California Charters Among Best for Low-Income Kids

Published March 1, 2009

Twelve of California’s 15 highest-performing schools serving primarily low-income children are charter schools, according to the 2008 Academic Performance Index (API), an annual state testing measurement.

Of the 12 top-performing charter schools, five are in Oakland, three in Los Angeles County, two in Santa Clara County, and one each in San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

“A lot of these schools are in some of the toughest areas of California,” said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). “The only traditional public schools on the list were elementary schools. The [charter] middle and high schools traditionally outperform their [conventional] public school counterparts. Charter schools have a lower dropout rate.”

Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, said even though California charter schools serve a higher percentage of low-income students than do other public schools, “we’re just leaving [those] public schools in the dust.”

Best Practices

The two top-performing schools were Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter School and American Indian Public High School, also a charter. American Indian Public Charter School II ranked fifth on the report.

“Our model of success at American Indian is simple,” said founder Ben Chavis, who attributes the school’s success to an emphasis on fundamental reading and math instruction. “Our kids do a minimum of an hour and a half of math and language arts every day, along with two hours of homework. We have high expectations for our students and provide them with the structure and accountability they need to succeed.”

Disadvantages Overcome

The top public schools at each grade level for children in poverty were all charter schools, according to CCSA, the membership and professional organization serving California’s more-than 700 charter public schools. Together, charters serve more than 250,000 students statewide.

“These results show that charter schools are opening doors of opportunity for California’s most under-served students and [are] effectively advancing them on the path to academic success,” said CCSA Interim CEO Peter Thorp. “These exemplary charter schools should be studied and their best practices replicated in the broader public school system so that more under-served children can benefit.”

“This report should confirm just how well charter schools are doing academically with kids from low-income families,” Larson added.

Faster Implementation

“Charter schools are funded at about 85 percent of the level of traditional public schools, but are still easily outperforming them,” Bonsteel said. Unlike other public schools, charters are accountable to parents and are more free to choose teachers without union red tape, he noted. That helps account for their greater success in raising academic achievement.

“They have a great deal of freedom in choosing their teachers,” Bonsteel said. “A lot of studies show that the most important thing in the success of a student is the quality of the teacher.”

Phillip J. Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.