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A Mission to Serve: How Public Charter Schools Are Designed to Meet the Diverse Demands of Our Communities

Nora Kern, Renita Thukral and Todd Ziebarth

The public charter school movement has grown rapidly in the 20 years since the first public charter school opened in 1992, with over 5,600 schools now serving more than two million students. One of the most exceptional developments within the first two decades of the movement has been the rise of high performing public charter schools with missions intently focused on educating students from traditionally underserved communities. Given that the demographics of these communities are often homogenous, it is no surprise the demographics of these schools are that way as well. In fact, the student populations at these public charter schools usually mirror the populations in nearby district schools. While much media attention rightly has been given to these schools, the past decade or so also has seen a noteworthy rise in high performing public charter schools with missions intentionally designed to serve racially and economically integrated student populations. These schools are utilizing their autonomy to achieve a diverse student population through location-based strategies, recruitment efforts and enrollment processes. Perhaps most notably, a growing number of cities—and the parents and educators in them—are welcoming both types of public charter school models for their respective (and in some cases unprecedented) contributions to raising student achievement, particularly for students who have previously struggled in school. This brief showcases this development in three of these cities: Denver, Washington, D.C., and San Diego.