Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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Schools Are Mission-driven

In each of these schools, a group of thoughtful individuals has developed a shared focus that guides the work of the school at every level, from budget priorities to curriculum choices to hiring decisions. Teachers, students, parents, administrators, board members, and community partners are on the same page, with a clear sense of and commitment to the purpose of the school program. All decisions are considered according to whether they advance the mission. At North Star Academy Charter School of Newark, N.J., whose mission includes preparing each student for success in college, the principal says he "doesn't spend a dime unless it is directly going to impact instruction and learning and preparation of students for college." The mission, therefore, focuses efforts of school staff and shapes school culture.

Relentless focus on goals. All of these schools were created in response to what their founders experienced as a lack of satisfactory high school options in the local community, and their missions reflect this. In San Francisco, Calif., dissatisfaction with both public and private options for children with learning differences led six parents to sit around a kitchen table and talk about a school where such students could prepare for college and would not slip through the cracks. That early planning resulted in the creation of Gateway High School. Even Mel Levine, whose Schools Attuned work had inspired Gateway's founders, doubted such a vision could be implemented in a public school. But the board, faculty, students, and staff at Gateway are proving it can be done through relentless focus and hard work. Doing so has meant weaving extensive support systems into the fabric of a charter high school that now serves a racially and ethnically diverse student population, of which 25 percent qualify for special education services.

On the other side of the country, North Star Academy Charter School of Newark was conceived to address the lack of college preparatory options for public school students in Newark, N.J., where, according to the 1996–97 New Jersey School Report Card data, only 50 percent of the freshman who enrolled in Newark high schools reached their senior year and of those only 26 percent stated that they hoped to go to a four-year college after graduation. Deriving its name from Frederick Douglass' abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, this school promotes education as the "north star" for its inner city African-American children. That connection is affirmed in the school's call-and-response (excerpted below) that students participate in at regularly scheduled community meetings:

Who are you? A Star! I shine brightly for others.

Why are you here? To get an education!

Why else? To be the great person I am meant to be!

And what will you have to do? Work! Hard! ...

And what will you need? Self-discipline! ...

And what else will you need? Respect for me, my peers, my teachers and all people!

Where are you headed? To college! ...

And when you succeed what will you do?

Give back to others!

And in the rural upper Midwest, in Henderson, Minn., an hour outside of the Twin Cities, Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) was founded by a team of visionary educators and community members bent on creating a school to serve students who, for academic, social, or other reasons, would have a hard time fitting in and doing well at more traditional schools. Some MNCS students had done well academically in other settings, but found themselves bullied or teased for how they dressed or other nonacademic reasons. Others may have done well socially but struggled academically. Premised on the belief that students learn best when motivated by something that interests them, MNCS largely eschews a traditional teacher-planned curriculum in favor of project-based learning, in which students gain knowledge and skills through exploration as they carry out projects of their own choosing that culminate in a product or performance. The projects, developed with the support of a teacher qua adviser who then serves as project coach, may be focused on a single subject (e.g., one student researched chemicals in fast food and then developed a nutrition class for his peers) or may be interdisciplinary (another student researched the Victorian era, then designed and hand-sewed 19th-century clothing). Students may work individually on projects or as a group, as when students undertook a multiyear project studying frog deformities found at a nearby nature center. Each student works on multiple projects at the same time and develops a personalized learning plan that includes a portfolio of projects and assessments, a resume of accomplishments, and a post-high school plan. "I wouldn't make it in a traditional high school," says one student. "I've had personal problems and I'm in my fifth year here, but that's okay. I can express who I am through my projects."

Most of these schools' missions are very specific: readying low-income and minority students for success in college. The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C., serves a grades 7–12 population that is 99 percent African-American and 78 percent low-family-income. SEED's high academic expectations are evidenced in its course sequence overview (see fig. 1), which includes a "ninth-grade gate," beyond which students cannot pass until they have mastered key skills and then are considered ready to work at grade level in a demanding college preparatory curriculum. Believing that all children can succeed in this kind of a curriculum given the right environment and the right support, SEED founders set out to ensure that their inner city students would have both of these elements around the clock, five days a week, making SEED the nation's only charter boarding school at the secondary level.

Fig. 1: SEED School Course Sequence Overview Indicating the Ninth-grade Gate

The Preuss School of La Jolla, Calif., was conceived by a provost at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who saw in the dismantling of affirmative action programs an urgent need to better prepare high school students in select subgroups that had not been well represented at the university even with affirmative action. Located on the UCSD campus, Preuss works hard to attract students who will be the first in their families to attend college. So, too, does the Media and Technology Charter High School (MATCH) of Boston, Mass., whose goal is the preparation of inner city students, "including those who have no family history of college attendance," to succeed in college and beyond. YES College Preparatory School, Southeast campus, in Houston, Texas, where 92 percent of the students are Hispanic and 75 percent are from low-income families, takes a similar approach. YES and MATCH both have a graduation requirement that students gain acceptance at a four-year college or university.

Although all of these schools provide students with a college preparatory curriculum, not all see college as the principle or sole goal for students. In Ohio, the mission of Toledo School for the Arts (TSA) is to provide a college preparatory curriculum with arts-based learning, but the larger goal is for students to become lifelong learners whether they head to college, art school, or directly into work as artists. To that end, TSA makes every effort to connect students with professional artists, whether by hiring artists to work as teachers or by facilitating students to work as artists in the community (such as when a TSA jazz combo plays at a local venue). At MNCS, which is operated by a teacher cooperative and has no principal, the lead teacher says she wants "students to know they can do postsecondary studies and be successful, whether that is technical training after high school, college, or other pursuits."

