Charter Schools Ask Their Graduates, How’d We Do?

After spending nearly half his life at an Achievement First charter school in Brooklyn, New York, Marquis Wilson was prepared to write college essays and was diligent about showing up to class at SUNY Purchase.

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But Wilson, now a theater major, headed into his junior year, felt less prepared to make basic choices about how to spend his time once he got to college.

“I found myself at a Nerf club on Wednesday nights,” said Wilson, one of 31 who graduated from Achievement First Brooklyn High School, in Crown Heights, in 2013 as part of its inaugural class. “I wanted to try everything because I didn’t get to be free in high school.”

“My schedule was pre-determined,” he added, “whereas in college it’s like you can do this, and this, and this, and this.”

Wilson and two of his classmates reunited earlier this month at the request of the network’s board. Its members, led by board chair and former Brooklyn College dean Deborah Shanley, had two essential questions: “Did we prepare you? Where did we fall short?”

Charter school network leaders in New York City and across the country are looking for answers to those questions as they increasingly serve older students. Charter high school graduates have tripled in New York state since 2010, from 600 to 1,800 last year. Most of those students are black or Hispanic and from low-income families, groups that obtain four-year college degrees at less than half the rate of the national average.

And as charter schools try to push more students toward college graduation, they’re confronting fundamental questions.

How do they tweak their models, which include longer school days, prescriptive teaching practices, and strict discipline, to work best for older students? Is their singular focus on graduating from college right for every student? And how can they learn from the first students who have gone through their high schools into college?

The candid discussion at Achievement First’s board meeting was aimed at helping its schools answer the last question.

Wilson was joined by RoBrean Black, a forensic psychology major at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Avril Gordon, who is studying public health at Franklin and Marshall College. Their academic preparation was mostly solid, they agreed, though Gordon wished she’d had access to a more advanced science curriculum.

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