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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

Attend These Charter Schools. Leave With College Credentials

Most attendees are first-generation college students who receive support as they navigate the challenges of higher ed.
By Rick Hess — March 30, 2023 6 min read
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There’s much talk about the need to tackle college costs, student debt, and the quality of career and technical education. The Greater Educational Opportunities (GEO) Foundation launched in 1998 with an eye to tackling these challenges. GEO charter schools seek to have K-12 students graduate with college credentials. They serve nearly 4,000 primarily low-income students in Indiana and Louisiana. Because the GEO model seems especially relevant today, I thought it’d be useful to chat with the president and founder, Kevin Teasley. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Can you share a bit about the work of GEO Academies?

Kevin: GEO Academies are powered by the GEO Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 1998 from my living room with a mission to empower low-income families with real school choice. We advocate for all forms of choice, and when Indiana passed a charter law in 2001, we started one of the state’s first charters. Today, we have eight schools: seven charters and one statewide private online voucher-redeeming school. Collectively, we will serve nearly 4,000 students in Baton Rouge, La., and Indianapolis and Gary, Ind., this year.

Rick: What prompted you to launch this effort?

Kevin: I attended public schools, but when I worked with D.C. and L.A. schools in my role at a public policy think tank, the schools I saw looked nothing like the ones I attended. Most families who could leave these schools did, and those who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere were stuck. That’s not right. So, I got into the school choice movement in 1989, led California’s Prop 174 campaign in 1993, started the American Education Reform Foundation (now American Federation for Children) in 1996, and have started private scholarship programs after that. I started the GEO Foundation in 1998 to get back to grassroots organizing. In 2001, I got tired of just talking about choice and started a school in Indianapolis. Then invitations came in from Gary and Louisiana.

Rick: What’s distinctive about GEO schools?

Kevin: We practice school choice on steroids. We focus on student choices and help them get as much education out of the public dollar as possible. By that I mean we help our students earn K-14 and K-16 results with K-12 dollars. We cover 100 percent of college costs, too. We do this because most of the students we serve are first-generation college students. They need more than talk about the importance of college; they need to experience it. They need to be shown they are college capable. Our goal is not for them to simply go to college: We want them to complete college. We help them do that before graduating from our high schools, so they can lean on our academic and social supports. Our teachers check in with our students on their academic work, and our counselors keep track of their social and emotional supports as well as credits earned toward college degrees.

Rick: That sounds complicated. How does that work practically—combining your high school program with colleges?

Kevin: We have developed relationships with and provide transportation to various universities and community colleges to allow our students to take real college courses on their campuses. We provide a summer bridge/orientation program to introduce our students to all things college. Our students earn the right to take college courses by passing college-entrance exams. If they fail the test, we remediate. If they pass, they start taking courses that add up to a degree and count for high school credit.

Rick: So, like AP classes, is this mostly a matter of acquiring credits?

Kevin: Our college-immersion program offers dual degrees, not just dual credits. Students earn real college credits and degrees on real college campuses while in our high schools. One student in the program earned a full bachelor’s, and now, others are following in her footsteps. We believe placing our students on real college campuses is 50 percent of the value of our program: Students will learn time management, self-discipline, as well as how to work with others who are different from them. They learn how to navigate the college campus, the registrar’s office, college professors, and more. They learn all this with the program’s daily support.

Rick: What are some of the results to date?

Kevin: Our graduation rates are higher than the local, traditional high school—in the case of the 21st Century Charter School, their graduation rate is higher by 30 points (91 percent versus Gary Community School Corporation’s 62 percent) and beats the state average of 87 percent. Additionally, our college and career readiness rating, as calculated by the Indiana Department of Education, is 50 points higher than the local school (89 percent versus Gary Community School Corporation’s 38 percent)—again beating the state average (68 percent). More rigor, more experience, and better results from an urban population that is 100 percent minority and low-income. Our students are earning associate degrees, and now, we are starting to see students push themselves to earn bachelor’s degrees. One student did it in 2017, and we have two on track to do it in 2024: Abram at Purdue University Northwest (PNW) and Khaya at Indiana University Northwest (IUN), and five more are on track to achieve this goal by 2025.

Rick: How much does this cost, for students and to operate the schools?

Kevin: That’s the beautiful thing about our program. The students pay nothing. Taxpayers pay no more, either. The nation wants it, and our K-16 model provides free college already. We cover college tuition, textbooks, transportation, and social and academic supports. It cost our Gary school more than $500,000 last year, and that was a steal we budgeted for. In return for that $500,000, our students earned real college credits from more than 40 teachers on college campuses. If I had to employ all those teachers, it would have cost more than $3 million. And that doesn’t include the cost of the classroom space, furniture, maintenance, utilities, technology, etc. Taking advantage of what the taxpayers already support, we provide our students more with less expense. Through this stewardship, both the students and the taxpayers receive what they want.

Rick: What are the biggest challenges with this model?

Kevin: The challenges are primarily transportation and adult traditional thought. We are air traffic controllers managing students and their schedules—making sure they land in the right classrooms on multiple college campuses and earning degrees. This is a paradigm shift for many, so we constantly fight high school traditions. The general public thinks high school students are too young to be on college campuses. But our students manage quite well, and many start as early as 9th grade on college campuses. (Khaya started when he was 11. He has been accepted to IUN as a degree-track student and will earn a full bachelor’s by the age of 15.) Indeed, many professors have no idea the age of our students. To replicate what we do, school leaders need complete buy-in. High schools are launching pads, not destinations. If you want to replicate our model, you have to start by putting the students’ interests first and do whatever is necessary to meet the students’ needs. Need a Chinese class for one of your students? Look for one at the colleges. Need a welding class? Look at the career centers. Don’t build your own. If it exists already, use it. And in most cases, it already exists.

Rick: Do you expect to see GEO get bigger?

Kevin: Expansion is already happening. We are currently working to go statewide in Indiana and Louisiana. I believe we will soon be serving more than 10,000 students in each state.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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