Charter schools in the commonwealth have grown rapidly. Over a five year period beginning in 2006, enrollment in the state increased by 54 percent, and according to the most recent data, 6 percent of Pennsylvania students now attend a charter school.
But a study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania at Penn State has found that charter schools are more racially segregated than their public school counterparts.
When charter schools were introduced in Pennsylvania in 1997, they were supposed to be a game-changer. Finally parents from all walks of life could seek alternatives to the public schools they felt were failing to meet their children’s academic and social needs. Parents could choose a more tailored curriculum, smaller classroom sizes and a diverse group of peers that would help equip their kids with skills for life after graduation.
Indeed, according to Saleem Ghubril, head of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, exposure to people from different backgrounds and races is crucial.
“If we want to raise a generation of kids who not only learn to be tolerant, but can thrive and serve, in a multicultural democracy,” said Ghubril, “we really have to pay attention to the issues of diversity from as young an age as possible.”
Studies have found that diverse student bodies deter negatives, such as high risk behaviors and stereotyping, and that schools with culturally mixed student populations also show academic benefits for minorities and white students, as well as better relationship building.
For those reasons City Charter High, located near the Golden Triangle in downtown Pittsburgh, actively seeks out a diverse student population.
“The racial makeup is about 47 percent African-American, 40 percent white Caucasian and everything else,” said Ron Sofo, CEO and principal of City Charter.
Sofo said they market in different zip codes to try and bring in an array of students. He said he believes it will benefit their kids in the long run.
“In any environment, whether that be school, out on your internship or out after high school,” said Sofo.
But it’s a different story in a number of the city’s other charter schools. Among Pittsburgh’s seven brick-and-mortar charters, four of them have an African-American enrollment of more than 90 percent. Pittsburgh Public Schools at large has a split of 56 percent black, 34 percent white and 13 percent other races. According to the charter school trends study from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, regardless of region, charter schools are disproportionately enrolling students of color.
“Pennsylvania is a predominantly white state in terms of the public school enrollment. Even in urban areas, we have a majority of students who are white,” said Erica Frankenberg, who helped author the study and teaches in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State. “Charter schools by contrast are very heavily non-white, so about a quarter of the students in charter schools in urban areas were white.”
And Frankenberg said students often transfer from higher-achieving traditional schools to charter schools with lower academic performance.
“Some charter schools may have a different curriculum, some may be for safety reasons, some may be for other non-academic more socially constructed reasons,” she said.
This could help explain the segregation in charter schools. While Frankenberg said they don’t have definitive answers as to why the schools are stratified, she said another contributing factor could be charter schools subtly influencing the application process. For example, Frankenberg said some schools require applicants' parents to work a certain number of hours per year.
“There are other things in terms of of English Language Learner Programs, Special Education Programs that technically charter schools are required to provide,” said Frankenberg. “But there still has been a lot of evidence suggesting that there are various ways in which charter schools structure the student they enroll and so not surprisingly, we see across the country there are schools of very different racial composition.”
As the country and world becomes more diverse, that kind of homogeneity doesn’t serve anyone’s best interest, said Saleem Ghubril with the Pittsburgh Promise.
“And if we indeed want to be able to serve in this world," he said, "then being able to become culturally competent and comfortable in multi-ethnic settings is going to be critical.”