School Choice & Charters

Hands-On Learning

October 09, 2007 10 min read
Timothy F.C. Knowles, the executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement, oversees the University of Chicago’s charter school effort.
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About a mile from the University of Chicago campus, on this city’s South Side, a group of 10th graders gathered one recent school day for their Latin II class. Clapping their hands and tapping their feet in a hip-hop rhythm, they chanted the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Their teacher, classics scholar Preston C. Edwards, read the verse aloud in the ancient language, line by line, and his students repeated each refrain. Last school year, the teenagers produced a video in which they recited the Latin rules of grammar to a hip-hop beat. The approach has helped them learn a subject that even many college students find daunting.

To Mr. Edwards, who also teaches at the University of Chicago, learning Latin has many benefits. But there’s an extra reason he teaches it at this public school, where most students are from low-income families and almost all are African-American.

Preston C. Edwards, above at right, uses hip-hop rhythm to help teach Latin grammar to his 10th graders at the University of Chicago Charter School-Woodlawn Campus, on the city’s South Side.

“I want to give them something people don’t expect them to have,” he said. Latin isn’t typically taught these days in inner-city public schools. But then again, the University of Chicago Charter School-Woodlawn Campus, which opened a year ago, is not your typical school.

It’s one of a small but growing number of charter schools nationwide operated by higher education institutions. The University of Chicago now holds the charter for and runs four of the independent public schools. It hopes eventually to open another elementary school.

Others that have started their own charters include Stanford University, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of New Orleans.

A sizable number of other universities, meanwhile, are playing a different role in the charter sector by serving as authorizers, the entities that grant charters and hold schools accountable for meeting their terms, rather than directly running the schools.

As a charter school operator, the University of Chicago is investing considerable resources in the venture, in faculty time and expertise, back-office support, and fundraising. It’s also putting the highly selective university’s good name on the line. The goal is to ensure every student has the chance to go on to—and succeed in—college.

Not everyone thinks the university is putting its resources in the right place. Sandra L. Schultz, the education issues coordinator at the Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said she respects the University of Chicago’s long-standing work to improve education, but would prefer that it not start new charter schools.

“We feel that in order to be effective, they don’t have to open their own schools, per se,” she said.

But university leaders say the enterprise makes sense for plenty of reasons, from a strong alignment with its research agenda to a desire to help the many disadvantaged students in neighboring communities and share lessons with other urban schools.

“America has some of the best universities and the most robust higher education institutions in the world, and unfortunately, some of the most problematic K-12 schools serving poor kids,” said Timothy F.C. Knowles, the executive director of the University of Chicago Center for Urban School Improvement, which is overseeing the charter effort. “The university recognized that this wasn’t actually so off-mission to be so seriously engaged in the direct oversight and management of schools.”

‘History of Distrust’

The University of Chicago’s roots in running schools go back more than a century. In 1896, just six years after the university’s founding, the education philosopher John Dewey launched a school, now known as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, designed as a place where his educational theories could be tried out and evaluated.

The school remains on campus to this day, as a highly regarded private school that charges annual tuition reaching $20,000 at the high school level.

College Connections

U.S. universities are opening and operating a small but increasing number of charter schools.

• Coppin University
• Howard University
• Stanford University
• University of California, San Diego
• University of Chicago
• University of Dayton
• University of Houston
• University of New Orleans
• University of Texas at Austin

SOURCE: Center for Education Reform

The University of Chicago entered the tuition-free charter sector in 1998, when it opened the elementary school that is now its North Kenwood/Oakland (NKO) Main Campus. Over the past two years, the effort has expanded considerably, and now includes four campuses in neighborhoods near the university, all run under one charter.

Tension has long existed between the prestigious university and the surrounding community, which is predominantly home to low-income black families, though some neighborhoods are becoming increasingly gentrified.

“There is a history of distrust,” said Jared I. Washington, the director of the North Kenwood/Oakland Middle School Campus. He said the charter effort is “sort of giving people a new lens by which they can view the university.”

The university is also working with the 415,000-student Chicago school district to incubate and support—but not directly run—15 other schools. Mr. Knowles says that effort extends the university’s reach, and aims to show that its ideas can succeed beyond a small set of university-run schools.

The charter expansion follows the university’s decision to disband its education department in 2001. The closing followed a review that raised questions about the quality of the department’s research and its commitment to teaching.

Robert J. Zimmer, the university’s president, said the trick for higher education institutions in operating charter schools is to ensure a close alignment with faculty interests, solid support from the university’s leadership, and a strong partnership with the local school system.“You need to really go into it with your eyes open,” he said.

Johnny B. Dorsey, a college counselor at the school, talks with a student at lunch.

For his own school, “the charters offer what I would say is an applied expression of our scholarly work,” Mr. Zimmer said, “and does it in a way that makes a significant contribution to the city’s efforts to improve education.” The University of Chicago’s imprint on the schools is apparent in various ways. “In those schools, our ideas reign, and we put our ideas to a test,” said Stephen W. Raudenbush, a sociology professor at the university and the head of its interdisciplinary Committee on Education.

Raising Extra Money

The schools share a core educational philosophy that emphasizes a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum; a blend of whole-class, small-group, and individualized instruction; and ample project-based learning.

The university has developed its own, more refined grade- and subject-specific standards for the schools, aligned with state standards. The schools feature an extended school day and academic year, as well as mandatory summer school for students who miss key academic benchmarks.

Three campuses use math curricula developed at the university. The schools regularly track students’ academic progress with diagnostic assessments. All students in 6th grade or above receive laptops through a one-to-one computer initiative developed at the Center for Urban School Improvement.

