High-flying charter networks

Since last December, charter schools have been a hot topic in Ohio. Because of scandals in the Ohio Department of Education and the missteps of some Ohio charter schools, many folks in Ohio have a negative view of the entire sector. Fortunately, there are several networks across the nation that challenge the assertion that charters are mismanaged, failed experiments. Even better, recent developments in the Ohio charter sector—including better laws, better funding, and new grant money—increase the possibility that Ohio could woo some of these high-performing charter networks to the Buckeye State. Let’s examine a few of the networks that Ohio should consider recruiting.

Noble Network of Charter Schools

Who they are: The Noble Network operates seventeen schools in Chicago (sixteen high schools and one middle school) and serves approximately eleven thousand students from more than seventy Chicago communities. The first Noble school was opened in 1999 by two Chicago Public Schools teachers. The network’s mission is to prepare low-income students for college and life; the student population is 98 percent minority and 89 percent low-income. Noble uses extended school days (and years) and offers athletics and arts programs. Its alumni network provides students academic and financial aid assistance, resumé review services, mentoring, and networking opportunities.         

In June, Noble was awarded the 2015 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, an award given to the urban charter management organization (CMO) that demonstrates “the most outstanding overall student performance and improvement” while also “reducing achievement gaps for poor and minority students.” It was also one of the twelve high-quality CMOs that recently received a replication and expansion grant from the U.S. Department of Education.  

What they’ve done: Noble primarily operates high schools. High schools are “often the toughest grades to advance academically at high levels,” but Noble has achieved remarkable results. According to the organization, Noble students achieve double the academic growth between freshmen and junior year as their peers at other Chicago public high schools. Noble’s ACT average scores have risen from 17.3 in 2003 to 20.7 in 2014, and they are now on par with the Illinois state average. Over 1,500 students graduated from Noble campuses in 2015, and all of them were accepted to four-year universities (including schools like Dartmouth, Stanford, and the University of Chicago). 90 percent of the class of 2014 enrolled in college, and 84 percent of those students were first-generation college students. 

Why Ohio could benefit: Nationwide, high school achievement is disappointing. This could be because high schools haven’t had much reform aimed specifically their way. Ohio’s high schools are no exception; they have struggled to close achievement gaps and prevent the need for college remediation. With its proven track record of serving minority, low-income high school students, the Noble Network could be a perfect solution to Ohio’s high school woes. The only downside is that Noble doesn’t currently have any schools outside of Chicago—and the network might not be interested in replicating its model outside of the Windy City.

Rocketship Education

Who they are: Rocketship is a network of thirteen charter elementary schools serving approximately six thousand students in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, and Nashville. Rocketship also plans to open a campus in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 in 2016. 90 percent of Rocketship students receive free and reduced price lunch, and 75 percent are English language learners (ELLs). The network’s mission is to eliminate the achievement gap through a unique model that includes personalized learning. Rocketship personalizes academics for its students with a blended learning model.         

What they’ve done: Among California elementary districts serving low-income students, Rocketship ranked in the ninety-ninth percentile in math and the eighty-sixth percentile in English language arts on the new Smarter Balanced assessment. According to NWEA MAP results, the average California Rocketeer grows 1.5 years in math and 1.3 years in reading each school year. In Milwaukee, the average Rocketeer grew 1.6 years in math and 1.4 years in reading each school year. Rocketship’s Nashville Northeast Elementary achieved the highest possible student growth score on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (Rocketship’s two other Nashville schools opened this fall). Teachers at Rocketship receive over three hundred hours of professional development each year, and Rocketship boasts a 6:1 teacher-school leader ratio. This intense focus on development contributed to stellar results from new teachers: A 2013–14 review document explains that first- and second-year Rocketship teachers led their students to an average of 1.4 years of growth. In 2014, three California Rocketship schools were identified as "beating the odds" by an Innovate Public Schools report.

Why Ohio could benefit: Ohio’s taken an interest in blended learning, and a proven model like Rocketship’s could go a long way toward showcasing what blended learning can do for Buckeye students. Rocketship also has experience with replicating outside of its home state; that experience could be priceless to Ohioans who want a smooth transition and immediate results. The intense focus placed on teacher development (and the fact that Rocketship teachers earn consistently higher salaries than surrounding schools) could be music to the ears of talented teachers interested in moving to Ohio.  

