Zip code should not determine quality of educationWritten by Guest Author | | GuestAuthor@toledofreepress.com
During the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which data are available, Ohio’s low-income fourth-graders passed the state exam at a rate that was nearly 20 percentage points lower than their more affluent classmates. In math, that gap was 23 percentage points. By the time students reach middle and high schools, the “achievement gap” between low-income students and their wealthier peers only grows larger. The fact that the quality of a child’s education in Ohio – and the rest of America – is often determined in large part by where a student resides is not a new story, but it is a tragic one.
I share this data in the context of describing the Ohio Council of Community Schools (OCCS), a sponsor (or “authorizer”) of charter schools across the state. We have been in this business for 13 years and are one of the oldest and largest sponsors in Ohio. We are based in Toledo and are unique in our collaboration with the surrounding community and other communities where we have partner schools. We are a not-for-profit organization designated by the University of Toledo to provide oversight and monitoring of affiliated schools.
Charter schools, also referred to as “community schools,” are publicly funded, independently operated, highly accountable (can be closed for underperformance), free and transparent public schools. They differ from traditional district public schools in that they are run independently and may offer innovative curricular programming, longer school days/school years or have a particular theme, such as fitness, environmental studies or college preparation.
There are more than 340 charter schools in Ohio and, as of the 2012-13 school year, OCCS will sponsor 44 of them. Among those, we sponsor three virtual or online charter schools serving a large number of students across the state.
As a sponsor, we are responsible for ensuring that our schools are in compliance with the school charter as well as state and federal laws. Further, we assist the school board in ensuring each school is sound academically, financially and operationally. Our schools operate with the fundamental belief that all students and families deserve high-quality educational options.
In an ideal world, everyone I interact with would agree that students deserve high-quality educational choices. However, in my time as executive director of OCCS and in my 40-plus years of experience in education and working with low-income families, I have realized public education can be a hotbed of controversy and potential disagreement on how to serve all students.
I also realize that all of us can agree on some things, namely that education paves the road for social mobility and success in college and the workforce, and it is our moral obligation to ensure that all children – regardless of background or race – have the opportunity to walk that road.
Here at OCCS, we are motivated most by what is working in public education – whether at a school that we sponsor or any school. And we’re happy when the media shines a spotlight on that or gives us a platform to share stories that inspire hope rather than cynicism.
OCCS-sponsored virtual schools serve online students – some of whom were struggling in their previous schools. In many instances students choose the virtual school environment because previous social pressures were all-consuming – especially for those who are bullied, have special needs or feel safer attending school in a home setting. Gifted students can also flounder when bored and many of our partner schools (traditional or virtual) offer individualized plans that help engage them and keep them excited about learning.
In all of our schools, there are also countless students who become the first in their families to graduate from high school. Our college preparatory charter schools push students – even as young as kindergarten – to identify as the class of 2025 (or whatever year they would graduate from college). And we have dropout recovery charter schools serving the most at-risk students – like those who have already checked out of education.
What we witness happening at our schools is transforming young people’s lives. I invite you to learn more about what’s happening in the public schools around you — charter school or otherwise — and to seek out these stories of positive transformation. Just as it “takes a village” to raise a child, it takes an entire community to keep up the momentum necessary to ensure all students receive the quality of education they deserve regardless of their zip code.
Darlene Chambers is executive director of the Toledo-based Ohio Council of Community Schools, a sponsor of charter schools across Ohio. Learn more at www.ohioschools.org.