Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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Schools Provide Wraparound Student Support

A commitment to closing achievement gaps requires more than simply offering rigorous academics. All of these schools recognize that if their students are to be successful, the school community must offer a variety of supports. This understanding is summed up in the YES school motto, "Whatever it takes!"

Easily accessible adult support. At these schools, time is made for students, and adult support is easily accessible. As charters, the schools have the flexibility to more quickly allocate resources and make staffing decisions based upon student needs and school mission. For example, each of the schools provides a relatively low student-to-teacher (e.g., 22 to 1). Many schools have contracts with either full-time or part-time specialists, among them social workers, counselors, parent liaison translators, and special education resource specialists. Gateway has the full-service Learning Center that is open to any student experiencing academic difficulties, irrespective of whether the student has a diagnosed learning difference. The Learning Center provides, among other things, subject-area tutoring, an alternative exam environment, assistive technology, reading support, academic counseling, and referrals for diagnostic testing. A quarter of the student body regularly attends after-school tutoring. To explain the value of the Learning Center to funders and new staff, Gateway uses a vignette that relates how the center significantly changed the learning experience for one of Gateway's first students (see fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Gateway High School's Learning Center Vignette

Gateway High School

The Learning Center in Action -- Cynthia, Gateway Student
Cynthia began her high school career with a vague sense of both her strengths and her weaknesses as a learner. Her teachers and previous schools attributed her difficulties to either laziness or poor aptitude. However, Cynthia had a suspicion that something else was going on, knowing how hard she worked and how much she did want to learn.

With her parents' support Cynthia decided to take a chance and enter the inaugural class of Gateway High School. Early in her 9th grade year along with her classmates, Cynthia was screened by the Learning Center and found to have a moderate learning disability in the area of visual processing. The Learning Center provided a year of remediation around language development, in addition to tutorial and other supports. In Cynthia's sophomore year, the Learning Center arranged a pro bono assessment through a private educational therapist, who more thoroughly described the areas of difficulty that she was experiencing. The Learning Center informed her teachers who then were able to work more effectively with Cynthia.

Gateway's commitment to Cynthia was outmatched only by Cynthia's commitment to her own academic efforts. With free tutoring provided by the Learning Center as well as regular consultation with her teachers, and armed with tools such as books-on-tape and accommodations like extended time on her SAT and AP exams, Cynthia flourished. This formerly reluctant learner and shy young woman, became president of her senior class and captain of the girls' basketball team. She would also score a perfect '5' on her Spanish AP exam. Cynthia was a Summer Search recipient and following her junior year she won a scholarship to participate in a community service-based summer program to Vietnam and Thailand. In her senior year, Cynthia won a sizable scholarship from Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic for her achievements in overcoming her obstacles to learning. Cynthia is now in her first year at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She is the first member of her family to attend college.

Tutors abound at these schools. Two of the schools have tutors in classes serving as teaching assistants, and virtually all schools provide tutors outside of class and beyond the standard school day or week as needed. At TSA, teachers themselves tutor before and after school and on weekends.

As indicated previously, tutoring plays a central role at MATCH, where two separate tutoring programs are in place. The first involves 50 undergraduate college students from Boston-area colleges and some older volunteers as well. The college students are typically strong academically and are receiving work-study financial aid from their colleges. These tutors work specifically with MATCH 10th-graders on the weekend, in 25 four-hour blocks of tutoring. Since the federal work-study law requires colleges and universities to spend 7 percent of the federal funds for their students on community jobs, not campus jobs, MATCH became a major work site for students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard, and the colleges pay anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of their students' hourly wage.

