Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education held a hearing titled “Education Reforms: Exploring the Vital Role of Charter Schools.” Expert witnesses discussed a range of topics and answered questions from Members of the committee about how charter schools serve the local communities and special populations; the importance of options (and knowledge of those options) for parents; and ideas for collaboration with traditional public schools.
DeAnna Rowe, executive director of the AZ State Board for Charter Schools, positioned charters as an “integral part of a complex system.” The proof is in the pudding: Arizona has recently adopted new growth models that will be used to evaluate all public schools, which grew out of the charter sector in the state.
With 1/3 of its student population English language learners (mostly recent Iraqi immigrants), Literacy First Charter Schools in El Cajon, CA focus on what works to serve the community of learners. And if it doesn’t work, Debbie Byer, executive director, says, “We change!” When pushed by Congresswoman Woolsey (CA) as to what Literacy First is doing that is different from public schools in the area, Byer noted the flexibility of the curriculum and school calendar as well as the control she has on every single dollar that is being spent in her school.
Dr. Beth Purvis, executive director of the Chicago International Charter Schools, is squarely focused on serving the communities that need the most help and hope: 86% of CICS students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 95% are African American or Latino, and 6 of the 14 Chicago campuses are located in the 10 highest violent crime neighborhoods in the city. She told a story about opening a high school in one of the most blighted areas; a desire that was raised by the Chicago Public Schools so students would not have to travel across gang lines to get to school. A community that long felt ignored by the city, now speaks of having a “school just for them” as Dr. Purvis remarked.
Quite possibly the highlight of the hearing was listening to Dr. Purvis and Congresswoman Roby (AL) talk to a group of sharp students from Democracy Prep –and outstanding charter school in New York City. When asked how their school was different from the traditional public schools that most of them had previously attended, we couldn’t have scripted better answers ourselves! Some children noted the feeling of safety within the school, others mentioned the afterschool activities, and while others simply said they like knowing that the teachers expect a lot from students.
Of course there are always areas ripe for improvement, and Dr. Gary Miron, professor at Western Michigan University, addressed a few of these in his testimony: access to IDEA funds and incentives for charters to expand special education services; transportation for all students to and from charter schools; innovative outreach to parents and families to attract a diverse student body; and full participation in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. And these improvements take commitment from federal, state and local policymakers and from district and charter school leaders to put kids first.