School & District Management Opinion

What Diverse Charter Schools Do Differently

By Priscilla Wohlstetter, Matthew M. Gonzales & Amy K. Wang — June 27, 2016 6 min read
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With the arrival of charter schools in the early 1990s, skeptics predicted they would skim off the best and brightest students from traditional public schools, creating a two-tiered system. As the charter movement spread to include 43 states and the District of Columbia, researchers were surprised to learn that charter schools enrolled students in predominantly urban areas who had not been well served by traditional public schools. That was the good news. The bad news was that charter schools, like other public schools across the United States, were often isolated by race.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 that school district enrollment plans that relied too heavily on a student’s race were unconstitutional. The ruling and subsequent regulations from the U.S. departments of Education and Justice brought socioeconomic status and parental educational attainment to the forefront of the diversity conversation. A growing number of charter schools and charter networks are now implementing programs to achieve such diversity.


While the student population enrolled in diverse charters has grown significantly—to about 25,000 K-12 students, according to one adviser at the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools—little empirical research on such schools has been conducted.

How do charter schools achieve diversity? How are approaches to teaching and learning different in these schools, and with what effects? To answer these questions, we at Teachers College are conducting a landmark study of 21 charter schools and charter networks that have an explicit commitment to diversity in their schools’ missions.

One of our first questions was to consider why these charter schools prioritize diversity. In many cases, the founders hold diversity as a valued good—one that represents a broadly democratic ideal and is worth pursuing on its own merits. As the founder of a charter management organization in Rhode Island told us, “The most powerful thing you can do for kids is to put them in a seat, studying and learning, next to a student from a different background with different life experiences.” We were surprised to learn that white, privileged families were attracted to the progressive education programs of diverse charters, so outreach and recruitment targeted low-income families, including, for example, through Head Start programs.

Charter schools design their own education programs, and, yes, they do decide to do things differently from traditional public schools. For one thing, there are high expectations for all students. Most diverse charter schools we studied offer a college-prep curriculum for every student. Some of the charter high schools offer an open-enrollment honors program, which allows students to opt in; others require all students to take a few designated Advanced Placement classes.

Are diverse charter schools the wave of the future in public education?"

We did not find ability tracking in any of our sample elementary, middle, or high schools. Teachers used personalized learning plans, differentiated instruction, and computer-assisted learning and assessments. A high school principal in Rhode Island described the benefits of this more personalized approach: “Our teaching strategies allow students to dictate at what pace they learn. If a kid is particularly strong in a class, they can move ahead. If a kid needs more time because they struggle with computation or writing, they can continue to work on concepts until they’re mastered.”

The diverse charter schools in our sample also differ from some traditional public schools in the disciplinary methods they use. Explained one academic leader in New Orleans: “We take a restorative-justice approach, which is less punitive. We focus more on how the event affects our community and less about the act committed.”

Other diverse charters invented their own disciplinary approaches. When one Washington, D.C., high school principal noticed that more girls of color were referred for disciplinary reasons, the school started a gender retreat—an overnight event for female students to hear outside speakers and participate in empowerment activities. After the first year, the girls requested similar programs during the school year, and a monthly event, Girl Code, was birthed. “Now after three years,” the principal told us, “these activities turned on the light bulb in terms of the girls’ behavior. We haven’t suspended anyone this year—down from six last year—and we rarely use detention.”

What other effects have the founders and leaders of diverse charter school observed? At the elementary and middle school levels, all school leaders noted high levels of parent engagement across all racial and socioeconomic groups. One of the larger CMOs in California and Washington state improved family access by locating schools near public-transportation hubs and providing free metro cards and personalized transportation plans.

Other diverse charters rely on building community within the school. As the director of community development at a New York City charter explained: “Since we are not a neighborhood school, families don’t necessarily see each other once they leave school.” This K-8 school created family nights, where families come together for art, music, and sports activities held on campus in the early evenings. Some families volunteer to participate, while others are recruited to balance the groups’ racial and socioeconomic makeup. This school also created play dates for K-3 students, bringing together small groups of kids and their families outside school. For adults, the school sponsors workshops and events, which include cooking classes and book clubs.

Such social engineering has proved effective in producing new community relationships. In our surveys of students, the majority across all family income levels agreed that they have a diverse group of friends and that they often hang out with kids from different backgrounds outside school. This finding was confirmed in the parent survey: Parents reported that their children often socialized at school with students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

In closing, our findings suggest that integration at diverse charters is authentic, at least in the 21 schools we studied. But is there evidence of its impact on student achievement? While still preliminary, some upticks have emerged from our data. First, diverse charter schools that have been around longer, especially elementary schools, are among the top performers when compared to traditional public schools in both English/language arts and mathematics. The older CMOs serving high school students earned bragging rights, too: high levels of proficiency in reading and math on state tests and high percentages of graduating seniors accepted into a four-year college or university. One diverse high school ranked in the top 20 percent of all public high schools in its state and third among schools serving students with disabilities.

Are diverse charter schools the wave of the future in public education? By definition, schools of choice located in urban neighborhoods have the flexibility to enroll diverse students by drawing from different communities outside attendance areas that have high concentrations of poverty—an option not available to traditional public schools.

Until all public schools have this option, the likelihood of achieving socioeconomic integration in urban schools seems very dim indeed.

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