As a first-year teacher, I believed the incredible results that my charter school produced couldn't be anything but positive. Then, in February, new research suggesting charter schools promoted segregation by removing minority students from public schools caused me to reevaluate my thoughts on the charter system I worked for. Was I complicit in, encouraging even, a system of racial injustice?
Although progress has been made since Brown, our schools (public and charter alike) are still separated by socio-economic status, which too often falls along divisions of color. The notion that charter schools, which provide an alternative to public education, support segregation is incorrect and unwarranted. Our country's urban environments are plagued with segregated schools, as socioeconomic disparity separates low-income minorities and middle-class white students. Charter schools, for the most part, seek to serve those students who have been left behind.
In May, the question of segregation reemerged when the New York Times profiled Explore Charter School in Brooklyn. The article, aptly titled, 'Why Don't We Have Any White Kids?' searches for the reasons behind the school's demographics -- 92.7% of students are black, compared with a neighborhood that is only 75% black. However, if Explore continues to improve and produce strong academic outcomes for its students -- like 8th grader Jahmir, who was accepted to the prestigious Dalton academy -- then maybe we should be asking questions about Explore's success in educating minority students, rather than fixating on its population.
Recent statistics reveal that charter schools are not the only ones grappling with the issue of segregation. Rather, they function within a school system that is already segregated. Salon.com reported that students in Chicago went through grades K-12 without ever seeing a peer of a different race at school. Additionally, across the country more than half of black and Latino students attend schools where minority students are in the majority, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Chicago has also seen an increase in racially isolated schools while the number of integrated schools has decreased. The persistence of segregation is not solely a charter school problem.
Why, then, do some suggest it is incumbent upon charter schools to increase diversity? Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Success Academy Charter Schools, notes that the attempt to "brand charter schools" as "separate and unequal" draws attention away from their competitive results. In reality, organizations like Success Academy and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), reduce inequality by giving children in low-income communities opportunities that are not otherwise available to them. In my own charter system, I have watched hundreds of low-income students beat the odds as they are accepted to four-year universities across the country. Charters may miss the mark breaking down the barriers of "separate" in the classroom. However, they begin to break down those barriers in society when they equip minority students with the skills needed to be competitive with affluent white peers in college admissions and the job market.
As we look to overhaul our education system, segregated schools must be a part of the discussion. I wish my students experienced more cultural diversity. I wish my students interacted with peers of different socio-economic status. I wish my students' communities were not racially isolated. But that is not the case where communities in our country remain defined by race and class. In the meantime, my school, and other excellent charter schools, can offer students opportunities that are not available elsewhere. Until things are truly no longer separate, we must strive for equal. For my students, and for many others, being separate is just a step, albeit an unfortunate reality, on the journey to equality.
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