MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: preparing students for college.
High school seniors across the country are getting ready to graduate.
But statistically only 1 in 6 students who start college will get a degree six years from now.
Students from low-income families are even less likely to complete college, just about 1 in 10.
NICK EICHER, HOST: A proven tool to help low-income students better their chances is a charter school education.
By some accounts, charter school students are more likely to finish college than their peers who attend a traditional public school. Four times more likely.
But that success isn’t enough to clear the way for more charter schools. Politics is in the way. Here’s WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones.
CHEERLEADERS: We’re loud, we’re proud! Go, Kippsters!! [cheering]
LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: This might sound like your average high school pep rally. But this raucous crowd of Houston-area students has something far more important than sports to cheer.
STUDENTS: Texas A&M University…
The students parading past the microphone are all graduates of KIPP Texas high schools. They’re half way through their first year of college. And they came back to celebrate their success with their former classmates.
Sonya Ramirez heads the KIPP Through College Program. Her team of counselors supports KIPP students before and after they graduate. She says recognizing those graduates after their first semester of college encourages them and those coming behind them.
RAMIREZ: And so for those in the audience, our students still in our schools, it’s their opportunity to really envision themselves on that stage. It’s their opportunity to think about what it will be like when it’s their turn to walk across the stage.
Ninety percent of students in KIPP’s Houston-area schools come from low-income communities. Many of them will be the first in their family to go to college.
Ramirez says showing students they can make it to college—then expecting them to—is key to KIPP’s success. It starts as early as eighth grade.
RAMIREZ: That is where they begin the conversations on what is important to take advantage of once you get into high school.
The college prep work increases every year, and it extends well past academics. Juniors and seniors take a college seminar class that covers everything from filling out financial aid forms to managing tricky roommate relationships.
The payoff? While just 10 percent of low-income students from the Houston area go on to get a college degree, nearly half of KIPP graduates do.
That laser focus on college readiness—and the ensuing results—are a common theme for charter schools across the country.
Nathan Barrett is with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He says charters work because they start with a different mindset.
BARRETT: Ability and things are evenly dispersed throughout our population, but opportunity is not necessarily the same. And so, you know, it’s sort of this apathy that’s associated with urban poor and students of color that they can’t succeed. And so these expectations are set low, and you have leaders coming in and opening schools and saying, look, no, you can do better.
Charter schools are public schools, but they operate independently from the traditional public school system. Advocates say that independence is part of what makes them so successful. But it also makes them a target of public school supporters.
Critics say charters have too little oversight and not enough accountability. They blame charters for siphoning state funding and the best students from low-performing schools that need both.
Barrett blames much of the opposition to charters on political acrimony.
BARRETT: You know, eight, 10 years ago, there was so much bipartisan support for rethinking and reimagining the way that we provided education for our students. And with the recent divisiveness of our country, school choice and charter schools have sort of fallen into that, where you don’t support a good policy because you don’t want to support a person that also supports that policy.
Nowhere is that dynamic more evident than in California. It was one of the first states to adopt charter legislation in 1992 and has the most students enrolled in charter schools. But Democrats in the state legislature are now pushing bills to block new charters. Trump administration support for school choice, especially from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, fuels much of the anger.
Nathan Barrett hopes the success of charter school graduates will eventually reinvigorate bipartisan support.
BARRETT: All we can do is keep highlighting all of the evidence that suggests that kids are doing better in charter schools. It’s providing more opportunity. They typically do it with way less funding. There’s just so many things that point in a positive direction that it’s really hard to prop up an argument against charter schools.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.