In Chicago, Charter Schools Are Helping the ‘Underdog’ Kids Get to College

If you’re an underdog kind of kid in Chicago, and you want to go to college and graduate, your chances of success are better now than they were 20 years ago. Much of the credit for that change goes to Paul Vallas and his 1997 decision to focus on cultivating high school charters. That’s my top takeaway from reading the first-ever report on Chicago charter schools from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. The Consortium dug in on factors other studies of charter schools have ignored: attendance, school climate, instruction and college-going. As both a parent and a longtime observer of Chicago’s education scene, those are exactly the factors I want to know more about in any school.

High Expectations for These ‘Strivers’

Here’s what the researchers found. As a whole, Chicago’s charter high schools take in eighth-graders who score lower on tests but have higher attendance than average for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students. To me, that says these kids are strivers and likely have more parental support than average. In surveys, charter school teachers reported higher levels of parental involvement than non-charter teachers, at least up to school year 2013, which supports this idea. But what’s more important is what charter schools do with these students once they have them. Charters make them work harder to pass to the next grade. They provide more challenging instruction, student surveys suggest. And, most importantly, they set the uniform expectation among both teachers and students that all their graduates will go to college. This appears to be paying off. Many more charter high school graduates enrolled in college than did high school graduates from other CPS high schools: forty-five percent of charter graduates versus 26 percent in other public high schools. Of the college enrollees, about half of each pool stuck it out for four semesters. That means about one-fifth of charter high school graduates persisted in college, compared to just 13 percent of grads from other public high schools. Two decades ago, less than half of the city’s public high school students earned diplomas and very few went on to four-year colleges. When Illinois passed a charter law, Vallas saw an opportunity to make drastic changes in these numbers by creating new, college-oriented high schools that weren’t bound by the usual constraints. These stats suggest that was a pretty smart strategy. Even today, when neighborhood high schools have begun to make strides, Chicago charter high schools continue to provide a much more college-focused environment for students who don’t test high enough to enter selective-enrollment programs. There are two important caveats to this story. First, not all charters are equally good at getting their students to college. The report found a handful of charter high schools had very low rates of college enrollment. That needs to change, and though the report doesn’t say it, closure could be an option for those schools that aren’t getting kids to college, especially when we know other schools in the city can make it happen. Second, the research supports longstanding concerns that charter school students transfer out of their schools at high rates. However, the current report can’t tell us whether those transfers represent students who were counseled out because they weren’t meeting expectations, students who weren’t meeting expectations and left on their own or students who voted with their feet and left to pursue better options. Researchers say the evidence they’ve found could support all those possibilities.

It’s Time to Learn From Each Other

The authors call for more research to understand why students leave charter schools, and they point to a need for strategies that help students stay where appropriate and support them wherever they go. Most charter transfers land in neighborhood high schools, so it is to everyone’s benefit that the burgeoning interest in supporting neighborhood high schools be sustained and channeled into solving one of our toughest educational problems: how to support academically struggling teenagers who are likely to face huge challenges outside of school. That said, I am not sorry we now have a group of Chicago high schools that have blazed a trail for everyone interested in helping kids with drive and less-than-stellar test scores go to college. Now it’s time for them to share their lessons learned with their peers, and to learn from those peers where appropriate. The report ends with a call for collaboration among all Chicago’s public high schools, regardless of governance type, to share best practices in helping students develop grit and study habits and helping adults adopt best practices in college advising. This report could be a preliminary tool to a greater goal: looking past the heated debates over charters and focusing together on what practices are working to help high schoolers succeed in college.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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