Every year parents agonize over the question, “Where and how will my children go to school?” For better or worse, the intensity and importance of the question has been magnified like no other time in recent history thanks to COVID-19 shutdowns and schools moving to remote learning.
News accounts are filled with parents’ explorations of pods, private schools and other learning environments that will meet their children’s needs. The pandemic has also highlighted the stark inequities and achievement gaps in our system as a family’s income level often determines the education choices available to them.
The good news is there are options.
Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools that have autonomy to implement new and innovative educational models in exchange for clear accountability for student achievement. These schools have the potential to meet the current challenges: provide options for parents and students, and close achievement gaps.
A Common Sense Institute report found that charter schools have higher graduation rates for students of all races and ethnicities than non-charter high schools. Looking at data over the past three years from the Colorado Department of Education, performance on statewide English and mathematics assessments was higher at charter schools than at non-charter schools — both for students overall and for students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
From a large STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) high school in Denver with over 90% students of color to a small rural school in North Routt focused on expeditionary learning, charter schools are located throughout Colorado and vary in size and type of educational model.
DSST Public Schools, a charter management organization that operates STEM charter schools within Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools, provides a compelling case study. DSST Public Schools serve a diverse population of nearly 7,000 students across nine middle schools and six high schools. Student performance outcomes at the charter network are astounding.
Take for example, at three of DSST’s high schools (DSST: Cole High School, DSST: Montview High School and DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School) over 85% of students are nonwhite, 100% are accepted to college, and 83% of high school graduates matriculate to college. Compare that to Denver’s traditional, district-run high schools where 7% of students are nonwhite and only 64% matriculate to college.
DSST Middle School at Noel is the #1 middle school in Denver and another great example of a charter closing the achievement gap. Located in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver, 94 percent of Noel students are of color and 80 percent are low income. Students have demonstrated massive academic growth and achievement in a community where they have been historically underserved.
Unfortunately, the DPS School Board continues to oppose a new DSST high school at Noel, leaving 158 families with one less quality option. The board recently voted to delay opening the high school until the 2022-23 school year. This puzzling opposition stands in direct contrast to the board’s stated commitment to educational equity and serving students of color.
The strength of our communities has always been built on good schools that provide educational opportunities for all students. With the challenges posed by the global pandemic, there is more urgency than ever for schools to share strategies and innovations and for districts to grow models that work. Without access to a high-quality education, our most vulnerable and marginalized students will surely be left behind.
Gloria Zamora is the board chair for DSST Public Schools. Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, Ph.D., is an education fellow for the Common Sense Institute.