Class Families Choose Charters

Extraordinary about this December morning gathering of about 40 middle-school parents in the multipurpose room at BASIS San Antonio North charter school. The topic: a “charters 101” presentation about Texas charter-school politics.

Then came the pitch: Are you willing to write a letter to state officials asking permission for BASIS to open up K–5 schools to feed into their existing middle schools? Sure, many of the parents answered.

Parents lobbying on behalf of charter schools is nothing new. Who doesn’t remember the massive march in New York City—thousands of children and parents trudging across the Brooklyn Bridge wearing T-shirts with slogans such as “My Child, My Choice,” all to protest the crackdown on charters by New York’s new mayor?

But there’s more to this story. The two BASIS charter schools in San Antonio, along with a Great Hearts Academies charter, are part of an effort to lure top charter schools into the city, and not just into the low-income neighborhoods where charters are traditionally found. San Antonio and the surrounding Bexar County are served by 17 independent school districts,

he rise in middle-class students attending charter schools is largely masked by the overall growth of charter schools: over the last five years, the number of charter schools has grown nationally from 4,690 to just over 6,000. There are now 43 communities where at least 20 percent of the students attend charters, reports the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Most of that growth is found in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods such as those in Los Angeles. Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of suburban charters actually fell from 25 to 21 percent of the total. Thus, what’s happening in San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Denver, and cities across the country remains hidden.

There are some compelling reasons why growth in charters that appeal to middle-class parents is likely to continue. As researchers have documented (see “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests,” features, Fall 2014), even middle-class and suburban parents have reason to find fault with their schools. And while most still trust their local schools, those who don’t are enough to fill schools such as BASIS and Great Hearts.

Changing the Game in San Antonio

BASIS Schools and Great Hearts Academies were the obvious choices, and they quickly set up San Antonio operations (BASIS in 2013 and Great Hearts in 2014) that they plan to expand. Their schools couldn’t be more different. BASIS, which offers students a chance to pursue world-class academics at their own pace, also grants its students (and teachers) world-class freedoms. Wear what your mood that morning dictates and express yourself loudly in the hallways and cafeteria seem to be the rules. Considering the heavy homework load at these schools, the trade-off seems fair.At Great Hearts Monte Vista, also in San Antonio, students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books.

By contrast, Great Hearts students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books. Found on each classroom wall are the Great Hearts nine “core virtues”: humility, integrity, friendship, perseverance, wisdom, courage, responsibility, honesty, and citizenship.

At Great Hearts, prospective teachers are first reviewed for their character. At BASIS, teachers are first reviewed for their content knowledge; PhDs are not uncommon (see “High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools,” features, Winter 2014). But while the schools have radically different feels, what I found interesting was the number of parents with one child in BASIS and another in Great Hearts. To them, what mattered most were the highly rigorous academics. After that, choosing a school was more about the personal style of the child.

As I discovered in my interviewing, there’s an unexpected sweet spot for charters: middle-class parents who are desperate for a curriculum that will challenge their bored sons and daughters but who are unable or unwilling to pay private school tuitions (see “The Right Choice” sidebar below). For those parents, schools such as BASIS may lack lush soccer fields, but the academics equal or surpass those of many private schools, all at the right price: free.

Anyone expecting these schools to be white enclaves will be surprised. At the two BASIS schools, 36 percent of the students are white, 33 percent Hispanic, and 24 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. The schools appear to be especially appealing to South Asian families. At Great Hearts, about half the students are white; few are Asian. This school attracts a great many middle-class Hispanics, including families who want their children to be part of the next-generation San Antonio leadership. The metropolitan area is about 55 percent Hispanic.

Intentionally Diverse Schools

That diversity was achieved by building a regional coalition that includes two suburban communities, Lincoln and Cumberland, and two urban, Central Falls and Pawtucket. A lottery pulls equal numbers from all four, but the lottery is also weighted toward low-income students.

Blackstone is an ideal school for answering a key question: do charters that serve a socioeconomic mix of students look and feel different from charters that target only low-income students? In short, yes. Leslie Royal, a BVP parent who works as dean of operations at a Blackstone elementary school, previously worked at an urban “no excuses” charter school. That strict culture was appropriate for the students there, she said, but not necessarily for her son. “Many middle-class parents who are relatively successful in their fields know how to prep their kids to start kindergarten and what experiences they need to expose them to for their kids to be well-rounded, and eventually get to college (for example, trips to museums and zoos). In my experience at an urban no-excuses school, the rigid discipline and structures we put in place allowed us to focus on the urgent academic intervention that our students there desperately needed. Our focus was closing the achievement gap, which meant that academics were the most important thing.” Royal had no hesitations about enrolling her son at Blackstone.

Unlike Blackstone, E. L. Haynes Public Charter School is subject to the same lottery used by all charters in Washington, D.C., which forbids weighting that would allow them to favor some students over others. That said, from its beginnings in 2004, Haynes founder Jennifer Niles was determined to both educate underserved students and preserve racial and socioeconomic diversity. “She didn’t think we should be working toward having a community that was racially and socioeconomically segregated,” said Rich Pohlman, acting head of school. (In December 2014, Niles was appointed D.C.’s deputy mayor for education.)

Leaders at Haynes, however, are not giving up on boosting diversity in the upper grades. “This is the first year for our senior class,” said Pohlman. “It’s the first year where we’ll have proof points about where kids go to college. After a few years of that, I anticipate having the demographics become more stable.”