted to college earns a bachelor’s degree—the no excuses schools are sticking to their mantra.








KIPP classroom. San Francisco, California. © Allison V. Smith


Nora Kern


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What do Special Education Enrollment Figures Really Tell Us?

Critics say that public charter schools do not serve students with disabilities. But simple comparisons of the relative number of students with special needs served do not tell the full story. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) recently released a report that gives some context. It describes the distribution of students with disabilities in New York State charter and district-run schools. The analysis compares charter and district-run schools at the state level, and then conducts further break outs by school type, district, and authorizer.

The different comparison levels yield different results. Of particular note is that comparisons of state-level and other large data sets mask important information and variation. More specifically, the report finds:

  • The statewide comparison of the difference in charter and district enrollment is too simplistic—charter schools on average serve a smaller share of special education students than New York’s district-run schools, but the distribution and range of enrollment are not that different from the district-run schools’ composition
  • Charter middle and high school special education enrollments are indistinguishable from district enrollments, while charter elementary schools show underenrollment of students with disabilities.
  • There is variation among charter authorizers—some oversee schools with special education enrollments that closely track those of nearby district-run schools; others do not.

Given the variation of special education enrollment across charter and district schools, the report calls for nuanced policies. Rather than using sweeping measures such as enrollment targets, policymakers and authorizers should conduct further research to identify where special education underenrollment exists in charter schools and examine possible explanations. Then work should be done with the charter school community to develop innovative strategies to address specific problems.

The charter community is taking this work very seriously. Last summer, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a reportthat found that charter schools, on average, serve a smaller proportion of students with disabilities than district-run public schools. As a response to these concerns and to better serve their students and community, public charter schools, advocates in districts, states, and courts across the country have sought to improve access. The new analysis by CRPE helps the public charter community understand the problem and create appropriate responses.

Nora Kern


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Conference Focuses on Charter and District Public School Collaboration

“Collaboration and partnerships can be powerful multipliers of innovations.”

Last week, NAPCS was proud to co-host the second National Best Cooperative Practices between Charter & Traditional Public Schools Conference (NBCP Conference) in Denver, Colorado. One of the foundational principles of the public charter school model is that charter schools use their autonomy to serve as laboratories of innovation; road testing promising practices that would then be shared with the traditional schools for maximum impact. The NBCP Conference was designed to showcase examples of cooperative practices that serve as models for replications and spark ideas for how all sectors of public education can work together.

Schools from throughout the country shared their practices during breakout sessions on topics including: curriculum and instruction; performance and accountability; college and career readiness; facilities; operations; and services. The general and breakout sessions demonstrated:

  • Examples of cooperation on a small scale
  • How charters can help fill gaps to address needs in the local public education space
  • Where there is strong district leadership supporting charters, there are more opportunities
  • Where charters are considered equal partners in educating kids, cooperation and collaboration happen naturally

Shalvey 2







Image: Keynote speaker Don Shalvey

A panel discussion on barriers to charter and traditional public school collaboration identified the following ground rules for cooperative work:

  • This work is inherently political
  • Build relationships to build trust
  • Educate past the myths about charter and district interests
  • Focus on mutual wins

Panel 2




Image: “Anticipating and Overcoming Obstacles to Collaboration” Panel Discussion

While nobody at the conference claimed this work is easy, there was consistent testimony by both charter leaders and school district representatives that the effort to work with traditional schools broadened their impact. Further, in several instances, cooperation with district schools was an explicit part of the charter school’s mission. This seemed particularly true for successful standalone charters that wanted to magnify their impact without replicating their school. Please visit the NBCP Conference webpage to learn more about public schools working together.

Nora Kern


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Parent Demand Outpaces New Public Charter School Openings

It’s back to school season. And as students, parents, and teachers prepare to start a new school year, a new cohort of public charter schools is ready to open their doors for the first time. This year will mark the opening of the first charter school in Maine—which has already received more applications than it has seats available, meaning it will have to hold a lottery for admissions. Meeting parent demand for public school options is an issue throughout the sector. The results of our national survey conducted in the spring of 2012 found over 600,000 students on waiting lists to attend a public charter school. Over the past four academic years, the public charter school sector has seen an average 7 percent growth in the total number of charter schools. We’re in the process of identifying new charter schools opening this fall, and if the sector grows like it has over the last couple of years, roughly 400 new public charter schools will help to meet parental demand for high quality educational opportunities. Welcome back to school!

Academic Year Number of New Charter Schools in the Fall % Growth in Number of Charter Schools
2008-2009 478 7.5%
2009-2010 436 6.1%
2010-2011 517 7.1%
2011-2012 538 7.0%
Average 492.3 6.9%
Nora Kern


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Public Charter School Alum Will Swim for Olympic Gold

Have you succumbed to Olympic feverWe certainly have. So we were excited to discover that Andrew Gemmell, who will be representing the USA in the Men’s 1500 meter freestyle race (a.k.a. the marathon of swimming), proudly hails from a public charter high school. Gemmell graduated from the Charter School of Wilmington—which has been recognized as one of the Best High Schools on the U.S. News & World Report rankings—in 2009. The Men’s 1500-meter freestyle has heats on Friday, August 3, and the medal round is on Saturday August 4 at 2:36 p.m. ET. Best of luck to Andrew!

