Choosing charters: Many New York parents find charter schools to be best fit for their kids

With school application results looming, New York parents are considering options for rising kindergartners, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. Meticulous research goes into making the best decision for their children — and they have a lot to think about, choosing between public and private, single-sex and coed, traditional and progressive. Oh, and what is a charter school, anyway?

There are many opinions on what exactly the best school option is, and many New Yorkers find that a charter school is the best fit for their children. These parents are making their voices heard, and the city is in the midst of a charter school expansion. A charter school is a public school that is managed by a board of trustees that may include educators, community members, and individuals from the private sector. These schools operate without many of the regulations that a traditional public school may have. Because of this arrangement, charter schools operate under a contract (or “charter”) that is typically operative for up to five years. Charter schools in New York have to be approved and authorized by three groups: the New York City Department of Education, the New York State Department of Education, and the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute.

With the rise of the charter school movement in New York in the late 1990s, many New Yorkers have seen the increase in charter schools as a way to provide families with more school options. Admission to charter schools is by application or lottery, and any student eligible for admission to a city public school is eligible for a charter school. Priority is typically given to those who live in the district where the school is located, and siblings of students currently attending the school also receive priority. Many charter schools have unique models with varying approaches to curriculum, discipline, and academic focus. The chosen model varies from school to school, but there is consistency in that charter school schedules often include an extended day, a longer school year, and access to additional programming in the after-school hours (whether in-house or through an outside agency).

There is a lot of debate about the value of charter schools and their impact on traditional public schools, but those involved with charter schools see the current expansion as more opportunities for children to succeed. An administrator of a charter school with substantial prior experience working in traditional schools and school districts noted that charter schools offer “the chance to innovate with less constriction.” He added, “Traditional schools are focused on improving within the system. Charters can innovate outside the system and the usual constituent relationships (teachers, parents, students) are able to be framed and managed in a way that creates opportunity for increased achievement.” He also noted that another positive development in many charter schools is that they are focused on serving a diverse and integrated student population.

Given that they are independently run, charter schools have worked hard to make changes in their hiring practices, teacher compensation, and tenure that are more attractive than the offerings from traditional schools. Charter schools are still subject to accountability systems, such as testing, and the students have performed well in recent years by these measurements. Many supporters of charter schools are confused as to why the city is not overrun with new school sites.

“We felt it was the best fit for our daughter in terms of its academics and culture. We didn’t feel strongly about sending her to a charter versus a public or private school — like most parents, we considered all options,” said K. Thorn, a mom of a second-grader attending a charter school in Manhattan. She added, “There are a lot of great charter schools out there, and kids benefit from their expansion. As parents, we all want to find the best school for our kids, we all need good options where our children can grow and thrive.”

She also recommended that parents look past the heated opinions about charter schools and take a look for themselves to determine if the school is best for their children.

New York has not seen the level of charter school growth that some other cities have, but expansion is quite noticeable in certain neighborhoods. For instance, areas that have lower socioeconomic levels or under-performing schools are finding new charter schools most frequently. This past July, the New York Times noted that more charter schools would be allowed to open in place of so-called “zombie charters,” which are charter schools that were approved but did not begin operations or have closed. This simple move — allowing charters to be reissued — allows nearly two dozen charter schools to open. Zeta Charter School (founded by Emily Kim, formerly of Success Academy) is slated to open in the fall of 2018. According to Zeta’s website, its mission is “to build and sustain high-performing schools that forge thriving communities of lifelong learners, problem solvers, and innovators.” It will launch two public charter schools in the 2018–19 school year, with plans to grow to 10 schools serving pre-K through 12th grade.

There are more than 200 charter schools available to children in the five boroughs (http://schools.nyc.gov/community/charters/information/directory.html). The deadline to apply to most is April 1. You must contact each school directly regarding the admission timing and requirements.

Shnieka Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website: www.shniekajohnson.com.