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As misinformation about proposed D.C. school closings spread like wildfire throughout Washington recently, many students at Ballou Senior High School became convinced that their school would close down and reopen as a public charter school next year.
One student, a former charter school student herself, spoke for many: "No, no. Charter schools do too much; they make you work." Heads nodded in agreement around the classroom, the students clearly aware of the difference between their current school and many D.C. charter high schools.
They are not wrong, but their reaction shows both the promise and the challenge of using charter schools to create more academically rigorous high schools in cities such as Washington. The strategy will work only if there are common expectations and signals for students across the entire school system. Otherwise, demanding charter schools will not be the catalyst their proponents hope.
Charter schools are independent public schools. Today, there are 56 charter schools of varying quality, from outstanding to awful, operating in Washington. Despite the mixed bag, there is little doubt that they have made a positive contribution.
Remember, high school graduation rates for Washington's public schools are less than 50 percent. Even worse, only 9 percent of high school freshmen in the city's public schools receive a college degree within five years of finishing high school. Students attending charter schools at the high school level have better outcomes in terms of graduation and college attendance than other public schools in the city. The schools are also safer.
Yet as long as students, such as those at Ballou, recognize that there are easier paths to a high school diploma than through the challenging charter high schools, some will eschew these options altogether—or drop out and return to the traditional system.
Hard data about the number of students who leave charters for less demanding academics are scant, but charter leaders acknowledge that it is a problem. At the best charters, students not only put in extra work and face higher standards but some also put in an extra year in school so they are ready for college when they graduate.
Strangely, in the political back and forth about charter schools, the opponents of charter schools blame charters for this problem. That makes no sense.
Giving parents better public schooling options is imperative. Besides, this lack of rigor is a problem of the school system, and it cannot be fairly laid at the feet of schools that are taking steps to address it.
No one should minimize the difficulties of true education reform in Washington and other cities. At the same time, no one should underestimate the need to create a system where students cannot easily distinguish between regular high schools and high-performing charters.