How charters get motivated students

Some charter schools screen students for motivation by requiring lengthy applications, essays or interview, writes Stephanie Simon on Reuters.

Five states – Florida, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Texas – let some charter schools screen applicants by academic performance, Simon writes. Alaska, Delaware and North Carolina let charter schools give admissions preference to students who demonstrate interest in the school’s educational focus, such as technology or performing arts. Most are required to admit students by lottery. But first students have to apply.

Roseland Accelerated Middle School, a charter school in Santa Rosa, California, won’t even enter applicants into the lottery until they have proved their mettle by writing a five-page autobiography (with no errors in grammar or spelling, the form warns), as well as a long essay and six short essays. Applicants also must provide recommendations, report cards and statements from their parents or guardians and submit a medical history, including a list of all medications they take.

Gail Ahlas, superintendent of the public school district that oversees the charter, says the process isn’t meant to exclude anyone, but to “set the tone” for the school as a rigorous college-prep environment.

Many charters specialize in serving low-income and minority children, Reuters concedes. These use simple application forms. Most for-profit charter school chains also make it easy to apply. But some charters ask for more.


rthland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, Arizona requires parents to attend one of three information sessions to pick up an application form. “It’s kind of like a time share (pitch),” said Bob Lombardi, the superintendent. “You have to come and listen.” (The arts middle school — a district-run magnet — in Portland, Oregon has the same policy.)

Some charter principals told Reuters they use the application to ensure students really want to be at their school.

Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, a top-rated charter school outside of Los Angeles, uses a multistep application that requires assessment exams in math and English and a family interview.

Principal Esau Berumen said he does not screen prospective students for academic ability. But, he said, the process is demanding enough that about 10 percent drop out before the lottery – leaving him with a pool of kids he knows are motivated to embrace the rigors of his curriculum.

“If there’s any skimming off the top, it’s on effort and drive,” Berumen said.

Heather Davis-Jones tells Reuters it was a challenge to enroll her eight-year-old daughter, Shakia, in a charter school in Philadelphia. “But I felt like I needed to do whatever it took to get her into a better school. If they want me to stand on my hands for 10 days, I’ll do it.” Her daughter got into one of the charter schools and loves it.

The Preuss School at the University of California, San Diego serves only low-income students who parents aren’t college graduates. But Preuss wants low-income, first-generation students with “aptitude, drive and parental support,” writes Simon.

The 23-page application requires students to hand-write a long essay and several short-answer questions. They must submit a graded writing sample from their old school, and then explain what they learned from the assignment and how they could have done better. They must provide three recommendations.

And their parents must respond to a page of questions, including: “Describe what type of service you will contribute to this school. Please be specific.” If they don’t speak English, parents are asked to secure help from a translator.

Principal Scott Barton said students’ writing skill doesn’t matter. The application is designed to screen out students who lack “the motivation and the potential to succeed.”

Even when charters use simple applications, they’re enrolling students whose parents care enough to find an alternative to the neighborhood school, says Mike Petrilli of Fordham, a charter advocate.

That’s true. Parents who choose a school — charter, magnet or whatever — are showing extra motivation that may be passed on to their children. If their children’s classmates also have parents who care about education, even better. I wish school districts would create more of their own schools of choice to give parents more chances to find a “right fit” with similarly inclined classmates.

Nationwide, charter schools “enroll a greater percentage of low-income students than traditional public schools (46 percent versus 41 percent), black and Latino students (27 percent versus 15 percent and 26 percent versus 22 percent, respectively), and students who perform lower on standardized tests before transferring to public charter schools,” responds the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Charters aren’t creaming the best students, responds the Center for Education Reform, which charges the story distorted its school lunch data. While 40 percent of charters don’t participate in the federal lunch program — the rules are too burdensome — most “feed all of their students,” CER data reports. The story also mischaracterizes state policy on charter admissions, CER charges.

Nationwide, suspension and expulsion rates are lower for charter schools than for traditional public schools, according to federal data published in Ed Week. However, the rates vary in different cities and the data is not complete. Charters in New Orleans are standardizing discipline policies. All expelled students in the city are sent to the same alternative charter school.