But, each school, including TSA and MNCS, is committed to ensuring, minimally, that students have the choice to attend and succeed in higher education. That commitment has influenced the grade configuration of some schools. Recognizing that some number of students would arrive at their door performing below grade level in core subjects like reading and math, all of these schools offer remediation and extra support to bring these students up to grade level. But several of the schools decided that these types of interventions alone would not suffice; they saw a need for more time with students in order to ensure their success with a rigorous curriculum. To that end, they have created programs that encompass earlier grades typically associated with middle school (e.g., sixth, seventh), thus giving educators a few more years in which to work with students before high school graduation. In one case, the reverse happened: North Star started as a middle school and expanded when parents voiced the need for better high school options for their children.

Students at these schools recognize and appreciate that the adults at their schools are committed to students' success. Those interviewed spoke with excitement about the caring and dedicated teachers and other staff who are preparing them for success beyond high school. One YES student spoke of his teachers, "They push and they push hard. Knowing that they care is my safety net. Teachers believed in me so I started to work hard and then harder."

Supportive culture. A common objective across these schools has been to create a positive, supportive school culture. That effort is readily apparent when first entering the buildings, where student artwork and projects, inspirational quotes, and college banners brighten the hallways. It shows up, too, in such basic things as the consistent cleanliness of each school. At a deeper level, it is evident in the affirmative daily interactions among students and between students and teachers as well as other adults in the community. All of these schools are relatively small in size and adults know each of the students personally. MNCS has as its motto, "No Child Left Unknown." MATCH's principal, who greets every student personally at the front door each day, says, "Kids do not care how much you know until they know how much you care."

At these schools, there is a pervasive sense that it is cool to be smart and work hard. This contrasts significantly with the experiences many students have had at their prior schools, where they felt the need to hide their academic prowess and intellectual curiosity in order to fit in. These schools are proactive in their attempts to shift students' attention to learning and away from some of the common distractions found in many public schools serving adolescents, including concerns about fashion and safety. Most of these charter schools have a school dress code or a uniform, a policy that serves multiple purposes. One Preuss senior says that having a school uniform has been good because "it covers [the fact] that we are all poor. Also, you don't have to focus on what people are wearing." In communities where gangs are a problem, dress codes or uniforms also guarantee that students do not wear gang colors (either intentionally or unintentionally), which can affect their ability to make friends or their safety as they travel to and from school.

These sorts of policies are driven by a school's understanding of its students and what will be conducive to their learning. Neither TSA nor MNCS has any dress code because each school, in its own way, is intent on supporting students' individuality and creativity. At TSA, where teachers and students alike are artists, the student who came to school dressed in an outfit she made entirely of duct tape drew rave reviews. At MNCS, the aim is to let students be themselves, whether they take an alternative approach to dress and hairstyle (and body piercing) or a more traditional approach. In what many students identify as MNCS's accepting environment, students' sartorial choices are of little concern, freeing everyone to attend to learning.

Eliminating concerns about safety is of highest priority at these schools. You will not see security guards or metal detectors but behavior violations are not tolerated, and there are few incidents of fighting, bullying, or drugs. A common time and place for trouble to brew in many public schools is at the beginning and end of the day on the school bus. Yet, the dean of students at Preuss says the school's bus drivers experience none of the problems commonly associated with transporting students in large groups because older students serve as "guardians of the climate" and the students monitor themselves and each other. Whether on the bus or off, older students at Preuss, as at many of the schools, take responsibility for helping younger students adopt the school culture.

Some schools have created incentives intended to keep students motivated to work hard and meet conduct expectations. For example, MATCH students who work hard and behave in an exemplary fashion can earn gift certificates. But schools seek to trigger internal motivators as well. North Star high school students are encouraged to consider what "legacy" they will leave the middle school students coming up behind them. Core values of caring, respect, responsibility, and justice are also articulated in a pledge that all members of the North Star community are asked to sign (see fig. 2). Similarly, SEED works with great intentionality to help students understand and assume its core values of respect, responsibility, self-discipline, compassion, and integrity.

When problems do arise, these schools have systems for communicating and resolving conflicts, and staff use a common language that students absorb and articulate themselves. At MNCS, teachers and students have been trained to deal with interpersonal conflicts through a process of restorative justice, which involves creating a circle and passing a "talking piece" from one person to another so individuals "share their truth" when it is their turn. The school has also instituted a student jury to decide the consequences in the restorative justice process. A student who breaks the code of respect, for example, might have to vacuum the school building for a week to restore respect to the community.

The bottom line is that these schools hold students accountable and, if necessary, will expel them. But the approach to behavior management, like the approach to learning, is supportive rather than punitive. When students see administrators, teachers, and other adults demonstrating respect and high expectations for their pupils, taking their job seriously, and working hard on students' behalf, students step up to do the same. The message that emerges in talking with students across these schools is that they count themselves fortunate to be at a school where their success is the object of everyone's effort.

Fig. 2: North Star Community Member Pledge of Core Values



  1. We take care of each other.
  2. We help each other. We notice when someone needs help and we lend a hand.
  3. We do not hurt each other physically or emotionally.


  1. We treat each person as valuable, worthy of greatness and goodness.
  2. We accept individuals for who they are.
  3. We show our respect at all times for each other, for property, for differencees, and for opinions different from our own.
  4. We are honest with each other.


  1. We believe we are the masters of our own destiny and that we have the power to control our lives and shape our futures.
  2. We are committed to the highest level of achievement: academic, social, and personal. We recognize our strengths and try to improve on our weaknesses.
  3. We participate fully in everything we do. We do not do things halfway.


  1. We act with fairness toward each other.
  2. We get involved when members of the community are in trouble or need help.
  3. We work to improve our community and the world.

I pledge to live by these values as a member of the North Star community:

_________________________      _____________________
Signed                              Date

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009