Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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Schools Focus on College Preparation

"Every single person knows why they are here—to get our kids into college and ensure that they are successful when they are there," says the principal at YES. This theme is echoed at the majority of these profiled schools, two of which have admission to college as a graduation requirement. Even at TSA, where many students intend to continue in the performing arts rather than go directly to college, and at MNCS, where the emphasis is on preparing students to be successful in whatever post-high school endeavor they choose, teachers, staff, and other adults in the school community are intent on making sure that students have a solid college preparatory experience, including access to higher-level classes.

Rigorous curriculum. In the seven schools that operate with a typical teacher-conceived curriculum (MNCS is the eighth), the curriculum is aligned both to state standards and to college entrance requirements. Some of the schools focus heavily on core academic classes, putting the elective subjects into after-school clubs. TSA, with its arts program, requires that students successfully complete a college preparatory curriculum in addition to their arts classes. In fact, the school has its own version of the longstanding "no pass, no play" rule for high school athletes: If TSA students are not doing well in their core academic classes, they are pulled from arts classes and given tutoring support until their academics improve, at which point they may resume their work in art, music, theater, or dance.

Because it does not have a school curriculum that can be aligned with college entrance requirements, MNCS continues exploring how to make it easier for institutions of higher education to understand how to "translate" MNCS academic credits when considering students for admission. The school's almost exclusive use of project-based learning also puts the onus on teachers to ensure that, collectively, a student's projects throughout his or her years at the school will cover the required state curriculum standards. To that end, MNCS has developed a skills rubric, which is used by students in conceiving and planning their projects; used by teachers and students together in checking that a project encompasses the necessary curriculum standards; and used by teachers in assessing the degree to which students have adequately developed the skills and knowledge required in the standards (see fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Minnesota New Country School Skills Rubric for Students and Teachers

MNCS Skills Rubric

Basic Skills Level 1 Level 2 Level 3


Reading at less than 6th grade reading level (Not passed BST) Reading at or above 6th grade level (Passed Basic Skills Tests). Reading at or above 10th grade level in at least one area.


Needs a lot of assistance to express thoughts and reflections Able to express thoughts and reflections with limited help Able to construct a well-written 5 paragraph essay


Math les than functional (i.e.-decimals, fractions, basic measurements) Able to do functional math (ie-decimals, fractions, basic measurements) Completed Algebra I and Geometry or technical equivalent


Does not listen well, difficulty participating in sharing of information and thoughts Listens well. Difficultly participating in sharing information and thoughts Ability to present in an organized manner in a group and limited settings
Thinking Skills      

Creative Thinking

Only follows established practices Has limited creative ideas or limited follow through to product Uses creative ideas to adapt, improve, enhance a product

Problem Solving

No effort when confronted with problem Identifies problem, but uses little effort to solve Shows some persistence but inconsistent in success

Task Completion

Difficulty in completing projects, requires much assistance Completes most projects with assistance Completes required projects with minimal assistance


Collects basic information for project, unable to utilize or apply to outside world Completes large projects, but unable to purposefully connect to the real world Purposefully connecting large projects to real world
Personal Qualities      


Unable to manage self (cleaning, credits, behavior), while blaming others Manages self with guidance, not blaming others Consistently manages self and takes responsibility for successes and failures


Abusive (physically, mentally, or verbally), lack of self respect Respects self or others Consistent respect of self and others
Managing Resources      

Manages Time

Cannot follow schedule or meet deadlines, with daily supervision Meets deadlines with daily supervision Meets deadlines with periodic supervision

Manages Information

Cannot acquire, organize or interpret information with large amounts of assistance Can acquire, organize and interpret information with large amounts of assistance Can acquire, organize and interpret information with minimal assistance
Interpersonal Skills      

Team Member

Unable or unwilling to work in a group Able to work in a single role and select groups Able to work in multiple roles and in diverse groups

Service and Ownership

Refuses to cooperate and does not see value in complying Helping out for an external reward Helping out when asked for intrinsic reward

In light of research showing that the highest level of math attained in high school is an important indicator of college completion,13 all of these schools are paying particular attention to this subject. At several schools, students double up on math classes (accelerating learning for those who entered below grade level) and receive other remediation to prepare them for higher-level math courses. At MNCS, mathematics is the only subject area not taught exclusively through project-based learning. While students may, in fact, learn some math through their projects, all students study math through the Accelerated Math program, which allows them to progress at their own pace. Students complete computerized Scantron forms so they can monitor their mastery level; when they have passed the concepts of one unit, they move on to the next set of standards, continuing to work at their own pace.

It can be challenging for these schools with their relatively small populations to offer a wide range of courses. Consequently, several give students the opportunity when they are ready to take higher-level courses at local universities. At MATCH, students are required to pass a course at Boston University during each semester of their senior year, and the school provides tutors to support their learning. The intent is to give students a taste of higher education while they are still in high school. At MNCS, Preuss, and TSA, students are encouraged to enroll in the federally supported Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) program, which allows them to take courses for credit at area universities and colleges. It is through such partnerships that these schools are able to offer the breadth of curriculum that meets students' needs.

