Laura Waters

District and Charter Schools Are Partnering to Help More Students Succeed and It's Working

According to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), Bridging the District-Charter Divide to Help More Students Succeed, common enrollment systems—districts and charters working together to ensure that as many students as possible are placed in good public schools—are an example of “what is possible when competitors also become collaborators.” Carla, a student within the New Jersey school district has recently benefitted from Camden Enrollment, a collaboration between New Jersey’s traditional school district and the public charter school sector.
Camden resident and incoming sixth-grader Carla submitted 10 applications on January 5. She was offered a seat at her first choice school on April 17 and accepted the offer two days later. She will be moving from a school that received an “under-performing” school academic rating to a school labeled “on track” on the same measure. Her new school will be about a mile farther from her home than her old school, leaving her with a commute of 1.3 miles that should take 6 minutes to drive in the morning.
For a variety of reasons—great leadership from Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard,  a comprehensive communications plan, and a one-off piece of legislation called the Urban Hope Act that authorized the opening of new high-quality charter schools (Mastery, Uncommon and KIPP)—Camden is suddenly a poster child for how to get this kind of collaboration right. CRPE Director Robin Lake calls charter-district cooperation “a necessity, not a nicety,” and that truth is borne out in Camden. Think of how far the district has come. When Rouhanifard was appointed in 2014 after a state takeover, he became the fourth superintendent in two years and the 13th superintendent in 20 years. At the time, New Jersey had just published its list of the state’s 75 lowest-performing schools called “ Priority Schools”: Twenty-three of Camden’s 26 schools received that designation, despite an annual per pupil cost of over $25,000. Of all the Camden students who took the SAT the year of Rouhanifard’s appointment, a total of three students achieved a college-ready score. Common enrollment systems, of course, don’t solve all ills, but they help. According to the CRPE report:
Early analysis shows that common enrollment systems...have reduced inequities in the enrollment processes by eliminating opportunities for assertive or well-connected parents to enroll their students outside the official mechanisms, and by improving parent information.

School Choice Is the Norm

In Camden, parents don’t have to “opt out” of the traditional district to enroll their children in charter schools, which currently serve about 34 percent of the district’s 16,000 students: A public school is a public school. Families simply access a list on the Camden website, call a hotline number, use their smartphone or go to one of the Family Enrollment Centers and select their top choices, regardless of form of governance. School information cards allow families to compare schools based on student outcomes and special programs. Special needs children and English-language learners are welcome at all schools. Every student is guaranteed a slot at their neighborhood schools if that’s his or her preference. (This first year, most students were matched to a school they applied to; the small number who weren’t matched had the option to reapply in the second round or stay in their original school.) In other words, student enrollment is a collaborative effort among all schools, charter and traditional, effacing the hostile competition often provoked when filling seats is a zero sum game. School choice is the norm, not a perk available to well-connected parents or those with the resources to move to the higher-performing districts that border Camden City. Instead, Camden Enrollment is an inclusive system that prioritizes student academic needs over institutional needs. According to an independent audit commissioned by Camden after the first year of the program:
  • Over 4,000 students participated in Camden Enrollment. Roughly 40 percent were in grades K and 9. (Only students who want to change schools apply.)
  • 83 percent of students who applied in the main round and 64 percent of students who applied after the deadline were matched to a school.
  • Applicants who listed more school choices were more likely to receive a match.
  • High-demand schools were more likely than low-demand schools to have strong academic performance ratings.
For those who claim that charters “cream off” certain demographics, the audit found that high-demand schools and low-demand schools have similar proportions of White, Black and Latino students. (High-demand schools do have slightly higher class sizes.) According to CRPE, “district-charter cooperation is an opportunity—and in most cities with sizeable charter school student populations, a requirement—to most effectively meet children’s educational needs.” If one element of a successfully collaborative school sector is a common enrollment system, then Camden is meeting not only Carla’s needs but those of far more students than ever before. It’s worth noting that since Superintendent Rouhanifard’s reforms, described in the “ Camden Commitment,” graduation rates have leapt from 53 percent in 2013 to 70 percent this past June. The dropout rate is down to 12 percent, from 21 percent. Students proficiency in both math and language arts is increasing as, finally, Camden Public Schools, long a symbol of academic malfeasance, begins to improve student outcomes. Bridging the divide, indeed.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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