Andrew Gemmell Picture









Photo: Andrew Gemmell, via USA Swimming National Team Bios

Nora Kern


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Spelling out Success: A Wyoming Public Charter Student’s Path to the Scripps National Spelling Bee

When you ask the average twelve year-old, ‘what’s the hardest word you’ve ever had to spell?’ most probably couldn’t give you an answer. Then again, Lia Eggleston isn’t your typical twelve year-old. After a moment’s reflection, the poised 8th grader, who attends Snowy Range Academy—a public charter school in Laramie, Wyoming—definitively responds, “koan.” Not only do I have no idea what this word means, I have to ask Lia to spell it for me.

Lia is the winner of the 2012 Wyoming State Spelling Bee. With that accomplishment comes a next step that has been a dream for Lia: being a competitor in the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee. The event, which has captivated audiences and Hollywood (fiction and nonfiction films), will be held in National Harbor, Maryland on May 29-31, 2012.

Lia’s path to becoming a spelling bee champion was inspired at home: her brother participated in a state spelling bee, so she decided to give it a try. She admitted that her first year of competition included a few lucky guesses, such as Japanese-rooted word “koan,” and Lia ended up placing 2nd in the 2010 Wyoming State Spelling Bee. From there, she became more dedicated in pursuit of the state title. She began studying and memorizing words from Spell It!, a list of a approximately 1,150 words created in cooperation with Merriam-Webster as a study aid for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In her second attempt, Lia placed 3rd in the 2011 Wyoming State Spelling Bee.

Spelling Bee Headshot (1)








Photo: Lia Eggleston’s official headshot for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
With her mantra “the only place left is 1st” keeping her motivated, Lia began working with a coach, University of Wyoming student Jen Black, who was a former Scripps Spelling Bee competitor. Together, they study word origins—Lia notes that the Greek and Latin derived words are easy once you have roots memorized, Spanish and Japanese-based words are more phonetic, but words with Germanic and Slavic bases are really hard—and practice the most challenging words on the Spell It! list. Lia estimates that she spends at least a few hours on the weekend and an hour after school with Jen once or twice each week practicing, adding in a half hour a day before school doing computerized spelling tests over the past month.  The study limit permitted by Scripps is four hours a day, but Lia’s eighth grade schoolwork at Snowy Range Academy Charter School, and her other extracurricular activities—cello, dance, and theater—mean that she has to make tough choices about how to spend her time.

With the support of her Snowy Range Academy and dance school classmates (see picture below), who Lia says are “pretty excited” for her, and teachers (“they already knew I had won the state bee before I could tell them”), Lia has her eye on the prize. She will just have time to finish her school year (classes end on May 25th) before flying to the East Coast for the competition on the 27th. As a representative of the public charter school movement, we will “bee” cheering her on. You can follow Lia and the National Bee on, Facebook, or on ESPN during the week of the Bee. G-O Lia! Even I can spell that one.

Spelling Bee-Pfeffernuss







Photo: Lia Eggleston (bottom row, second from right) spells her favorite word (Pfeffernuss–a German spice cookie) with help from her friends in the Laramie Dance Center’s Advanced Irish Step dance class. Photo credit: Anne Brande, photographer at Ludwig Photography.

Nora Kern


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Systemic impact: E.L. Haynes, (Washington, D.C.)

In conjunction with the release of our newest issue brief, the Charter Blog is looking at ways public charter school leaders design their school mission to meet diverse community needs. Previous blogs (see here> and here) looked at how a school and school model were growing and adapting to the needs of their community. Today, we take a deeper look at mission-based activities conducted by E.L. Haynes, in addition to the practices noted in our issue brief.

E.L. Haynes, a year-round public charter school that opened in the 2004-2005 school year, is based on a mission that encompasses racial, socioeconomic and home language diversity.  Through strategically locating in a central neighborhood that is accessible by the city’s public bus and subway systems, the school is able to attract families of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds from every ward in D.C.  Our issue brief <insert hyperlink> explores E.L. Haynes’ practices in attracting a diverse student population and the instructional staff’s rigorous use of data to drive continuous improvement.

E.L. Haynes serves grades pre-school through nine, with plans to grow through grade 12. However, the school does not have plans to expand into another school campus. So the school governance board is looking to expand its impact on education reform in the District of Columbia and across the country. To do this, E.L. Haynes has taken its data-driven decisionmaking model and made it a platform for creating a broader impact beyond its walls.

E.L. Haynes has launched collaborative projects with other D.C. charter and district schools which build on the insights gained at the school. The four systemic reform areas and the current initiatives are: building human capital (The Capital Teaching Residency Program with KIPP DC), convening practitioners (D.C. Race to the Top’s Professional Learning Community of Effective Strategies), launching innovative practices (LearnZillion and D.C. Race to the Top’s SchoolForce Consortium), and shaping policy (special education, competency-based high school graduation, teacher evaluation).  E.L. Haynes believes that these four high yield strategies will help elevate the learning of all D.C. public school students.

EL Haynes Performance (45)







For more information on E.L. Haynes, please see their case study in our issue brief and visit their website. Photo: E.L. Haynes students performing at the 2009 Champion for Charters Reception.