Charter Schools – Raleigh Charter a Role Model for the Movement
In June we took a brief look at Newsweek’s annual list of the 100 top performing high schools in the nation. One of the more interesting aspects of the list was the number of charter schools named by the magazine.
The select group of schools included 10 charter schools, a number deemed statistically relevant. Whereas 10% of the Newsweek top performers were charter schools, only 3% of all public schools nationwide fall within that category. In essence, the ratio of charter high performers was triple that of traditional public high schools.
At the time we cautioned readers not to get too carried away, particularly since the Newsweek list of high schools was (and is) constructed utilizing a single calculation (the ratio of the number of college-level exams taken by students divided by the number of graduating seniors). The Newsweek top performers all had an index of at least 1.000.
In addition, our look at the first three charter schools on the list, BASIS Charter in Tucson (the number one high school in America by Newsweek), Preuss Charter in San Diego (4th overall), and MATCH Charter in Boston (25th overall), all gave us pause before jumping on the charter bandwagon.
But earlier this summer, we had a chance to visit Raleigh Charter School in Raleigh, North Carolina, the 27th school on the Newsweek list. We met with Principal Tom Humble and completed a site visit.
We came away extremely impressed with Mr. Humble who undertook the creation of a school from scratch as well as the institution itself. The school appears to be everything a community could hope for, small, intimate, innovative, and most importantly, high-performing.
Raleigh Charter High School was created by an eclectic mix of individuals that included business professionals, experienced educators, and college professors. A critical component for the school’s creation centered upon the desire of 8th grade parents with children at The Magellan Charter School to continue the “secure, nurturing, academically enriched education” they felt their children were receiving at Magellan.
Principal Humble credited both Pamela Blizzard, a parent and business person, and Mike Jordan, the principal at Magellan at the time, for bringing about the concept. “Pamela wrote a model application,” stated Humble. “She dreamed up the idea and put it out there.
“And Mike was truly instrumental – he has been with us, on the board, since the school’s inception,” added Humble. “He was invaluable in many ways: he had the experience to be a mentor to me and he had the charter-school experience to offer wise and calming advice during this ‘exciting’ period.”
At the same time, the founders sought to expand the educational opportunity to include more Raleigh-area students than just those coming from Magellan. The key founding principles for the new high school included:
- creating a small community of learners to allow teachers to focus on teaching,
- active, involved parents that supported the teaching staff and communicated to their children the importance of education,
- and hands-on, experiential learning.
As for a mission, Raleigh Charter was designed to challenge “college-bound students in a creative and supportive atmosphere to become knowledgeable, thoughtful, contributing citizens.” In addition, the school would seek to “graduate citizens of the world by creating an interconnected learning environment that combines a demanding college-preparatory education with a curriculum that teaches and models citizenship skills.”
The school is located in Historic Pilot Mill, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located adjacent to Peace College, two of the mill buildings were renovated for the school: the 1910 building that houses the school’s administrative offices and classrooms for subjects including biology, math, English, social studies, languages, art, music and drama, and the adjacent 1894 Weaving building that features the chemistry, computer, foreign language and physics labs.
Getting the Job Done
Students at Raleigh Charter have certainly distinguished themselves academically. Numerous forms of recognition have been bestowed upon the school and the student body.
Superb student performances on the North Carolina-mandated End-of-Course tests have earned the RCHS Honor School of Excellence status in 2005. 2006 and 2007. Prior to those distinguished honors, RCHS was named a School of Distinction in 2000 and a School of Excellence for 2001 through 2004.
In addition to being selected 27th in the most recent Newsweek top 100 list, the school was ranked ninth in the 2005 by Newsweek and 18th in 2007. In 2006, the school’s Quiz Bowl team won the PACE National Championship, and in both 2005 and 2006 the school ranked number one in the world on the AP Environmental Science examinations.
However, the many student successes were not at all part of the conversation with Principal Humble. “I do not brag about our school’s successes in national and state testing.
“When students have identified themselves as college preparatory, they ought to do well on these tests and examinations,” he states. “We are not competing with other high schools; we are competing with our school.”
Beyond the student performances, RCHS is setting a very high standard for other schools, charter and traditional public alike. Among the many unique, innovative educational aspects include Flex Day scheduling and Citizenship Days. These concepts reflect the belief that students “learn more when they are active, social, and creative learners.” In addition the school offers some truly unique curricula featuring courses in Constitutional Law, Modern African Seminar, Modern Latin American Seminar, and Systems Theory.
Humble puts the innovation in simple terms.
“We are an education lab. We are willing to try new things and make good ideas grow. And we want our teachers to develop programs that will help them grow. We do not want a mundane setting.”
Because of its high success rate and innovative practices, Raleigh Charter’ was selected by DPI consultants to participate in a program focusing on high-school reinvention. RCHS was one of ten high schools in North Carolina and just seventy-five schools to be selected.
As is mandated by charter school legislation, RCHS is a public high school serving students from North Carolina. The sole program being offered at the school is the college and university preparatory track so students must meet a basic academic standard in mathematics (a student must be prepared for Algebra I or higher level math course as they enter ninth grade).
There is also an application process but there are no other thresholds mandated and students actually are admitted through a public lottery. That said, the academic rigor is strong and many courses at RCHS are offered only at the honors (advanced) level.
Though the lottery process provides the bulk of the student body, the school does give preference to qualified siblings of current students and qualified children of the principal, teachers, and teacher assistants for admission. Though acceptances occur by chance, a goal of “graduating citizens of the world” has the school committed to increasing the diversity of both the student body and faculty. With a lottery process, that diversity can come only by creating a diverse applicant pool, something the school works very hard to create. Of course, once a minority student is selected during the lottery, his or her siblings then have priority options, helping to create greater diversity.
What the Theorists Had in Mind
Without a doubt, Raleigh Charter is precisely the type of school entity charter school proponents have in mind when they tout the concept. With just over 500 students and a committed, innovative teaching staff, RCHS offers children an exceptional educational opportunity and does so with taxpayer dollars. The quality setting and curricula are reminiscent of an elite private school yet the student body consists of randomly selected applicants and includes students who are in need of special education services.
Most importantly, RCHS students excel academically even as their unique programming focuses on citizenship and community involvement. While the top three charter schools on this year’s Newsweek list gave us pause for one reason or another, Raleigh Charter demonstrates why the charter school movement has such strong backing.
It is a concept that can and should be replicated in all 50 states.
Editor’s Note: For more on Raleigh Charter, see our interview with principal Tom Humble.