What is a charter school?

Fourth graders at Friends Community School (FCS) present their Problems Solvers projects. The projects, part of the math curriculum, require students to choose a problem, propose two possible solutions and evaluate both solutions using data they have collected. Students select one of the solutions and prepare a poster to display their work.

Charter schools have been a part of the educational landscape of our city for two decades, educating nearly half of publicly educated students in Washington, DC today. However, many parents, especially those of young children, are uncertain of what a charter school is and whether a charter school education is right for their child.

Charter schools are independently managed schools that receive public funds to educate children. In Washington, traditional public schools are run by the Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools whereas charter schools are run by the DC Public Charter School Board. All are tuition-free and open to all, by lottery if demand exceeds available space. Over 114 charter schools, operated by 62 nonprofit organizations, educate approximately 44% of the public school students in the District.

From their advent, charter schools have offered alternative approaches to education. Progressive programs such as expeditionary learning and Montessori are popular as well as language immersion (Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Hebrew are all offered in Washington). Many families prefer structured, intense environments that assist students with social and emotional challenges in addition to providing homework assistance and extended school hours. Others take advantage of free homeschooling support through the online home school charter program.

With public, charter, private, and parochial educational choices available in Washington now, many children are getting to high school having attended schools from more than one of those categories. Capitol Hill mother Jen DeMayo’s two boys have attended both DCPS and charter schools. DeMayo says she “feels so fortunate to have been able to find schools that worked” for her kids. Another Hill mother, Molly Pannell, echoes those thoughts: “I have six children with six different personalities, learning styles, and educational needs. Having options through public, private, and public charter schools has allowed our family to enroll our children in schools that are the best fit for each of them.” Pannell’s children have attended two different charter schools, two different private schools, and a DCPS school.

Learning About Charter Schools

As with most research projects these days, the best place to start your charter school search is the internet. MySchoolDC.org, the lottery application portal, has information about each school that participates in the lottery and links to further information on other sites. Each school generally has its own website and the DC Public Charter School Board has one that includes charter schools that are not in the Common Lottery as well. Parents can use these resources to find statistics such as demographics and test scores as well as schools’ histories, educational philosophies, biographies of administrators and teachers, and other bits of data that can help them assess the school.

Evaluating charter schools is similar in approach to any school search. Location and convenience are essential considerations. The best school on earth is not going to be right for your family if you cannot get there and back every day without completely disrupting your lives. Focus your school search on schools that are near work and/or home and are accessible via your chosen mode of transportation. School hours and availability of before- and after-care options are also important.

Educational approach is also of prime importance. Charter schools generally have a very specific focus such as language immersion or Montessori. Parents should do the research to understand what these different models are and whether they feel prepared to support their children in them. The written mission of a school should align as much as possible with your goals and interests as parents, as well as the specific strengths and weaknesses of your child.

Diversity:Charter schools can provide a unique opportunity for economic and racial diversity since they draw students from across the city as opposed to primarily from a neighborhood catchment area. Such diversity draws many to charter schools, as is the case with Capitol Hill mother Colleen Cancio’s daughters, who attend a popular language immersion school which “offers students of diverse backgrounds the tools and strategies needed to develop mutual understanding.” Such diversity is not found in every charter school, so checking out demographics for charter schools of interest is a key step.

Class Size: Smaller class sizes and more intimate student-teacher relationships are other draws of some charter schools. While studies have shown that smaller class sizes do not necessarily lead to higher test scores, for many parents test scores are not the only consideration. Smaller class sizes can give teachers more of an opportunity to get to know their students and help them better reach their academic, and personal, potential.

Test Scores:Most parents take test scores into consideration when evaluating any school. This can be more complicated when it comes to charter schools. Many have not been operating long enough to have kids at the testing ages who started at the earliest grade of the school, potentially skewing one’s ability to see how students would do after multiple years in that school. Other factors such as alternative educational approaches and intensive foreign language teaching can bring test scores down below where they might be with a more traditional approach. In other words, test scores are important, but they must be considered in a broader context.

Leadership:Because charter schools are independently operated, the individual leadership of each school or set of schools is of particular concern when comparing programs. In traditional public school systems, there is a broad hierarchy to deal with issues beyond the immediate administration. As nonprofits, charter schools have their own boards and the DC Public Charter School Board can handle complaints, but ultimately the school leadership is very important. A strong leadership team can create a school environment that allows the educational mission to be achieved. A strong history of fiscal responsibility on the part of the charter operator, or a solid financial plan in a newer program, can be important to the overall future health of the school. A record of low enrollment can be a sign of an unhealthy charter that could end up closing, leaving your child without a school.

Charter Schools Sound Great! What’s the downside?

Charter schools have not come into being without controversy. Critics point to funds, buildings, and students going to charter schools as taking resources away from the traditional public school system. Complaints range from mishandling of special education to perceived discrimination against certain categories of students. Neighborhood public schools must take students who leave a charter school mid-year, despite the fact that the charter school retains the per pupil funding while the public school educates those children.

Charters are subject to the same kinds of problems that can plague any school. Inexperienced or burned-out teachers sometimes have inadequate classroom management skills. Students who lack requisite skills to achieve the charter’s goals can make it necessary to provide extra support not in keeping with the school’s mission. Charters serve the same sets of students needing special education and English as a Second Language services and have approximately the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students as DCPS.

The Big Picture

Charter schools brought much-needed variety and reform into the domain of publicly funded education across the United States and continue to do so today. The rise of charters has spurred innovation in neighborhood public schools and attracted families who might otherwise have chosen private schools or a move to the suburbs. After 20 years, many of these schools have become wildly sought after with hundreds of students on their wait lists. Chosen carefully, a public charter school can provide a fantastic education option for many District families.

Students enjoy music class at Washington Yu Ying PCS, which has a Chinese immersion program. Students learn all subjects in both Chinese and English.
Bridges PCS students conduct a study of playgrounds in the community.
Cesar Chavez PCS young women scholars in grades 6 to 12 asked UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova questions about her experiences as a female diplomat, and the challenges she has had to overcome in her career. Bokova’s visit to Chavez Schools was co-hosted by The Wilson Center’s Women in Public Service Project.

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