by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:
The most enlightening experience in learning about school choice has been visiting a private school and a charter school in Washington DC, as well as a charter school in Texas. Talking with the principals, and most importantly the students, was the best way to understand what these alternatives to traditional public schools brought and how they planned to succeed.
In Washington, DC, we first visited Archbishop Carroll High School, a catholic private high school. We were welcomed by the principal and groups of students that were eager to talk about their schools. Only 27% of Archbishop Carroll are Catholic. They come from 63 zip codes in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. 76% of them describe themselves as African-American.
We were separated into groups. Each group was accompanied by 2 students who had chosen a couple of classrooms to visit. We saw students that were eager to participate, with teachers walking around the classroom. Clearly teachers are, as we would often hear, “in front of their students” and not behind their desk. The average class size is 20-24 with an 11 to 1 student/teacher ratio. Students were amazingly focused. No computer, or tablet are used: the Principal explained that they chose not to use new technologies systematically, but are open to let student use their computer or tablet if they wish.
The application to enter Archbishop Carrol is the usual private school application: students’ scores, teacher recommendations, writing an essay, and interviewing both parents and students. The tuition for a year is about $18,000. A big part usually comes from scholarships (notably the Opportunity Scholarship Program) and fundraising from the school. The school insists families participate in paying the tuition too. Unfortunately, among about 100 students to whom they offer admission every year and who refuse it, about 60% renounce because of a lack of financial resources.
The second school we visited in Washington, DC was Achievement Prep, a charter school situated in Ward 8 “intentionally.” Achievement Prep expects a lot from its students and teachers, starting with calling them “scholars” and “platinum teachers.” “What we’re trying to do is to raise the bar,” explained Ms. Cannon, the Chief Academic Officer of the school.
The school opened in 2008 with just 2 grades, 3 classrooms, 67 scholars and a shared school. They now have 22 classrooms, and 400 scholars, grade 4-8.
The school functions on an extended work day, from 7.30 am to 4.15 pm. “Scholars come to us very far behind,” explained Ms. Cannon, sometimes up to 4-5 years behind. But she insisted: “We believe every one of our children can learn.” The school also expects parents to “enroll” with their children, meaning they play a crucial role in their children’s success.
The average classroom size at Achievement Prep is 22. What do they think about school choice? “We’re not just pro charter,” clarified Ms. Cannon “we’re pro children; we believe in competition.”
Although the Hill Country is very different from Washington, DC, I wanted to see what a charter school looked like in Texas. I had the opportunity to visit Founders Classical Academy. Dr. Kathleen O’Toole, headmaster of the charter school, kindly gave me a tour of several classrooms. The education there is a classical education and includes Latin. The curriculum is more demanding than in other schools, but Founders Classical believes in its children and considers challenges tend to motivate them. The first thing that struck me was the organization of the tables: all facing the teacher, theater-style, something I had last seen in France. The students, from kindergarten to grade 10, were barely distracted by us entering the room: they were focused on their teachers; they enjoyed the class and the lesson.
Teachers aren’t afraid of approaching several areas while focusing on one subject. Hence, learning to draw a dinosaur is also the occasion for children to learn about the extinct animals, and how they are named.
Founders Classical opened in August 2014 in Leander, TX. They have 2 classes per grade, K to 10, with an average class size of 22. For next year, about 35 spots will open in kindergarten, plus maybe a few more in other grades. The waiting list is over 700 though. Founders Classical is an open-enrollment charter: the spots will be attributed through a lottery.
My experience with visiting these three schools is overwhelmingly positive: the children looked happy, and they behaved with discipline and rigor. Those we talked to at Archbishop Carroll were reluctant to criticize traditional public schools, but underlined how Archbishop Carroll was able to give them what they lacked in public schools: to have teachers who knew them by their name, and who were eager to help; to be part of a valuable and safe community.
A lot is expected from children in these schools, especially since they often are behind when they first move from a traditional public school to one of these three alternatives, but expectations seemed to motivate them, as if having adults trust their capacity to succeed was boosting their will to succeed, and to work hard to reach that goal. They seemed thankful, too, the way you are for a great teacher or mentor. A mother whose daughter is a student at Archbishop Carroll summed it up best when she explained that the private school had “enabled [her daughter] to build self-esteem, to be a creative thinker.”
Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility) and works in public policy. She is particularly interested in issues related to economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.