About Joanne


  1. Success in education is primarily a selection effect.

    • Yup. Parents who can’t select their kid’s school can’t have much expectation of the educational success for their kids.

  2. Skimming is fine, but then let’s not pretend we can fairly compare charters with regular schools.

    • I disagree. We may compare an all-volunteer army with a draft army, and we may compare charters with regular schools. Such comparisons are useful on both sides. It is life that is not fair.

  3. Public schools could choose to offer special programs to keep those kids who are now, or will be, in charters and they choose not to do so. They remain mired in the one-size-fits-all model, which clearly people wish to escape. Let no child get ahead. The inmates are running the asylum.

  4. Skimming is often the main cause of charters’ success; yet ignorant lay people and cynical reformers will say that other factors –e.g. no unions, lack of bureaucracy, whiz-bang technology –cause the success. And they’ll use this falsehood to bash people and institutions that don’t deserve to be bashed. That should bother anyone who cares about truth and justice.

    • If it makes you feel good to repeat those calumnies then please, do so. But know that those lies aren’t going to effect the decision of parents who have themselves been let down by the district system to let that same system make use of their children.

    • Mike in Texas says:

      “Ignorant lay people”, aka Allen

      • Thank you for once again demonstrating that the only defense of the district system is via name-calling. Part of the reason you’re losing.

    • Large bureaucracies are hallmarks of public education, at all levels through university. For private or charter schools; they’re not. Many years ago, I remember reading a comparison between the DC Public Schools and the Archdiocese of Baltimore schools, which had almost exactly the same number of students and of similar backgrounds. The Archdiocese had something like 15 central-office admins and DCPS had over 1300. Even factoring in the government-mandated paperwork, including spec ed, the difference is staggering. The Archdiocese also had much better academic results. I lived in the DC area for decades and went to grad school there and there was no secret that DCPS, like the rest of DC government, was a jobs program for adults.(ditto for Head Start) In that climate, meeting the needs of parents and/or students, is irrelevant.

      • M4,
        Don’t you think the Catholic schools’ superior effectiveness stems from 1. skimming; 2. stronger discipline; and 3. better curriculum? I can imagine lack of a parasitic bureaucracy having an impact, but I see these others as far more likely sources of success. You should also keep in mind that lack of bureaucracy can be an impediment too. I know several charter teachers who are called on to do jobs that bureaucrats tackle in regular systems. It kills them.

        • Ponderosa; All are possible, but I don’t think (3) is as true as it used to be. Catholic schools used to have nuns as teachers and , AFAIK, they were given brief training (similar to the old Normal Schools) that tended to focus on direct, explicit instruction and traditional content. They have now had lay teachers for decades and those teachers have graduated from ed schools (Catholic or otherwise) that all sing from the same curriculum and instruction songbooks, so I haven’t seen much difference from public schools in that regard (religious aspects aside). However, they don’t cost anywhere near as much to run and the bureaucracy makes a huge difference in that difference. Also, when I was in school (starting 50s), there was little difference in discipline between the public schools and the Catholic ones (or other privates). Toleration of anything approaching the urban chaos was unimaginable.

          • Crimson Wife says:

            The Catholic schools in my area charge a similar amount of tuition as the per-pupil spending on general educational students. The public school spending is skewed by special ed students, who are often enormously expensive to educate. The parochial schools don’t take kids with serious disabilities.

    • Justice? Are you saying charters are unjust? Shall we end charters and force these children back into the public schools–AND end private schooling, forcing President Obama’s children into public schools?

      • I’m not saying charters are unjust; I’m saying bashing the hard-working faculty at non-charter schools based on charters’ success is unjust. Don’t you agree?

        • Yes, I agree. Of course there is plenty of unjust bashing (and sometimes outright hostility) going on in the other direction as well. Don’t you agree?

  5. One of the “problems” of education is that it is “free”. People do not value or respect what they get for free. (besides, for far too many, public education is just babysitting) Just the “extra effort” of caring enough about your kid’s education to look into charter schools is a form of screening.