To keep and graduate freshmen, turn to charter schools for answers

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CPS' rising graduation rate may be inflated because of errors in counting students, according to a report. CPS and the Consortium on Chicago School Research defend the district's improvement.

Andrew Broy

Andrew Broy

In the Federalist Papers, John Adams famously quipped that “facts are stubborn things.” Chicago policymakers would do well to keep this in mind as they debate the current performance of Chicago charter schools.

For years, charter opponents have explained away charter school academic success by arguing that charter schools do well with students who stay, but that many leave and are therefore no longer counted in the performance data.  Now, for the first time, recently-released data prove that a very different story is true: Chicago charter schools actually keep and graduate a higher percentage of incoming ninth-graders than do district-run schools. In fact, the data from Chicago Public Schools reveal that charter schools are among the most successful schools at graduating the students that choose to enroll on the first day of high school.

We can all agree that a high-quality high school takes responsibility for the success of all the students who enter its doors the first day of freshman year. Until now, the public only had access to the official graduation rates for schools, which report how many of a school’s original ninth-graders ultimately graduate from any CPS school – even if they transfer to another school.

However, in a recent article, WBEZ examined this graduate rate and obtained data that has never before been disclosed: the number of freshmen who actually went on to earn a diploma from the school they first enrolled in.  This rate – the percent of original freshmen a school graduates – is referred to as the “freshman retention rate.”

Contrary to the claims of charter opponents, the results reveal that charter schools are graduating their original cohort of ninth-graders at substantially higher rates than their district counterparts. The average freshman retention rate for charter schools is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the average for district open enrollment schools. Although only a third of the open enrollment high schools are charter schools, charters make up six of the top 10 open enrollment schools with the highest freshman retention rates. Three of the charter schools in the top 10 are part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. In fact, this new data reveals that Noble schools are graduating their original freshmen at very high rates: eight of the nine Noble campuses have freshman retention rates that exceed the average for district open-enrollment schools.

The average freshman retention rate is higher in charters than non-selective district schools.

The average freshman retention rate is higher in charters than non-selective district schools.

These data reveal another critical trend – the number of families who start high school in CPS, but leave the school district altogether during the high school years – a group referred to as “verified transfers.” We have long known that Chicago is a city with high mobility and a declining student population, but our analysis shows that 15 percent of students from district-run open-enrollment schools leave the system all-together (nearly 3,000 students), compared to only 3 percent of students who start their high school careers at charter schools. We can’t say where these students are going – private schools, parochial schools, suburban schools – but it does raise questions of why district-run high schools are unable to hold on to these students.

While charter critics often claim that charter schools are responsible for students leaving the traditional system, the data actually suggest that charter public schools keep more students from leaving CPS than their district counterparts. In short, charter public schools are keeping students in the district at a higher relative rate. For a district with a long-standing pattern of declining enrollment, this is a notably bright trend.

At the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, we commend WBEZ for bringing this data to the public. Not only does it provide a useful metric for families looking to better understand their high school options, it also raises important questions about how the city can better retain students and bring them to the finish line. Let’s just hope everyone working to increase graduation outcomes pays attention.

Photo: Graduation cap and diploma/Shutterstock.com

Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy is a former civil rights attorney and public school teacher.