The second MATCH tutoring program is known as the MATCH Corps. Begun in 2004, the 45 members are recent college graduates (up to seven years out) who have signed on for a year of service as full-time tutors. Some volunteers also spend part of their time as teaching assistants; others spend part of their time in projects assisting the school. Half of the volunteers are funded by AmeriCorps, and they also provide tutoring to two regular large Boston public high schools; the other half are privately funded. All tutors did well in college, with top AP, SAT, and American College Test (ACT) scores; all receive three full weeks of summer training before they begin. Each corps member provides six hours of daily tutoring, working with one to three students in two-hour blocks. Many stay up to three hours after the day ends, until 8 p.m., to work with struggling students; some also make appointments to work with their students on the weekend.

Many of these schools also have advisory programs to help students deal with any adolescent life issue that arises, whether academic, personal, or social. In Preuss's program, students stay with the same adviser from sixth through 12th grade. One Preuss student observes that there are never any fights among students because in their small school environment with the same adviser throughout the years, "You become family, you grow up together." At YES, students participate in the APSD (Academic, Personal and Social Development) program, a designated time set aside with an adviser to address the spectrum of nonacademic issues that are relevant to their lives. They receive counseling and support and have a safe place to talk about issues they face now or simply anticipate, such as the transition from home to college.

Some school programs include having mentors for students. At Preuss, students are matched with a mentor from the community, who makes a seven-year commitment to meet regularly with the individual student. As an example of the level of mentor dedication, one mentor started a scholarship fund when her student became a senior to ensure that financial constraints would not keep either that student or any other Preuss student from going on to college.

Family commitment. Parent and guardian involvement begins at the outset, as students and their families complete applications to enter the charter school admissions lottery. School staff then make every effort to sustain that involvement by developing strong communication between school and home through regular conferences, phone calls, and e-mails. Some send home a weekly folder with information for parents or guardians to read and with a request for parental sign-off.

Parents are considered partners at these schools, whether they are serving on the governing boards as they do at some of these schools, fundraising (e.g., TSA parents run the concession stands at the city's semipro baseball games to raise money for students to attend national competitions in music, dance, and theater), participating in parent-teacher conferences and other school meetings, keeping communication lines open with the school, expressing appreciation for hard working teachers, or motivating students through their support. At YES, expectations for all community members—teachers, parents, students—are detailed in a contract to be signed by all parties. The parent section (see fig. 8) lists many stipulations that any school staff might request of parents and guardians. For example, they ask that parents notify the school as soon as possible if a student must be absent. Because these are schools of choice, parents are generally happy to oblige with such requests. But anticipating that not all will oblige, at least one of these schools has some built-in consequences: Preuss stipulations are that if parents do not compete their volunteer hours, their student's younger siblings will not be considered for admission.

Fig. 8: YES School Contract: Parent and Guardian Commitments (Excerpt)

Parents'/Guardians' Commitments:

We fully commit to YES College Preparatory School in the following way:

  • We will make sure our child arrives at YES College Preparatory School by 7:30 a.m. (Monday - Friday)
  • We will make arrangements so our child can remain at YES College Preparatory School until 5:00 p.m. (Monday - Thursday and 4:05 p.m. on Fridays)
  • We will make arrangements for our child to come to YES College Preparatory School on appropriate Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. and remain until 1:00 p.m.
  • We will always help our child in the best way we know how, and we will do "whatever it takes" for him/her to learn. This also means that we will check our child's homework every night, sign our child's agenda and let him/her call the teacher if there is a problem with the homework.
  • We will allow our child to remain after school on any day he/she arrives with incomplete homework or chooses to disrespect the YES College Preparatory School team. If this occurs, it will be our responsibility to pick up our child.
  • We will always make ourselves to our children, the school, and any concern(s) they might have.
  • We will motify the teacher as soon as possible if our child is going to be absent from school.
  • We will read all papers sent home cafefully, sign them, and return them within two (2) days or else our child will have to stay for Wall Street or detention
  • We will attend all parent meetings and conferences.
  • We will allow our child to go on YES College Preparatory School field trips, including out-of-town filed trips.
  • We will make sure our child adheres to the YES College Prepartory School dress code.
  • We will ensure that our son/daughter will attend the mandatory summer program.
  • We understand that our child must follow the YES College Preparatory School rules in order to protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals in the classroom.
  • We, not the school, are responsible for the behavior and actions of our child.

** Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various YES College Preparatory School privileges and can lead to my child's removal from the YES College Preparatory School team.

** All YES College Preparatory School students will be reevaluated at the end of the school year and after the summer program.

In signing, we have read and agree with this contract and the Code of Student Conduct.

Parent's/Guardian's Signature: ___________________________________________
Date: ___________

At Preuss, YES, MATCH, and TSA, some students travel more than an hour each way to get to school, some changing buses twice each way. Yet, even with such burdens on their children and, therefore, on the entire family, some parents express relief that their child need not attend his or her neighborhood school. At some of these urban schools, it is not unusual for parents to describe their neighborhood school as being "just down the street from the liquor store," or as being located in an area where drugs and violence are commonplace. Some focus group parents say they feel better knowing their children are going to school in a safe environment, even if it means long hours away from home or other demands on the family. The quality of neighborhood schools notwithstanding, focus group conversations reveal a pervasive sense of gratitude among all parents that their children are afforded the positive experiences offered by these charter schools and that, as a result, they can look to the future with greater hope for their children.

For their part, leaders of these schools listen carefully to parents and try to be responsive. For example, early in MNCS's history, its founders considered implementing a more traditional curriculum in the lower grades because some new students were struggling with the transition to project-based learning. But when they circulated a proposed course schedule, parents complained that their students had been promised project-based learning and that was what they wanted. Teachers heard the parents' concern and reconsidered. The teachers' decision was to retain project-based learning but to add more support to help struggling students make the transition. At North Star Academy, initially created as a middle school, parents' stated dissatisfaction with local high school options and desire for their children to continue having a high quality education beyond middle school, led school leaders and teachers to add a grade 9–12 program.

These schools understand the value of empowered, engaged families, not just in supporting student learning, but also in supporting the school itself. Families at these schools volunteer in every way imaginable, from raising money to painting classrooms. MATCH families participated in political lobbying, speaking before the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of charter schools.

Demystifying the college experience. As noted earlier, some of these schools aim to attract students who would be the first in their families to attend college; and, whether intentional or not, such students make up some portion of the population at all of the schools. The schools recognize that many of these students and their families will need specific information and support to help them through the getting-ready-to-go-to-college process, from preparing to take SAT or ACT exams to filling out college applications and financial aid forms.

YES provides parents with a six-session workshop series, plus each family receives a one-to one counseling session to learn more about the college process as it applies specifically to their child. At Preuss, where none of the students' parents has attended college, Saturday workshops on college financial aid and preparation for university have been considered invaluable. Most of the profiled charter schools are making specific efforts to involve parents in the process so that everyone is working together to help ensure that students go on to college.

Several of the schools provide juniors and seniors with a class that offers both information and time to research schools and scholarships, to work on college essays, and to prepare for the SAT and ACT exams. At North Star, a local law firm sponsors juniors to take SAT preparation classes online. Some schools take their students on college tours to familiarize them with the college environment. One Preuss student says that friends at other schools "just seem to be so lost in terms of the future after senior year. They do not seem to know very much about applying to college. At Preuss it is our main ambition and we are pumped up to support each other."

Several schools are making an effort to keep track of how their graduates are doing in college. The aim is to learn from the college experience of their graduates how the school might improve its own program so that future students will be increasingly better prepared for and successful in higher education. MATCH pays graduates $50 to send a copy of their college transcripts back to the school, and it has a MATCH Corps member serve as an alumni coordinator, e-mailing and otherwise communicating regularly with the graduates. In one instance, school staff learned firsthand about the success of one of the graduates: The valedictorian of YES's first graduating class is now teaching seventh-grade English at the school after completing her undergraduate studies at Stanford University.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009