charter kids go to college

Do ‘no-excuses’ charter schools lead to success after high school? At one high-profile network, the answer seems to be yes

PHOTO: YouTube / Noble Network

Many so-called “no-excuses” charter schools — often featuring longer school days, intensive tutoring, and strict discipline — have high test scores. But critics often say those scores are unlikely to translate into outcomes that really matter, like getting through college.

This debate is far from over, but a new study offers evidence that attending the Chicago-based Noble charter network does help students succeed after high school.

Authors Matthew Davis and Blake Heller compared students who got a seat at Noble’s original high school through a lottery to those who applied but lost. They find that attending Noble meant a student was 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college and stay for at least four semesters.

Noble’s students were also much more likely to go to more selective and four-year colleges, where other research has shown students are more likely to ultimately graduate.

“The increase in [college] quantity did not come at the expense of quality,” Davis and Heller write.

One big caveat: there was no statistically significant effect on college graduation, so it’s not clear whether how many students at Noble’s first school made it all the way through their undergraduate years. This may be due to limited data, since the researchers were only able to track a small number of students for four years after high school.

Still, the data is good news for the network, which now has 18 campuses and enrolls more than 12,000 students — about 10 percent of Chicago public high school students. (Noble has recently been in the news as some teachers, who have pushed to form a union, accused the network of illegally blocking organizing efforts, a charge the leaders have denied.)

The researchers can’t make the same claims about all of Noble’s schools as they do about its original campus. As the network expanded, many schools weren’t oversubscribed and so did not hold lotteries, which means students can’t be compared in the same way. But using a less rigorous approach, the researchers estimate that Noble students in more recent years and at more schools maintained a big advantage in college enrollment.

“The best evidence we can muster indicates that Noble students continue to outperform expectations even during the network’s rapid expansion,” the researchers wrote.

One key question is why Noble charter schools seem to be succeeding. Past research has linked certain common charter school practices, like intense tutoring and longer school days, to higher test scores. A follow-up study showed that those practices, when paired with a notable infusion of cash, led to achievement gains in district schools in Chicago, Denver, and Houston.

But a concern is that the positive effects seen at Noble may also be due to practices that can’t — or shouldn’t — be scaled.

For instance, the study shows that 60 percent of students applying to Noble’s original high school were female. This is even more extreme than the national trend in charter schools to enroll more girls than boys. (Notably, the long-run gains from attending Noble appeared to apply equally to both boy and girls.)

The authors also note that Noble previously imposed financial penalties on students: “Students with twelve or more detentions were required to cover fees totaling $140 for a behavior-improvement class.” Noble ended the widely criticized practice in 2014, though their approach to school discipline remains the subject of scrutiny.

Meanwhile, prior studies on “no-excuses” charter schools and students’ longer-term success have been more of a mixed bag.

In Boston, charter high schools boosted students’ test scores and four-year college enrollment, but actually decreased on-time high school graduation rates.

In Texas, “no-excuses” charters led to higher college enrollment and persistence, but did not have a statistically significant impact on earnings as an adult. (Other charters in the state had negative effects on test scores, four-year college enrollment, and earnings.)

In New York City, a Harlem Children’s Zone charter school decreased rates of incarceration (for boys) and teen pregnancy (for girls). It also increased college enrollment rates, though not students’ likelihood of staying in college.

And in Chicago, consistent with the latest research, charter high schools led students to graduate from high school and enroll in college at higher rates.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to research on Democracy Prep charter schools in New York City. In fact, the study was of a Harlem’s Children’s Zone charter school in New York City.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”