Choice can even disadvantaged students’ odds

Steve Perry

Our traditional public school system has failed students growing up in urban America.

There are many reasons for this, but high up on the list must be: a widespread view that teaching is a job, when it is really a calling and therefore not for everyone; suppression of innovation, creativity and choice; and, failure to engage children by showing that we care about them.

These are among the reasons I founded Capital Preparatory Magnet School in an underserved Hartford, Connecticut, neighborhood. A personal priority was to open a college-preparatory public school close to public housing projects like those in which I grew up. While I got to college, I had seen too many lives wasted after falling prey to the malign influences of the streets. As so many of my peers and later generations followed that self-destructive path, I decided that it was my turn to do something to change the odds.

Many people in positions of power said no when I tried to start Capital Prep, but today, education reform enjoys a more secure place in the educational landscape, and has brought choice to many communities previously neglected by the traditional system.

One example is Washington, D.C., in which 45 percent of all public school children are now educated at charters. One of the early pioneers of D.C. charters, Donald Hense, grew his public charter school network to nine campuses, serving students from pre-K through the 12th grade. Additionally, Friendship also operates campuses in partnership with the traditional public school system in Baltimore and Baton Rouge.

Like many school choice trailblazers, Hense initially struggled to find suitable facilities — even as the District of Columbia shuttered schoolhouses, which the school district was unable to fill as parents fled the traditional system, selling them for luxury condos or leaving them derelict.

Hense’s first high schools began life in unpromising circumstances. One started in an abandoned public school building, without functioning utilities, which had been taken over by drug gangs.

But the Friendship network persevered in the face of these and many other obstacles. Today, real progress has been made in closing the notorious achievement gap between African-American and Latino children compared to their white peers. Friendship Collegiate Academy, a college preparatory high school, today has a 92 percent on-time — within four years — high school graduation rate, higher than the city’s charter school average and significantly higher than the city’s traditional system.

Similarly, across the nation charters are thriving: today, the number of students enrolled by charters since the 2007-08 school year has doubled, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In addition to the District of Columbia, which has one of the nation’s strongest charter laws, some 42 states now have laws enabling charters to open and, if necessary, be closed.

The combination of school autonomy and accountability has provided choice for low-income parents, who could not access it due to economic circumstances. The college degrees and careers once out of reach for their children are now attainable. Being written off by the traditional system, not a lack of ability, held them back.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “A school should be so good, and educate a child so well, that you don’t know who their parents are.” Traditional approaches failed our children, but the educational entrepreneurs who helped increase school choice have shown how we can help economically disadvantaged students level the playing field.

Steve Perry is the founder of Capital Prep Magnet School.