Charter Schools and College Access

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Erica Cohen had been seriously down on her luck when she found herself waiting for her number to be called in the public lottery held by SEED School of Washington, D.C.

She had recently lost her job as a kitchen aide at an area nursing home and subsequently experienced a bout of homelessness.

Her decision to try to get her daughter, DaShawn, enrolled at SEED was based on what she read about how the vast majority of SEED graduates had gone on to college.

“My scope is limited. I only have a high school diploma. There’s not that many jobs that I can get,” Cohen said. “I want her to get everything she can out of her education so she won’t have to struggle like I’m struggling now.”

Cohen got the beginning of her wish when her number — No. 52 — was literally the last number called for the 26 numbers in the girl’s half of the lottery.

“I was a little nervous,” Cohen said of hearing so many numbers called before hers. “Then she said the last number. I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ ”

The development means of the 150 students whose parents applied to SEED for the 2011-2012 school year, DaShawn is guaranteed a spot.

Of course, merely being admitted to SEED, or any other school for that matter, is not the only way for DaShawn or other children from tough economic situations to go further in life.

At the same time, statistics suggest that it is more likely. School figures show that 96 percent of SEED graduates from 2004 through 2010 had been accepted into four-year colleges and universities.

Further, a small but emergent body of research suggests that enrollment in charter schools, such as SEED, does increase a student’s chance of graduating from high school and going on to college.

That’s important because college enrollment moves students one step closer to a college degree, one of the most important things that research has generally shown to increase their annual income significantly beyond that of those who, like DaShawn’s mother, have only a high school diploma or less.

Despite the growing emphasis being placed on obtaining a college degree, experts say the positive effect that charter schools seem to be having on college enrollment is one of the most under-researched aspects of the national discourse on public school reform.

“Very few studies have taken a serious look at this question,” said Anna Nicotera, research and evaluation director at the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

She said the best research to date on the subject is a 2008 RAND Corporation study titled “Going Beyond Test Scores: Evaluating Charter School Impact on Educational Attainment in Chicago and Florida.”

The study found that among students who attended a charter middle school, those who went on to attend a charter high school were 7 to 15 percent more likely to earn a standard high school diploma than those who transferred to a public high school, and that those who attended a charter high school were 8 to 10 percent more likely to attend college.

These findings, perhaps, partially explain the high college enrollment rate of SEED graduates, where transfer to a different high school is essentially a non-issue because it is a boarding school that only accepts sixth graders, such as DaShawn, and educates them through the end of high school.

Though SEED has only followed one class through college graduation, the class of 2004, it boasts that, so far, its college graduation rate is triple that of neighboring schools.

Roughly three-fourths of SEED students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 85 percent of the students do not have a parent with a college degree.

Charter school experts lament how the higher college enrollment rates at charter schools often get overshadowed by government officials’ and the media’s fixation on whether charter schools are achieving more short-term gains of less consequence, such as better test scores on standardized tests, which they often do not.

“Would you rather have your kid doing better on the state test, or stay in school, graduate and enroll in college?” asks Brian Gill, a senior fellow and charter school expert at Mathematica, a Princeton, N.J.-based policy research organization. “In terms of effects on a life outcome, it’s clear what’s more important.”

Charter school lotteries, such as the ones depicted in “Waiting for Superman” and the one that ultimately got DaShawn admitted to SEED, are perhaps the most emotional and vivid aspects of distressed parents such as Cohen trying to put their children on a trajectory that enhances their chances of being able to do better for themselves.

However, the evocative nature of the lotteries tends to divert the focus away from the more important business of what happens once students win the lottery and get admitted to the charter school of their choice.

As Melissa Bradley, CEO of TIDES, a New York- and San Francisco-based philanthropic foundation, said during the 2011 graduation commencement ceremony at SEED: “Rest assured, (the lottery) is where luck stops and that day one at SEED is where your hard work and tenacity and intelligence begin shifting the paradigm that you will make it by chance.”

Indeed, based on interviews with SEED alumni, students, and school officials, as well as a series of visits this reporter paid to the school in the spring of 2011, the portrait of SEED that emerges is one of an institution that is very intentional about instilling the idea of college as a destination.

For instance, students can go to a “college corner” in the school cafeteria to get information on deadlines for college applications, scholarships and the like. There is also a “college cafe” where college pennants, including those attended by SEED alumni, hang on the wall as a reminder of what awaits the students after graduation. During junior year students go on college tours, and several participate in study-abroad programs.

More significantly, college preparedness is engrained in the curriculum. Whereas Advanced Placement classes are rare in many urban schools, at SEED they represent the norm.

“Most students in my class have two to three AP classes on their transcript,” said Ty’Ronn Spriggs, the 2011 valedictorian at SEED. “I had four.”

SEED also offers tutoring and an accelerated math course to help ensure that students do not have to take remedial math courses once in college, particularly because such courses cost money and carry no credits, which can be particularly burdensome for families of lesser means.

The fact that SEED is a boarding school also helps prepare students for life on campus, school officials say.

“Our students do very well when they enter into college, especially when it comes to living on campus,” said Vincena Allen, director of the College Transition & Support program at SEED. “Because of the boarding programs, they’ve experienced that from middle to high school, so the social integration process is less challenging for them.”

Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a Washington, D.C.-based charter school advocacy group, says the deliberate nature in which schools such as SEED get students oriented toward college is what sets them apart from regular public schools.

“They have a college expectation for these kids, and everything they do, from the moment that kid is in the fifth grade, is how do we get this kid involved in good colleges so they can be competitive, get in and get through and graduate,” Campbell said. “When you have the end in mind and those explicit goals, it’s much easier to get there.

He added: “You would think that all have destinations in mind. The reality is they don’t.”

Officials at the SEED Foundation are quick to contend that it is not the fact that the school is a charter school that makes it successful. They note that the SEED Foundation operates a statewide public school in Maryland that is not a charter school, and has plans in other states to potentially operate schools within the framework of the traditional public school system.

Charles Adams, head of school at SEED D.C., said while SEED has done a good job of getting its graduates into college, its focus now is to make sure they get through college. The school follows up with students to check on how they are dong academically and otherwise.

“I don’t want to be part of a team that ends up just introducing families to the idea of college,” Adams said. “The focus of our energy is really about graduating from college.”

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