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Volume 18, Number 1
January/February 2002

Using Charters to Improve Urban Schools

Two university-run programs are taking advantage of flexible charter school laws in an effort to raise minority achievement


Charter schools were originally intended as pilot sites, laboratories where educators could try to solve the most vexing problems facing U.S. education. Critics of charters say that experiment has failed—that the schools have, on the whole, yet to produce the successful innovations promised by charter boosters.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: both charter schools and traditional schools offer examples of the best and worst of public education. However, in certain cases charter laws have given university researchers the opportunity to develop experimental schools that offer examples of how the resources of higher education in research, teaching, and management can be marshaled to promote effective K-12 reform.

This article profiles two such programs—in San Diego and Chicago—where researchers have used charter schools to wage one of the most persistent battles U.S. schools must face: the relatively low achievement of poor and minority students. Programs used in both schools are showing positive results and are providing models for other public schools in those cities. The promise shown by these schools is worth noting, both for charter school advocates and their critics alike: given the right support, even children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds may be able to succeed academically.

San Diego: College Prep

The end of affirmative action-based admissions at the University of California (UC) in 1997 sent shock waves through the state's entire education system. Many worried that African American and Latino students, who were already attending college at lower rates than their white and Asian American counterparts, would be further disadvantaged.

The change prompted Hugh Mehan at UC-San Diego to create a charter school on his campus specifically aimed at helping low-income students from inner-city San Diego prepare for college. "A group of us recognized that we'd have even less diversity among our students unless we did something," says Mehan, a sociology professor. The result: the Preuss School UCSD, which opened in 1999.

From the moment students arrive at the Preuss School on the UCSD campus they are given a clear message: they will prepare for college, they will be accepted, and they will succeed in college. For many, it's the first time they've heard such a message. Tenth-grade English teacher Jan Gabay remarks: "It's like in a family where going to college is a given. You know you're going to do it somehow."

To qualify for the charter school, students must be eligible for the federal school lunch program, come from families in which neither parent earned a bachelor's degree, and demonstrate motivation in their previous work. Mehan says he made sure it was legal for a public charter school to use such criteria before founding the school. The resulting student body is 54 percent Hispanic, 25 percent African American, 20 percent Asian American, and 13 percent white.

Gabay says there's a more serious academic atmosphere at Preuss than at other San Diego high schools she's worked in, due in part to the fact that students are required to take the curriculum necessary for entrance into the University of California system. They also stay in school until the end of July—25 extra days—and spend an extra hour in school every day. "At my old school, these were the kids who fell through the cracks," says Gabay, who now teaches 25 students in a class, down from 38 in her previous school. "They wouldn't be in the advanced, college preparatory classes. But here, we don't let anyone get lost."

Those underpinnings are provided by AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), a rigorous, "untracking" program first used in nearby San Diego high schools in 1980 to prepare underachieving students for college. Early on, the students learn the Cornell note-taking system, in which they write their notes on one side of the page and their questions about the work on the other. Every other day, those questions become the focus of a two-hour advisory session, during which the students work one-on-one with tutors from the university and a teacher.

The exercise is intended to expose students to the types of questions they should ask in college classes. As the students advance—the oldest are in 10th grade this year—the advisory class will include standardized-test preparation and assistance with college admissions. AVID coordinators act like advisors at elite prep schools who visit colleges, make numerous phone calls, and compile elaborate dossiers on behalf of their students, says Mehan.

Mehan insisted on using the AVID system in the Preuss School after seeing its success elsewhere. His research group compared 353 students in 14 San Diego high schools who spent three years in the AVID program with 288 students who left after one year. Overall, 48 percent of the AVID students attended a four-year college, compared to 37 percent of their classmates in San Diego and 39 percent nationwide in 1990.

The findings are even more striking among minority students: 55 percent of African American students who spent three years in AVID pursued a bachelor's degree versus 38 percent of African Americans in San Diego and 33 percent nationwide. And among the Preuss School's largest population, Latino students, 43 percent enrolled in four-year colleges after three years of AVID, compared to 25 percent in San Diego overall and 29 percent nationally. "Our data show that such students are not necessarily trapped by their social circumstances," wrote Mehan.

Parents play a key role at Preuss. The school holds regular classes to introduce them to the basics of college preparation. "We teach them how to check their children's notes, how to access information about college, and what kind of support children need once they get there," says principal Doris Alvarez.

She also gives parents a reading assignment—copies of a U.S. Department of Education report, "Students Whose Parents Did Not Go to College: Postsecondary Access, Persistence and Attainment." The study analyzed data from three of the department's national longitudinal studies and found that 49 percent of graduates whose parents had no college experience were unqualified for admission to a four-year college. By contrast, only 15 percent of students whose parents earned bachelor's degrees were unqualified. The study also found that an academically challenging high school program can reverse that trend.
Parent Theresa Aviles has appreciated the school's candor. "Here, they tell us the truth—your child needs a 3.0 to go to the University of California. We know we have to help them maintain that."

