Paul Tough, whose blog on education is rapidly becoming one of our favorites, writes about some of the challenges facing New Haven's Amistad High School. Amistad is part of the Achievement First network of high-performing charter schools and opened two years ago to serve students coming out of Amistad Academy middle school. Amistad Academy is one of the highest performing open admission public middle schools in New Haven, despite its predominantly low-income, minority student population. Yet even as the middle school's students demonstrate excellent academic achievement, many are still struggling to cope with the rigorous standards of Amistad's new high school program. One potential problem: Even though Amistad students learn a lot in middle school, academic deficits from the poor quality elementary schools they attended may hinder their progress in high school. Tough writes:
My guess is that whatever difficulties Amistad's high-school students are now facing can be traced back to their experiences before reaching Amistad. As at most high-performing low-income middle schools, students generally have been arriving in fifth grade at Amistad performing well below grade level. Amistad's intensive methods are usually able to propel those students to grade level and above in just a few years. But it may be that the early academic deficits those students experienced have some lingering aftereffects that will make high levels of achievement a continuing challenge for them at every stage.
Indeed. Several founders of "no excuses"charter schools--or whatever Richard Whitmire eventually decided we should call academically demanding charter schools that get strong achievement results serving virtually all-minority, high-poverty student populations--originally set out to serve middle and high school students, because they saw kids slipping through the cracks during those years. But many have realized that there are inherent limitations of starting that late, when students are already far behind, and have begun turning their sights towards the earlier years, with the hope that, by starting earlier, they can produce youngsters who get to their flagship middle and high schools better prepared to succeed there.
Achievement First, for instance, started with a single middle school, Amistad Academy, in 1999. But, as Tough notes, the organization now operates a network of charter schools that now includes elementary, middle, and high schools, allowing youngsters to move in a seamless "conveyor belt" through Achievement First schools from kindergarten through high school. Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), is best known for operating high-performing middle schools serving disadvatnaged kids, but KIPP also begun opening elementary school campuses that start serving children as young as pre-k. KIPP currently operates 7 elementaries--3 of which are new this year--in Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Similarly, DC Prep, a high-performing District of Columbia Charter School that opened in 2003 as a 4th through 8th grade middle school, last year opened an elementary school campus that begins at age 3.
Expansion of these high-performing networks into elementary school is a positive step that expands the supply of quality elementary schools in the communities that most need them. Many of these operators would be doing even more if they weren't hindered by numerous obstacles, such as caps on the number of charter schools that can be opened in a particular city or state, zoning regulations that make it difficult to find locations for elementary school buildings, and so on. As I've written previously, charter school operators who want to offer pre-k--as both KIPP and DC Prep do--face additional obstacles, including lack of state funding for pre-k programs and difficulty accessing state pre-k funds that flow to school districts. KIPP's New Orleans and D.C. campuses have access to good state pre-k funding streams, but their Texas campus that offers pre-k has to struggle to cobble together funds from a variety of sources. Achievement First is located in Connecticut, a state where all pre-k funding flows through districts and there isn't that much to start with, and New York, a state that doesn't allow charter schools to offer pre-k at all (even as there is a lack of capacity to serve children in the state's universal pre-k program!).
It's exciting to see more "no excuses" charter school operators turning their sights to elementary and early education. Now it's time for policymakers to take advantage of that interest by getting out of the way and ensuring these groups with strong track records can access early education resources.