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Will Technology Power the Next Phase of Charter School Growth?

Every year my organization, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), examines the growing student enrollment in public charter schools across the country. Among other things, we identify which communities have the highest percentage of public school students enrolled in public charter schools. NAPCS knows that in communities where parents have a choice, they are increasingly choosing public charter schools over the traditional public schools available to them. For the 2010-2011 school year, six school districts had at least 30 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools. Charter schools in New Orleans enrolled an astounding 70 percent of public school students. DC was next at 39 percent and Detroit a close third at 37 percent public student enrollment. In total, 18 school districts had 20 percent or more of their public school students enrolled in charter schools—twelve more districts than when NAPCS first printed this report six years ago. The data tell us that the public education landscape is shifting dramatically.

Indeed, over the past several years, we’ve seen much of the growth in charter schools occur in cities. There is good reason for this. High performing charter networks like KIPP and Aspire Public Schools are largely located in cities, and these network schools are driving demand for more spots. Additionally, mayors like Corey Booker, Greg Ballard, Michael Bloomberg, Thomas Menino and Antonio Villaraigosa have publicly supported the expansion of public charter schools in their cities. And philanthropic foundations have made significant investments to spur the creation and expansion of high-quality charter schools in major cities across the country, including in New York, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Newark. All indications are that we’ll continue to see growth in cities across the country.

However, another emerging trend suggests that we might also be in store for significant growth in charter school attendance outside our major cities. Charters are leading adopters of online and individualized learning, and some are reshaping the structure of the traditional classroom. They are demonstrating that the model of a teacher standing in front of a classroom of students is not necessarily the only effective or efficient way to educate our children.

For example, Rocketship Education in San Jose, California, uses a technology-based learning lab that provides personalized learning opportunities for its students for a portion of the school day. Because the lab provides individual learning opportunities for each student, Rocketship requires only three full-time teachers for every four classrooms. The school produces outstanding academic results and significantly reduces teaching staff costs, savings used to hire academic deans, finance Rocketship’s three-year leadership development program for new leaders and increase teacher pay. Students at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School, one of the nation’s top high schools, rotate between online lessons and classroom instruction where teachers build upon the material learned online. Because a great deal of content is provided via individualized online learning, Carpe Diem needs only six full-time certified teachers for the nearly 275 students at the school. At Julian Charter School in southern California, significant online learning is used to reach students across three counties, including rural areas. Julian’s students in grades K-12 supplement their independent online study program with programming and support at regional learning centers that offer a wide variety of classes and experiences on topics like art and agriculture. Julian’s nearly 2,200 students perform above state test averages, and at a cost of approximately $6,000 per student, more than $2,000 below the state per pupil average.

Charter schools like Rocketship, Carpe Diem and Julian are rethinking what education looks like for students and teachers. By significantly incorporating technology into instructional practice, these innovative charter schools are challenging the notion of the brick and mortar classroom and school. As we learn more about how these schools provide top notch education for their students, we should consider these models as a way to meet the goal for students in all corners of the nation to have access to high quality schools. Much charter school growth is occurring in cities at this time. But as charters continue to expand the idea of what a school looks like, innovative practices and technologies may enable us to overcome geographic limitations to the point where charter school growth will only be limited by demand for high quality schools.

About Eric Paisner: Eric Paisner is the Vice President of knowledge and partnerships for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In his role, he seeks to capture and disseminate information and resources on critical charter school issues. Prior to joining the Alliance, Eric worked as an attorney for Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville PC, advising clients on a variety of education and corporate issues. He also served as a senior consultant with Arthur Andersen, specializing in strategic management solutions for large corporations and government agencies. Eric has a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife Elizabeth and two daughters.

Eric Paisner

Vice President, Knowledge and Partnerships National Alliance for Public Charter Schools