NYC Indie Charter Schools and the "Elite 8"

When I started working for C3S several years ago, the organization was characterized by some as an assortment of under-performing schools and was indeed jokingly called “The Coalition of Low Performing Charter Schools” in certain circles. Obviously, this nomenclature didn’t sit well with my colleagues or with the school leaders who were proud to say their schools were aligned with the values of the organization even if doing so didn’t garner them headlines.

In the last year, I’ve had the unique experience of transitioning from a staffer to a board member, and after reading an article that highlighted which middle schools sent notable numbers of graduates to the Elite 8, and seeing so many independent charter schools in this group, my heart swelled with pride. Statistically speaking, we know that independent charters are more likely to match the demographics of their local district, retain all students whenever possible, and continually backfill. This is significant given the ongoing discussion about the demographics of the Elite 8. While Mayor de Blasio is coming up of ways to upend the existing system that many are skeptical of producing the desired results, there is already a set of schools that are making the desired difference.

What’s also heartening about enrollment data coming from the indies, is that it serves to disprove the troubling mindset that progressive education is only for a certain type of student. Too often the whole-child focused instruction embraced by many in our group is only available to those who can afford it, the justification being that that the only way for under-resourced students to succeed in standardized-test-based accountability systems is through rigorous test prep rather than robust educational experiences.

Being critical of de Blasio is pretty old-hat in the charter sector. Indeed, some people have made a career of it and spend large sums of money supporting organizations whose only purpose is seemingly to take cheap shots at City Hall. I’m not going to do that. What I do want to highlight, however, is how unfortunate it is that the Mayor seems more intent on remaining fidelitous to political alliances than he is in admitting that he may have painted the charter sector too broadly and with a single brush. Certainly, while some have interpreted the recent easing of tensions as emblematic of a larger shift, it is unlikely that de Blasio will ever admit that there is more to the sector than meets the eye.

Of course, there’s a subplot unfolding alongside this easing of tensions, and that is that well-regulated charter schools continue to work for those who are interested in alternative educational options, just as they have since their inception. It’s almost as if schools that are required to document the who, what, where, why, and how of their plan to provide extraordinary educational outcomes for all students, go on to do just that! Coming to terms with this reality often causes understandable cognitive dissonance for those who assume that the reality about the sector is to be found in a handful of decontextualized factoids espoused in a meme or TV show.

Mayor de Blasio’s steadfastness in his existing alliances is disheartening because it will undoubtedly get in the way forging new ones that could actually help bring about the demographic changes in in the Elite 8 that he so strongly desires. There isn’t a person involved in New York City public education who wouldn’t like to see enrollment at these schools more closely resemble the larger system. The Mayor’s proposal to grant automatic admissions to the Elite 8 to a percentage of top students from all middle schools isn’t perfect, but it is the one most likely to make the biggest change in the shortest amount of time. However, why should changes to admissions only be made at the Elite 8? What if all screened and partially screened high schools had to reserve their seats for a percentage of the top students from all middle schools? Let’s take that a step further: what if all screened middle schools had to reserve their seats for a percentage of top-performing elementary school students? And one step further: what if elementary schools even within each district were all lottery-based? You see, while the Mayor’s proposal solves one issue it does nothing to address the larger issues affecting all our kids.

What could potentially bring about real meaningful change would be an expansion of the sharing of the best practices of our independent charter schools. Presently, under the District-Charter Collaborative pilot, there are a handful of schools sharing best practices around literacy and other pedagogical and methodological concerns. Wouldn’t it be great if a similar pilot could be developed where charter and district schools that send a disproportionate number students to the Elite 8 could share their high school counseling and preparation practices with other schools in their neighborhoods? Such a program could bring about lasting change, not only for the schools involved, but for the larger educational environment, so that maybe everyone could focus on doing what’s best for students.


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