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Creating Community in a Choice-Heavy School District

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In a school district where nearly half of the students attend charter schools and the majority of students choose to attend regular public schools that are not their neighborhood school, what impact does that have on the community? 

That situation is a reality for the city of Washington and the question was at the heart of a discussion held yesterday at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in that city. The event, which gathered a panel of education experts, parents, and community activists, coincided with the release of a book by Sam Chaltain called Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, in which he spent a year visiting and getting to know the teachers, students, parents, and administrators in a charter school as well as a regular public school in the nation's capital.

In his book, as well as during the discussion, Chaltain talked about school choice being more accurately described as 'school chance.' In a city where 44 percent of the student population is attending charter schools, most of the well-known, high-quality charters operate with lottery systems that require the luck of the draw for students to be able to attend.

For those families who want to attend a charter but do not get in through the lottery, he said, their best bet is to secure a spot in a charter school that is just opening. But those schools also do not have a track record to refer to, so enrolling in them can also feel like taking a chance.

Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education in Washington, who was also on the panel, said that the fact that the majority of District of Columbia Public School students attend charter schools or choose to enroll in regular public schools that are not their assigned school can create some "instability" in the neighborhoods, but at the same time, that freedom allows students to pursue a high-quality education without having to have the means to buy a house in an affluent area of the city.

While no clear answer about how to create a sense of community within neighborhoods emerged from the discussion, the panelists appeared to agree that open dialogue and communication between both DCPS and the charter school sector could help. Both sectors of the public school system have strategies to share and could learn from one another, Chaltain said. 

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