Public Charter Schools Provide the Opportunities Our Students Deserve

By Darren Woodruff, Ph.D

The growth of public charter schools in the District has had a profound impact on students – and none more so than the African American children who represent a majority of the students in DC’s classrooms. As the nation celebrates National Charter Schools Week, it’s a good time to acknowledge how these public schools of choice are opening new opportunities for students.

Public charter schools are tuition-free and open to all. That may surprise some people who associate educational excellence with private schools. The only reason someone can be turned down from a public charter school is because the school has run out of space.

There are now 118 public charter schools operated by 65 nonprofit operators. Some have a special focus to their curriculum, such as STEM, Montessori, public policy, or language immersion. All make a core commitment to maintain high academic standards and prepare students for a successful future.

DC public charter schools serve about 40,000 students at all grade levels, including preschoolers. For example, Kendell and Khloe Williams entered Early Childhood Academy Public Charter School at age 3. Though they are twins, the girls had different personalities. Kendell was talkative and outgoing, often speaking on behalf of her quieter sister, who preferred to communicate through trying to write. Kendell and Khloe spent two years together in the classroom, developing new friendships and leaning on each other for support. By the time they reached Kindergarten, both sisters were ready to branch out on their own, in separate classrooms. And thanks to Early Childhood Academy’s strong focus on writing, they’ve both become prolific writers – an essential skill for lifelong success.

It’s not just early learners who benefit from public charter schools. The high school graduation rate for African American students who attend public charters is higher than the city average. And proficiency rates for public charter school students have increased steadily over the last ten years – consistently exceeding city averages across virtually all groups of students. This isn’t a knock on DC Public Schools, which have also improved. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that public charter schools are spurring innovative instruction and pointing the way toward better outcomes for our students. Parents deserve these choices, and students deserve these opportunities.

One of the reasons public charter schools thrive is because they have strong oversight from the DC Public Charter School Board, which I chair.   We insist that potential charter school leaders explain clearly how they will benefit the city’s students. And when our schools don’t meet expectations, they’re held accountable. Our leadership has helped to drive steady improvement in school quality and other areas that matter to parents, including reducing suspensions and expulsions.

We also publish annual School Quality Reports, so that parents know how their child’s school is performing in comparison to other schools. And this year more students than ever are attending public charter schools that receive the highest quality rating – Tier 1. 

In conclusion, African American students are big beneficiaries of the growth of public charter schools. Public charter schools serve nearly half of DC’s public school students, and a higher percentage of African American students than the city’s traditional public schools. Since students from any ward can enroll, parents get to choose the school that is the best fit for their child, not just the school that’s closest to them. As a result, roughly half of public charter school students attend a school outside their Ward.

We know we still have work to do in all of our public schools. Achievement rates have been climbing and graduation rates are up, but DC hasn’t reached the national average. Too many students still leave high school without heading to college or learning a good skill for work.

But the last decade has brought extraordinary progress. The schools DC children attend today are, by and large, much better than the schools their parents attended. Public charter schools have helped to fuel that progress, laying the groundwork for even more improvement in the years ahead.  We are proud to celebrate their success during National Charter Schools Week.

Darren Woodruff is Chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  The Board’s goal is to ensure students and families in Washington DC have access to a quality public charter school education.