This is an archived article.

January 8, 2009

Charter schools offer college prep alternative for inner-city students

By Debra Britt
Center on Reinventing Public Education


An analysis of national public school programs and practices indicates that urban charter schools are more likely to employ college-oriented curricula, a focused instructional design, smaller classes, greater time on task, and offer customized support for struggling students.



These findings are part of the annual Hopes, Fears, & Reality report published by the National Charter School Research Project at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the UW Bothell. The report is edited by Robin J. Lake, executive director of the project.


“Unlike urban public schools that teach watered-down math, science, and literature, and track less capable students into vocational courses, these schools teach what college-bound students are expected to know,” writes Paul Hill, director of the center.


“Students often struggle, due to weak elementary school preparation, but they are motivated by the fact that the material they must learn is rich and interesting,” he said.


The report finds that among urban schools serving high concentrations of minority students:



  • Two-thirds (66 percent) of charter schools report offering at least one college-focused program, compared to just 48 percent of traditional public schools.
  • Only 19 percent of charter schools offer school-to-work (vocational) curriculum without including a college component, while 41 percent of traditional public schools do so.


Another emerging area for charter schools is special education. Lake and Joanne Jacobs highlight three charter schools that are serving special-needs children in unique or effective ways.


“Special-needs families need a wide range of public school options,” say Lake and Jacobs, “… and charter schools are filling an important niche, especially for students with less severe needs.”


The authors urge the broader education community to learn more about innovative and successful special education practices that are coming out of the charter sector.


The report also deals more broadly with how charter schools are performing academically.


According to Julian Betts and Y. Emily Tang, there is “strong evidence” from the most rigorous studies done to date that charter schools are “outperforming other public schools in many ways.” Charter school performance varies, however. In some states charter schools do much better than regular public schools serving similar students, but in other states, such as North Carolina, charter schools do worse.


“This poses a challenge to the charter school community: how to make sure low-performing schools improve or close swiftly and high-performing ones are imitated or expanded, ” says Betts.


Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2008 was released in December at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. The report is available online at www.ncsrp.org.