Are charter schools any better than traditional public schools? Debates in education get lost in that question, but if you ask Joe Nathan and Bill Wilson, they will tell you getting stuck there won’t help a single student.
Given their experience, we should heed their words.
Nathan was an early leader in the modern charter school movement, and Wilson runs a high-poverty, mostly black high school called Higher Ground Academy that is regularly listed as among the best in Minnesota.
While many criticize charter schools for not living up to their ideal as innovation labs for districts, Nathan has used his post at the Center for School Change to develop collaborations between traditional districts and great schools whatever their model.
In their recent article, Stop Meaningless Debates and Learn From Schools That Work, Nathan and Wilson highlight some of the insights from HGA that they have shared with schools seeking to improve:
What can be learned from Higher Ground Academy?
- Each student must apply and be admitted to a higher-education program before graduating high school. This sends the clear message that, while HGA is an important step, higher education is vital for students to become active, constructive citizens.
- Each high school student is strongly encouraged to take at least one dual high-school/college-credit course. Last year, 87 percent of HGA juniors and seniors did so. Research shows that students who take such courses are significantly more likely graduate from high school and graduate from a higher-education program.
- Each student has an individual plan that he or she develops in partnership with faculty.
- HGA hires outstanding graduates to serve as teachers’ aides, because they are great models.
- The school uses the “Hope Survey” to assess whether students are gaining skills to set goals and confidence that they can reach those goals.
- There’s a mix of veteran and new teachers, including some Teach for America graduates.
One of the article’s provocative ideas comes from Wilson, who attended intentionally segregated schools in Indiana before Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed this practice. Answering a common claim made about charter schools that they are racially “segregated,” he says:
HGA is a choice. There’s a huge difference between being assigned to attend an inferior school based on your race/culture (as one of us was forced to do) and having options. White people have had choices for more 150 years. People of color and low income families deserve them, too.
That last point is significant as more people become aware of just how myopic it is to accuse charter schools of segregation when they serve only 5 percent of the nation’s students while ignoring the systemic and indefensible politics of segregation that exist in traditional school districts.
Struggling schools that bemoan their non-white student populations and blame student demographics for failure could learn from HGA about fostering a culturally affirming learning environment to maintain a culture of achievement. The fact that the student population is mostly black is not a deficit at HGA. Indeed, the school sees their students as assets.
If we can get struggling schools to embrace that, it would be a start.
All of us who care more about children than politics will do well to listen to Wilson and Nathan when they ask us to end the “meaningless debate” and learn from successful schools.