StarNews (North Carolina)
By: Terry Stoops
October 24, 2010
Nobody ever has accused Gaston College Preparatory charter school in Northampton County of having it easy. Unemployment in its home county exceeds 11 percent. Two-thirds of Gaston Prep's students come from low-income families. Eighty-five percent of its students belong to a racial or ethnic minority group. The public charter school receives approximately $2,000 less per student than the public school district in which it resides.
Unlike their district school counterparts, however, you will not hear Gaston Prep administrators, teachers, and students complain that their school is located in a poor county or region, has a high concentration of low-income students, is "racially isolated," or is underfunded. Instead, you will hear them celebrate the fact that Newsweek magazine recently included Gaston Prep in its annual list of the best high schools in the country, an honor bestowed on only the top 6 percent of all public high schools.
How is this possible? According to North Carolina's public education leaders, schools like Gaston College Preparatory are supposed to be embarrassing failures. They have claimed that schools can achieve academic success only when the district assignment policy limits the number of low-income students assigned to a given school.
According to this theory, peer pressure and/or osmosis from middle-class students will drive low-income classmates to better behavior and higher levels of academic performance. That said, how does Gaston Prep continue to succeed without an ample supply of white, middle-class mojo?
Gaston Prep is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program network of schools. The network consists of 99 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
All KIPP schools are free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools located in under-served communities. North Carolina has two KIPP charter schools. Gaston College Preparatory has been in operation in Northampton County since 2001. The state's second charter school, KIPP: Charlotte, is in its third year of operation.
There is nothing particularly novel about the KIPP approach. KIPP schools abide by five core principles: high expectations, choice and commitment, additional classroom time, strong leadership, and a focus on results.
Administrators, teachers, students, and parents take this common-sense approach very seriously. And it works. A number of independent studies, including a rigorous analysis of KIPP middle schools by Mathematica Policy Research, found that KIPP charter school students significantly outperformed their counterparts in district schools.
Academic performance measures from North Carolina's state testing program mirror these findings. Last year, 72 percent of Gaston Prep's economically disadvantaged students were proficient in math and reading. Even more impressive, nearly 94 percent of economically disadvantaged high school students scored "proficient" or higher on their North Carolina end-of-course tests. In both cases, Gaston Prep's low-income students scored over 20 percentage points higher than the state average for that demographic.
Other outcome measures are equally impressive. Gaston Prep's 89.5 percent graduation rate is more than 15 percentage points higher than the state average. Last year, 90 percent of Gaston Prep's black students graduated in four years, 23 percentage points higher than the average rate for all black students in the state. For the second consecutive year, 100 percent of Gaston College Preparatory graduates are college-bound.
If KIPP charter schools show so much promise, why doesn't North Carolina have more of them? The short and unfortunate answer is politics.
For the past 13 years, state legislators, particularly Democratic lawmakers who are loyal to well-funded special-interest groups, have maintained laws that artificially limit the supply of charter schools and charter seats. By law, North Carolina may not have more than 100 charter schools statewide, and enrollment in existing schools may not grow by more than 10 percent a year.
These restrictions mean that tens of thousands of children who want to attend a nearby charter school, and would be better served by one, remain on wait lists. Of course, these are the lucky ones.
Most families in North Carolina never have that choice.
Terry Stoops is director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Raleigh.