Another advantage to the Preuss School is its location on UCSD's La Jolla campus. The charter school is sending its first group into the college classroom this year, enrolling six of its 10th graders in a pre-calculus course. Mehan says they expect every student will be taking courses on campus by their senior year.
"There's a huge psychological barrier to get kids from southeast San Diego to go to UCSD," says education professor Randall Souviney. "That's the biggest benefit of this school—they can walk across the campus and play on our fields and it makes it a less scary place. That's our hope, anyway."

Chicago: A Focus on Literacy

At the University of Chicago, another new charter school aimed at raising underachievement has grown out of some of the successes—and frustrations—of a teacher professional development partnership with the city's schools. The university's Center for School Improvement has led literacy-based inservice programs for teachers in ten struggling Chicago elementary schools for the past 12 years. But center director Anthony Bryk says the progress has been slow. "We felt part of what made it slow was a crisis of imagination. These teachers hadn't seen a school organized and functioning in the ways we described," says Bryk.

That realization provided the impetus for the North Kenwood Oakland Professional Development Charter School, a pre-K through 8th grade, predominantly African American school, which opened in 1998 and serves as a demonstration site for its neighbors. "This is the pure form of what we developed in the district schools, where it couldn't be implemented 100 percent because of bureaucratic constraints," says co-founder Marv Hoffman, the school's director of curriculum and instruction. "We have the flexibility to design programs and structure the school day without those constraints."

The charter school's primary educational focus has been literacy, with a model program that requires every student to spend three hours each morning reading and writing. For example, in teacher Amanda Djikas' classroom, the day begins with 15 minutes of quiet reading for her 36 kindergartners and 1st graders. Then, most of the class spreads out to literacy work centers around the room. There's an assignment at each one—they might write in their journals, create stories on the computer, or read books from a basket especially created for their reading level. "We spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year teaching them how to sit and work alone," says Djikas, who team-teaches the class with another teacher.

Hoffman says the ultimate goal of the exercises is to achieve reading and writing independence. A Center for School Improvement study conducted by researchers David Kerbow, Julia Gwynne, and Brian Jacob suggests that this "balanced literacy" program has been effective. The group studied seven district schools that used the literacy framework from 1996 through 1998 and found that students in classrooms where teachers had more fully implemented the framework had "significantly higher scores" on reading ability measures than those in classrooms with low levels of implementation. For example, score gains for kindergartners in "high implementation" classrooms were 35 percent greater than for those in "low implementation" settings.

Hoffman says it took two years to establish a solid literacy framework in the North Kenwood Oakland school. Then in the winter of 2001 they officially opened their doors as a professional development lab, allowing teachers from other district schools to learn about ways they could improve their literacy instruction. School founder Bryk says this outreach to other Chicago teachers who serve large numbers of disadvantaged students is one of North Kenwood's most important missions.

"We're trying to invent a new institution where senior staff of the school are like the clinical professors in a teaching hospital," says Bryk. "So we designed a professional development school that would be a superb place of learning for children and adults."

Fifth-grade teacher Angela Thomas was part of the first group to attend North Kenwood's professional development lab. After filling out an application stating her goals for the two-week sabbatical, Thomas was paired with a senior teacher at the charter school who visited her classroom before and after the laboratory experience. During the two-week training, Thomas spent her morning observing the school's three-hour literacy block, then quizzed the teacher about her methods over lunch. "It gives you an accurate picture of how this teacher deals with real-life situations—you're not just reading a book about the ideal situation," says Thomas. "You see how she deals with the unexpected."

It will be some time before researchers can document what, if any, long-term impact the North Kenwood program will have on the professional practice of the teachers it serves. But Hoffmann and Bryk are confident that just getting teachers to think about their instructional methods and observe master teachers will almost certainly lead to improved classroom practice—whether that happens in a charter school or a traditional public school.

Karen Kelly writes from Ottawa, Ontario. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Center for Education Reform, 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 204, Washington, DC 20036; 202-822-9000; fax: 202-822-5077; e-mail:

Center for School Improvement
, University of Chicago, 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637; 773-702-3645; fax: 773-702-2010.

S. Choy. "Students Whose Parents Did Not Go to College: Postsecondary Access, Persistence, and Attainment." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2001.

D. Kerbow, J. Gwynne, and B. Jacob. "Implementation of a Balanced Literacy Framework and Student Learning: Implications for Program Development." Chicago: University of Chicago Center for School Improvement, 2001.

H. Mehan. "Tracking Untracking: The Consequences of Placing Low-Track Students in High-Track Classes," in Race, Ethnicity, and Multiculturalism: Policy and Practice, ed. P. Hall. New York: Garland, 1997.

North Kenwood Oakland Professional Development Charter School, 4611 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60653; 773-753-9906; fax: 773-753-9935.

Preuss School UCSD, 9500 Gilman Dr. #0536, La Jolla, CA 92092-0536; 858-658-7400; Fax: 858-658-0988; e-mail: