What can we learn from the public charter school model during COVID-19?

Cities will face unprecedented challenges over the next months and years as they work to recover from the social, emotional, and economic toll wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. And nowhere will the collective, human impact of this toll be felt more acutely than in K-12 public schools.

Like most US cities struggling to overcome legacies of educational, economic, and racial inequality, our public schools in Kansas City and St. Louis face daunting challenges during the best of times: Poverty is concentrated. Schools are segregated. The proficiency gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers is large, particularly for students of color.

Now, with months of learning and emotional supports lost due to physical-distancing and school closures – and with the prospect of closures and distancing continuing into the next school year – we’re forced to consider what meeting this challenge looks like during the worst of times.

What’s clear is that, during this time of uncertainty and scarcity, we’ll be expecting our public schools to do even more.

Now more than ever, we need schools that are agile, and able to respond quickly to student and community needs. And we need school leaders and teachers who are empowered to innovate and problem-solve, coming up with creative ways to address the most difficult challenges schools face.

The good news? We have a blueprint

There’s a blueprint for this type of school. It’s called a public charter school. And if you live in Kansas City or St. Louis, your child, or the child of someone you know, might attend one: in Kansas City, 48% of all K-12 public school students within Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) boundaries attend public charters; in St. Louis, 38% of students within St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) boundaries attend a charter school. Altogether, charters educate 24,594 students in Missouri, 3% of all K-12 public students statewide.

Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that operate independently of traditional public school districts. In charter schools, decisions about a school’s most important resources – staffing, budget, time and curriculum – are made at the school-level, closest to students.

By bringing decision-making inside the school building, the charter school model reduces the distance between school leadership and students, making schools more agile and responsive. It builds a sense of school ownership and facilitates the development of strong community partnerships. And it encourages innovation and different approaches to running schools.

How Missouri charter schools are responding to COVID-19

Over the past six weeks, we’ve seen the advantages of this model as Missouri’s charter schools have responded to the needs of students and families with remarkable speed.

In St. Louis, North Side Community School, a K-8 charter in one of the most economically disadvantaged parts of the city, surveyed families and found that two-thirds of their 500 students lacked laptops and one-third lacked internet access. Through a community partnership, North Side quickly procured laptops and connectivity for all its students, enabling virtual school to begin for all students.

KIPP St. Louis, a network of six charter schools serving 2,300 K-12 students, launched a weekly KIPP St. Louis Family Newsletter to provide resources and updates to families in order to keep them connected to the larger KIPP STL community during this challenging time. Each KIPP student is paired with a teacher for weekly check-ins.

At Academy for Integrated Arts (AFIA), a K-6 arts-focused school serving 250 students in Kansas City, AFIA staff deliver food, technology, and other supports directly to the homes of students whose families lack transportation. AFIA volunteers assembled at-home art kits for each student; the arts continue to be a central focus of AFIA’s online instruction.

And in partnership with a local non-profit, University Academy,​​​​​​​ a K-12 Kansas City charter that serves 1,100 students, delivers fresh produce twice a week to the school’s most at-risk families, in addition to providing daily meals for its students.

These are but a few examples of how Missouri’s public charter schools, with the support of trusted community partners, are responding to the needs of their school communities while standing up and conducting virtual instruction.

And they’re doing all of this on a tighter budget: In Missouri, because of a glitch in the state’s charter school law, charters get approximately $1,100 less per student per year than traditional public schools. This means that a 300-student charter school receives approximately $330,000 less per year than an SLPS or KCPS school serving approximately the same student population. This funding inequity forces charter schools to be resourceful. But it also makes them vulnerable, especially in times of economic crisis, when every dollar counts.[1]

The real innovation of public charters? Bringing decision-making closer to students

One of the original intentions of charters schools, when they were developed in the 1990s, was to create an environment in which innovation could be fostered in a small-school setting. Not every innovation would work, of course, but those that were successful could be adopted by traditional public school districts, who through their centralized organizational structures, could bring them to scale, reaching thousands of students.

For a variety of reasons, this vision of district-charter collaboration didn’t materialize. But, as we consider what public education looks like in the time of COVID-19, and what we’ll be expecting from schools going forward, maybe the real innovation of charter schools isn’t one particular program or curriculum.

Maybe the real innovation is the school model itself, an adaptable model that, in this time of crisis, offers a blueprint for all public schools for how we can empower educators and bring schools, their leaders, and their decision-making processes closer to students and the communities they serve.

Rebecca Haessig is Director of Quality Initiatives at MCPSA. She is also author of Set the Schools Free, a Kansas City Public Education blog.