YES Prep

Who they are: YES Prep is an open-enrollment charter school network that serves approximately ten thousand students across fifteen campuses in Houston. The network was founded on the premise that all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, can achieve at the highest academic levels. YES Prep students attend small schools that serve six through twelfth grade. The schools teach a rigorous curriculum, utilize student interventions and enrichment opportunities, and offer college counseling as well as support through college. The network also recently began a partnership with Legacy Community Health to provide behavioral health services and therapy to students.  

What they’ve done: YES Prep was awarded the first-ever Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools due to their stellar results. In terms of Texas accountability ratings, YES Prep outscores the state average: its student achievement score (86), closing performance gaps score (87) and post-secondary readiness score (98) are all higher than the state’s. YES Prep’s student passing rates on STAAR end-of-course exams were equally high: 97 percent in biology, 92 percent in English II, and 91 percent in Algebra I. The average AP test score for a student at YES Prep is 2.91—higher than the Texas, U.S., and global average. YES Prep graduates have been accepted to more than 250 different institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. (Check out this video of one of YES Prep’s famous senior signing days). Roughly 74 percent of the network’s alumni are currently enrolled in college or have already earned their degrees. In a 2013 CREDO report on charter school growth and replication, YES Prep was listed as having a positive growth effect (a positive change in the performance of the network’s students compared to their traditional public school counterparts) in both reading and math. 

Why Ohio could benefit: The success of YES Prep schools should be extremely attractive to Ohio policymakers who are still reeling over the poor performance of many Ohio charters. Furthermore, the network’s success with minority and low-income students is exactly the kind of track record the Big 8 urban districts desperately lack.

Uncommon Schools

Who they are: Uncommon Schools began as a charter school in Newark in 1997 and eventually blossomed into a CMO in 2005. The network has grown each year and now includes schools in Boston (three schools serving over eight hundred students), New York City (twenty-one schools serving over 5,900 students), Newark (eleven schools serving nearly four thousand students), Rochester (five schools serving over 1,400 students), Troy (two schools serving over three hundred students), and Camden (one school serving over seventy-five students, which opened in 2014). In total, Uncommon serves twelve thousand scholars in forty-two schools with 1,450 staff members. 97 percent of students are Black or Latino, and 83 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. 100 percent of the class of 2015 was accepted to college, and 78 percent of Uncommon graduates between 2004 and 2014 have completed or are enrolled in college.   

What they’ve done: Results from the 2015 New York State exam show boatloads of success for Uncommon’s New York schools. Uncommon New York City outperformed both New York City and New York State on math and ELA exams; Uncommon Rochester students pass the math and ELA exams at almost six times the percentage of Rochester City School District students; and Uncommon Troy third graders ranked in the top 2 percent of all schools statewide in math and the top 5 percent in ELA. In 2014, students in Uncommon Boston schools outperformed Boston students, Massachusetts students, and white Massachusetts students in several grades and subjects. The percentage of students in Uncommon Newark schools earning advanced or proficient scores on 2014 state tests was higher in most grades and subjects than percentages for other urban schools, New Jersey schools statewide, and New Jersey white students.  

In a 2013 CREDO report on charter school growth and replication, Uncommon Schools was listed as having a positive growth effect in both reading and math. The Uncommon network was one of only a few that CREDO profiled in depth. These results show that “students attending Uncommon Schools-affiliated charter schools had large, significantly positive effects in both math and reading.”

Why Ohio could benefit: In 2013, Uncommon Schools won the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. Among the reasons for the award, Broad highlighted that “Uncommon closed 56 percent of achievement gaps between its low-income students and the state’s non-low-income students across available comparisons.” Uncommon also “closed 56 percent of the achievement gaps between its African American students and the state’s white students across the available comparisons.” Uncommon’s demonstrated ability to close achievement gaps for poor and minority students is sorely needed in Ohio’s Big 8 districts.

IDEA Public Schools

Who they are: IDEA is a network of pre-K–12 charter schools serving over twenty-four thousand students in forty-four schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Austin. The network started as an after-school program in 1998, was granted a charter in 2000, and began expanding in 2005. IDEA plans to open four new campuses in 2015 and aims to operate sixty schools by 2017. The network’s elementary curriculum is a hybrid learning model that prepares students for a college preparatory environment starting in sixth grade. The curriculum includes project-based learning, a variety of social science disciplines, Spanish, and AP and IB courses.       

