Thursday, May 28, 2015

Avoiding the Comprehensive Schools Trap for Charter High Schools

In any city, there are plenty of neighborhoods with few or no good schools. For the students and families in these areas, even just one or two soundly conceived and well-run charter schools can make a difference.

Things start to change when the number of available options expands. Local leaders committed to the portfolio strategy of managing a city’s system of schools—and even local charter authorizers who sponsor and oversee schools that serve only a fraction of the city’s students—need to think about how schools meet a diverse set of student and neighborhood needs.

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Issues of fit between students’ needs, and priority attention to underserved groups, are particularly important at the high school level. Unlike elementary schools, whose students need to learn a lot of the same things in about the same sequence, high schools must serve a truly diverse population. By the time students enter 9th grade, they differ vastly in terms of academic preparation, maturity, level of family support, areas of interest, and tolerance for working on different subjects.

Traditional school districts have responded to diverse needs by requiring high schools to be all things to all people. That’s how we got the comprehensive high school and its well-documented problems: these schools work best for the self-starters and students lucky enough to connect to a particular teacher or program, but they leave the students in the middle to fend for themselves. They also create many separate student and faculty subcultures.

One of the original rationales for charter high schools was to allow individual schools to be more focused, and to match a range of needs and interests with multiple, diverse, internally coherent schools. At the national level, the variety of charter high schools fulfills this expectation. At the local level, it’s a different story. Most localities have a few highly targeted charter high schools that serve a small number of students, while district-run comprehensive high schools serve the majority of students.

What will happen when charter high schools become dominant, not exceptional? Will the traditional district pattern—allowing a few schools to be selective and requiring all others to be all things to all people—re-emerge?

Avoiding the traditional pattern of a few privileged schools and a lot of comprehensive schools will require citywide thinking focused on offering real alternatives and improving students’ ability to make informed matches when they first enroll in high school. Good portfolio management is a start. City education leaders need to know and talk about the breadth of needs and recruit or develop school options for students who are falling through the cracks.

Charter authorizers need to recognize the interdependence of all local charter schools and join with portfolio managers to prioritize opening high schools that focus on unmet needs. Citywide thinking must also encompass charter elementary schools, which should be expected to steadily decrease the number of unprepared students entering high school.

A citywide system would have diverse schools that would, for example, help students develop specific talents (e.g., via schools for the arts and schools for avid future engineers and scientists), prepare disadvantaged students for competitive colleges, help at-risk students stay in school and get diplomas (some schools like Green Dot and Democracy Prep do a remarkable job at this), integrate a college-prep curriculum into career and technical programs, and provide flexible and therapeutic environments to help students recover from misfortunes (terrible grade schools, trauma) and big mistakes.

Leaders of individual charter high schools would need to make their school’s strengths and requirements clear. But they would also need to work hard to accommodate the needs of every student who knowingly chooses the school. Authorizers would need to include helping students who fall behind and minimizing push-outs as evaluation criteria for all schools.

Philanthropies also have important new roles to play, sponsoring the development of many kinds of charter high schools so that the sector can include different approaches to schooling. Like charter authorizers and portfolio managers, philanthropies also need to adopt different measures of merit for schools seeking different goals. A school that doubles the rate of high school graduation among at-risk students, or gets a lot of graduates into good jobs with strong local employers, should be as valued—and as able to attract philanthropic support—as one that gets the ablest and most disciplined students admitted to elite colleges.

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