Not One-Size-Fits-All

How can we fairly evaluate charter schools that serve students with extreme needs?

Re-posted from an opinion column in U.S. News & World Report.

By Neil Campbell, Opinion Contributor

The nation's nearly 7,000 charter schools defy simple categorization, with school models that focus on college prep to career and technical education, and language immersion to classics to STEM. Charter school laws grant innovative educators freedom from many rules and regulations to design their own programs. But that freedom comes with a commitment – at the risk of being shut down – to improve outcomes and opportunities for students.

Charter schools have been most successful in urban communities throughout the country, but even well-known networks have approached core values important to progressives – like equal access to economic mobility – in different ways. The KIPP network evaluates itself on whether it is "serving the children who need us" to get them "to and through college" by focusing on underserved communities and tracking the rates of high-need students in their schools. Denver's DSST Public Schools have a different approach and are a "deliberately integrated community" seeking to prepare "all students for success in college and the 21st century."

Less well-known are charter schools whose mission and design are centered on serving concentrations of children and youth encountering extreme challenges. In New York City's Broome Street Academy, 50 percent of the seats in the school's lottery are set aside for students who are homeless, in transitional housing, in foster care or otherwise involved with the child welfare system. The school is co-located with The Door, a youth development nonprofit whose health care, counseling, after-school activities and other services are all available to Broome Street students.

Students are paired with a staff member who is their "champion" and builds a supportive relationship through "daily in-person chats, phone calls, and texts" to help them succeed in and out of school. While these intensive supports are critical to meet students' needs today, the charter authorizer's recommendation to renew Broome Street's charter highlighted that high-quality instruction and a rigorous curriculum "prepares students for post-secondary success."

The Maya Angelou Public Charter School, an alternative school in Washington, D.C., goes a step farther as it serves students who "face challenges in their home life and experience trauma or upheaval that requires a different approach from traditional schools." As an alternative school that admits students in 9th – 11th grades, it must serve a population where at least 60 percent of students have characteristics such as being over-aged and under-credited, receiving the highest levels of special education services or having been expelled or involved with the juvenile justice system. This has led to a model that, in addition to academics, is focused on delivering "integrated social and emotional health services that at-risk students need to become self-sustaining adults."

Like many states, districts, charter authorizers and other educators, the D.C. Public Charter School Board has grappled with how to fairly evaluate programs like Maya Angelou that serve concentrations of students with extreme needs. Success looks different for a school re-engaging students who have dropped out of school or enrolling under-credited students in 11th grade, and that success would be missed relying on measures such as four-year graduation rates used for other high schools. The board's Alternative Accountability Framework seeks to find the balance between recognizing "the difficulty in serving students with such profound challenges and making excuses for schools' poor performance."

Maya Angelou is in its second year operating under this framework, and in coming years will be held accountable on measures such as growth on assessments while students are enrolled, a six-year graduation rate, attendance, re-engagement and social-emotional learning.

It is still too early to understand the impact of the measures and levels being developed to evaluate alternative charter schools like Maya Angelou, but it is encouraging to see authorizers and operators pursuing this complicated work to demonstrably improve outcomes for students facing extreme circumstances who haven't succeeded in traditional settings. Just as charter school policies writ large have benefited from research that highlights successes and failures within the sector, more research will be needed to understand what alternative models will be most effective for which students in the future.

Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for the K-12 education team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.