Six of the schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes along with relevant support to help students succeed in these more challenging courses. Although the students are generally doing well in the classes, in some schools, the majority of students are not scoring well on the AP exams, a concern the schools are investigating and trying to address. At Preuss, for example, after seeing students struggling with document-based questions (DBQs) on an AP history exam, staff began integrating the use of primary sources and DBQs as early as the sixth grade, to begin better preparing students for this exam. In this, Preuss is one example of how, rather than being demoralized by students' exam performance, staff at these schools seem to take it as an important reminder of the need for teachers themselves to work smarter and better. Moreover, as the principal at more than one school notes, the point of offering AP classes is not solely to have students place out of a subject in college. Equally important is the role of such classes in signaling high expectations to students and helping students understand and prepare for the academic demands of college. Education research analyst Adelman found that the rigor of a student's high school studies, as evidenced by having taken AP courses and higher-level math courses, is a strong predictor of college completion for all students, but even more so for African-American and Hispanic students.14

Real-world experiences. Recognizing that being successful in college and other post-high school endeavors entails more than just having solid academic skills, these school administrators also are working to broaden students' experiences beyond what would otherwise be available to them. Internships and other real-world work, travel learning, and enrichment experiences all provide relevant, engaging learning experiences and, in the process, expand students' understanding of and comfort with the world beyond family and neighborhood. Equally important, these experiences help to build students' "social capital," a term social historian Robert Putnam and others use to refer to "the networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit."15 In doing so, these schools also help level the playing field for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Last summer, several students at North Star had American Field Service scholarships to study and live with a family abroad; another had a paid internship at Lehman Brothers, allowing him to learn about how the business world works; another attended a journalism program at Princeton University; and 12 students went to New Zealand to learn about Maori culture. Meanwhile, Preuss students participated in a four-week internship at UCSD with the Health Information Partnership where they met with the CEO of the university's medical center, witnessed a kidney transplant, and got a behind-the-scenes look at the medical field. Other Preuss students attended a math and science camp on a different University of California campus. Students at YES College Preparatory School, Southeast campus, engaged in internships, summer school programs, and leadership programs, such as wilderness camps and Outward Bound.

These types of experiences are not limited to off-school months. YES has instituted service learning projects once a month, on Saturdays, with students undertaking such varied work as cleaning public beaches and parks and tutoring local elementary school students. To generate broader learning opportunities for its students to perform or show their work publicly, as well as to be taught or mentored by professional artists, TSA has initiated a series of "ARTnerships" within the community (see fig. 4). For example, one restaurant hosts a TSA chamber music series with student musicians, the local jazz club hosts performances by TSA jazz players, and the Toledo Ballet Association includes TSA students as dancers in its annual production of "The Nutcracker."

Fig. 4: A List of ARTnerships Excerpted From the 2006 Annual Report of Toledo School for the Arts


Arts Commission of Greater Toledo

TSA Development Director David Gierke serves as Director for the ACGT Young Artists at Work program, spearheading an innovative partnership linking ACGT to TARTA in a city-wide moving arts exhibition. TSA painting instructor Andres Orlawski was a YAAW faculty member, and TSA students participates as Young Artists. TSA artistic Director David Saygers serves as ACGT Trustee and liaison. Several TSA students accepted in YAAW program

Manhattan's Restaurant

TSA presented a chamber music series at Manhattan's restaurant during 2004-05, and Manhattan's moved from being a faithful advertiser to the sponsor of the 05-06 First Friday Series.

Mickey Finn's Pub

Host again for TSA Pop Combo concerts, Mickey Finn's Pub also was the site for Artapaloosa, TSA student-driven May arts fair. In recognition of TSA's presence there, new sandwiches named for TSA teachers and students were added to the menu.

Murphy's Jazz Club

Murphy's once again hosted TSA's Jazz Studies concerts, sponsoring four events during the school year. TSA alum Ryan Erard became a regular performer at Murphy's, and TSA instructor Kenneth Zuercher helped in recording jazz...

Owens Community College Center for Fine and Performing Arts

The CFPA at Owens Community College became the TSA Main Stage venue, and provided generously discounted fees and services for the four programs offered there by TSA. CFPA Concert Office Director Barbara Barkan served as TSA board member, and Technical Director Cassie Breitinger designed sets for TSA productions.

Toledo Ballet Association

Over a dozen TSA students were active in the Ballet's production of The Nutcracker and Coppelia, and attended classes at the Ballet School. TSA 6th graders enjoyed a performance of The Nutcracker, and TSA Director Martin Porter served as a board member. TSA shared its Board President, Rob Koenig, with the Ballet.

Toledo Jazz Society

The Jazz Society co-sponsored several programs with TSA, including a joint residency with Gene Parker, a series of Jazz Society music-in-the-schools presentations by the TSA Jazz Combo, and children's programming by TSA at the Art Tatum Jazz Fest. The two organizations teamed to present the first annual presentation of the Harlem Nutcracker. For 2005-06, TSA was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Arts Partnership Grant for programming with the Jazz Society.

Toledo Museum of Art

For the fifth year, TSA students represented one of the largest blocks of students receiving school tours in the Museum Docent Multiple Tour program, which works to create more meaningful museum experience through repeat visits.

Toledo Repertoire Theatre

In addition to TSA staff members Rosie Best, Jamie Dauel, Audra McCabe and David Saygers serving in voluntary roles for the Rep and its production, TSA presented a successful production of The Crucible in the Rep's 10th Street Theater. Many TSA students participated in seversl Rep productions, on and off stage, and TSA students attended the Rep's Christmas Carol school matinee.

Toledo Symphony Orchestra

Over twenty TSA students received music lessons from Toledo Symphony string players this year, through the TSO commnity outreach program. TSA Associate Conductor Chelsea Tipton provided a master class for TSA students for the second year.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009