What they’ve done: In terms of Texas school accountability metrics, every IDEA school rated in 2015 was given a “Met Standard” designation. Many of IDEA’s campuses also earned distinctions, including the top 25 percent in student progress, the top 25 percent in closing performance gaps, and post-secondary readiness. For nine consecutive years, 100 percent of graduating seniors have been accepted to college, including schools like MIT, Georgetown, and Case Western Reserve. In the past five years, the network’s average ACT score has increased from 17 to 21.5. Six IDEA high schools were among the top five hundred high schools nationwide on U.S. News & World Report’s Best High School Rankings. IDEA also earned positive marks in reading and math from the same 2013 CREDO report that examined YES Prep and Uncommon.      

Why Ohio could benefit: IDEA is the fastest-growing charter school network in the nation, which may give Ohio policymakers pause—after all, many of Ohio’s charter woes have resulted from too many mediocre schools opening (and growing) too fast. But have no fear; the quality at IDEA is keeping pace with the growth. A network that can scale up without losing quality and results could be exactly what the doctor ordered.

RePublic Schools

Who they are: RePublic currently operates three middle schools in Nashville: Nashville Prep, which serves grades 5–8; Liberty Collegiate Academy, which serves the same grades; and Nashville Academy of Computer Science, which opened in 2014 and currently serves fifth grade (though it plans to eventually run through eighth grade). RePublic High School opened this fall for ninth graders, and Reimagine Prep will open for fifth grade (and eventually run through eighth) in Jackson, Mississippi in 2015. 91 percent of students are minority and 82 percent are from low-income families. RePublic was founded to change the trend of a child’s race, socioeconomic status, and zip code predicting his quality of life. To accomplish this, the network uses an extended day and year, targeted academic supports, and enrichment activities like chess, drama, and sports.   

One of the network’s most unique features is its emphasis on technology. RePublic teaches all of its students computer science—in fact, computer science is a core subject starting in fifth grade, with the goal of each student knowing how to code in at least one language by the time they graduate from middle school. In ninth and tenth grade, students take AP Computer Science. Interestingly, RePublic’s teachers learn to code alongside their students. Training teachers to code is how the network is able to build an in-house non-profit software company that allows educators in the field to formulate software solutions to classroom problems, such as better ways to tutor struggling students or more effective ways of capturing teacher feedback.   

What they’ve done: Tennessee’s 2014 state test data shows remarkable results for RePublic. In 2014, Nashville Prep and Liberty students were in the top 5 percent in the state for growth and achievement—the first and only charter students in Tennessee history to do so. In 2013, CREDO ranked both schools as the top two charter schools in Tennessee based on student growth. 2014–15 data shows that RePublic’s absolute performance was higher than Davidson County charters, Davidson County as a whole, and Tennessee state averages. 

Why Ohio could benefit: RePublic’s academic results are stunning across the board, but success in some areas is particularly appealing. More attention is being paid to the lack of civics and citizenship education in our schools. For Ohioans concerned about civic education, RePublic offers promising results: A whopping 98 percent of sixth graders at both Nashville Prep and Liberty were proficient or advanced on their state social studies tests. 93 percent or more of students in both schools were proficient or advanced on social studies exams in fifth and seventh grades. Furthermore, RePublic’s focus on coding and computer science should be a welcome emphasis, particularly since Ohio already has a solid CTE sector. The one drawback is that RePublic’s manifesto specifically states that its mission is “to reimagine public education for scholars in the South.” Ohio policymakers may have to work hard to convince RePublic that an expansion to the Midwest is also needed. 

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Ohio has some hard work ahead in order to clean up its poor charter reputation. To avoid further outrage and mismanagement, and to restore faith in the promise of charters, Ohio communities would do well to invest in charter networks with proven track records. Networks like Noble, Rocketship, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, IDEA, and RePublic are great places to start. These networks’ histories of catapulting achievement for low-income and minority students demonstrate what’s possible—not just across the nation, but in the Buckeye State as well. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an Education Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.