Diverse Neighborhoods and the Charter School Movement

My colleague Sarah Garland has written a wonderful piece for The Atlantic about a local/federal/charter school partnership to racially and socioeconomically integrate the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta. Across the country, more and more charter school movement leaders are realizing that if charters serve only poor, black, and Latino families, they will limit their potential educational reach, and will leave themselves open to criticism that they are reifying the segregated nature of American public education. Here in New York, for example, Eva Moskowitz's controversial Success Academy charter network will soon open two new schools in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Cobble Hill, where many white and college-educated families live. An explicit goal of the schools is to attact a student body far more diverse than that of the typical "no excuses" charter school. In the process, charter advocates hope to increase the base of political support for charter school expansion.

But as Sarah writes, the successful Atlanta charter she reported on, Charles Drew, is not a "no excuses" or "strict discipline" type school. Unlike the Success Academies, Drew embraces progressive pedagogy and does not overtly obsess about discipline or testing:

Drew is not one of the "no-excuses" charter schools where young children march in formation through the hallways and teachers give out demerits when students don't maintain eye contact. At Drew, children wiggle and dance through the halls, hugging teachers as they pass and laughing with their friends. Standardized testing is a focus, but not the only focus. It's the sort of school that might attract suburban middle-class parents.

"We're trying to instill a sense that you're taking responsibility for your educational experience," says Don Doran, the principal at Drew. "It's hard to do that if you come out with a whole lot of rigidity."

I've visited a number of "no excuses" charter schools, and some of them do seem like very happy places, despite the emphasis on rules. That said, as I reported from Rhode Island last year, the "no excuses" model does present significant challenges for middle-class families, who tend to prefer less drilling and test-prep; more art, music, and extracurricular activities; and more opportunities for parents to get involved in shaping school policy. As the charter school movement looks to expand beyond the poorest zip codes, it will be interesting to see whether more charters end up looking like the progressive Community Roots in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and fewer like KIPP, a national network of "no excuses" schools.

That said, using progressive pedagogy and enrolling white-collar families does not guarantee that a charter school will attract broad-based political support. Community Roots, for example, experienced strong opposition to its proposal to open a new middle school, which the city eventually approved. The teachers' union and some neighborhood parents objected to the charter taking over space currently alotted to a traditional public school that serves a high proportion of special-needs students. These arguments over real estate and whether charter schools "cream" easier students to teach aren't going away, especially in the nation's most diverse and expensive cities. 

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