Town and Gown

The University of Chicago runs four charter school campuses on the city’s South Side, with plans to eventually open a fifth. All the campuses operate under a single charter approved by the Chicago school district.


1,107 children, grades pre-K-10 (eventually pre-K-12)
98 percent African-American
78 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunches

The university places a premium on teacher professional development. It also uses the charters as a training ground for teachers in its recently launched alternative-certification program. In their second year, candidates serve a clinical residency, working alongside classrooms teachers at the NKO elementary (and other Chicago public schools)—a program that will soon include all the university’s charter schools.


North Kenwood/Oakland Main Campus:
Opened: Fall 1998
Grades: Pre-K-5
Attendance Area: All of Chicago

North Kenwood/Oakland Middle School Campus
Opened: Fall 2006 (previously was part of main campus)
Grades: 6-8
Attendance Area: All of Chicago

Donoghue Campus
Opened: Fall 2005
Grades: Pre-K-5
Attendance Area: All of Chicago, with priority to certain neighborhoods

Woodlawn Campus
Opened: Fall 2006
Grades: 6-7 and 9-10 (eventually 6-12)
Attendance Area: All of Chicago, with priority to certain neighborhoods

SOURCE: University of Chicago

The university brings extra cash to the table through major fundraising: about $1,000 to $2,000 per student. On average, the schools receive about $7,300 per child for elementary and middle students in combined local, state, and federal funds, and $8,300 for high schoolers, Mr. Knowles said. “We think it’s really hard to do this well … with just the public money we get,” he said.

If the schools succeed over time, he argues, that performance may convince policymakers of the value of higher funding, carefully targeted, for urban schools in Chicago and beyond.

Principals at the University of Chicago charters, who say they enjoy considerable autonomy, describe the institution’s role as a real plus.

“The biggest benefit is the people who are at the university—their ideas, their willingness to collaborate,” said Barbara Crock, the director of the Woodlawn campus.

The schools’ leaders say the university’s heavy involvement has a few drawbacks, though, such as sometimes slowing the pace of action.

“Their sense of time is much longer,” said Ms. Crock. “They have many more systems to work through.”

Efforts Elsewhere

While university-run charters remain rare, more are emerging.

Stanford University, for example, now runs two charters serving mainly low-income Hispanic students. “Schools of education are often criticized for being in an ivory tower,” said Deborah J. Stipek, the dean of Stanford’s school of education. “This teaches humility fast.”

Stanford’s first charter, a high school that Ms. Stipek said serves mostly English-language learners, has shown steady growth on test scores over the past several years. It posted a rating of 6 out of a possible 10 in 2006, up from 3 the prior year, among California schools with similar student demographics on the state’s test-based Academic Performance Index.

Data on the newer University of Chicago charters is limited, but the original NKO elementary school recently posted stronger test results than schools with a comparable student population. A composite measure of reading and math scores shows that 71 percent of students met or exceeded state standards during the 2005-06 school year, compared with 51 percent in a comparison group of city schools, according to a Chicago district report.

Also, the NKO elementary charter showed substantial growth in its combined reading and math score from 2002 to 2006. Yet academic growth from 2004-05 to 2005-06 was higher at the comparison schools than at the NKO charter, the report said. Preliminary 2007 data shows that the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards in reading dropped to 64.4 percent, from 69.0 percent the year before; in math, the figure was 76.9 percent, compared with 78.7 percent in 2006.

Beyond test scores, university officials said, new data suggest that at least 85 percent of students who finished the 8th grade at the NKO charter in 2002 have since graduated from high school, a rate well above the city average.

Henry M. Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, based at Teachers College, Columbia University, said that if universities running charters study their experiences closely, they may produce valuable lessons. Yet he suggested that they bring unique advantages that are hard to replicate.

Beyond the fundraising prowess of universities, he said, their intellectual capital is a powerful force, and a charter school run by the University of Chicago surely attracts top teachers.

“Can you imagine how sought-after a school like this is among your best teachers?” Mr. Levin said.

Randomized Study Started

Mr. Knowles, a former deputy superintendent of the Boston public schools, said he’s confident the university will produce lessons that are transferable to other urban schools.

“What’s important is what we learn from what we’re doing and the transferability of what we learn,” he said. “How we use people, how we use time, how we use the dollars we get.”

The university is undertaking a major research effort tied to its charter schools. Because they generally use lotteries to select students, it is collecting data on a comparison group of students who were not admitted. That approach will produce what Mr. Knowles calls a “real randomized experiment.” The goal is to study not only measures such as test scores, but also to follow students beyond high school to see how their K-12 schooling affects them later in life.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the charter schools.

The Woodlawn campus, which is growing to serve grades 6-12, has just doubled in size. It has 110 new 9th graders from 46 previous schools.

On Day 11 of the new year, Ms. Crock said she was working to inculcate in new students the school’s high expectations for appropriate behavior.

“A lot of our students haven’t figured that out on their own,” she said.

Violence in this inner-city community also remains a hard fact of life. Earlier that week, a 10th grader was accosted by teenagers from outside the school trying to steal his laptop computer before teachers intervened.

Despite the challenges, several parents and students said they believe the charters offer real hope.

“My mom, she said this was going to be the best [school] to get me into college,” said Melvin L. Fouch, a Woodlawn 9th grader. “Just having the name, University of Chicago, in the title. ... It’s associated with a great college.”

Parent Terry Shank said his 7th grade daughter is doing much better at Woodlawn than at her previous school. “I put her name in a lottery,” he said, “and I thank God they pulled her name.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.


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