Cherry-Picking the Truth

by Cristina de Jesus, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California

In her “Room for Debate” article in last month’s New York Times, Carol Burris accuses charter schools of “cherry-picking” their students. It’s a favorite refrain among ed-reform critics—that charter schools selectively cater to high-achieving students by deploying strict enrollment and disciplinary practices to dissuade or remove those who need extra support. According to the critics, such practices undermine any evidence of strong academic performance at these schools, which they claim is based on a skewed student sample.

These are serious claims, but before we address them, let’s be clear about one thing: Public schools, including charters, have a moral and legal obligation to provide the best possible educational opportunities for all their students, regardless of background, family circumstances, or academic standing. Schools that fail to support their highest-need students, either by keeping them away or forcing them out, are betraying the very letter of the public school promise.

School practices vary from district to district. Today, close to 6,000 charter schools operate in the United States. Each functions under its own, unique charter—one that’s been fully approved by the local school board. Each employs its own operational and instructional model and takes a variety of approaches to student enrollment and discipline. Yet critics like Burris and her peers insist on painting all charter organizations with the same broad brush, making sweeping claims about how students in these schools differ drastically from their peers in traditional public schools. At Green Dot, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A Reflection of the Community

Walk the halls of any Green Dot school and you’ll find a student population that closely mirrors the surrounding community. Our transformation schools—schools formerly operated by the district and now operated by Green Dot—illustrate this point perfectly. These neighborhood schools accept all students who live within a designated admissions boundary. They do not use lotteries or waiting lists; they accept students throughout the year. Green Dot’s first transformation effort took place at a high school located in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The turnaround of Locke High School in 2008 made us one of the few CMOs in the country to take on the full transformation of underachieving neighborhood schools, a strategy we’ve since replicated in Los Angeles and in Memphis, Tennessee.

Taken as a whole, Green Dot schools serve a student population that is over 99% African American and Latino; over 70% of our families live below the poverty line. At Locke, the ratios of students in poverty, English Language Learners, and special education students are comparable to (or exceed) district averages in Los Angeles Unified School District. Transiency rates at Locke are also high: on average, more than 500 new students arrive at Locke in the middle of the school year, the majority of whom are credit-deficient and require extra services. Locke also mirrors its community in the many challenges that spill onto campus from surrounding neighborhoods, creating disruptions that threaten to derail students’ learning time.

Beyond the Bickering

Is it possible, then, for charters to succeed without “cherry-picking” their students? To this, we respond with an emphatic “Yes!” Throughout Los Angeles, charter schools are playing a dramatic role in the lives of traditionally underserved students. Green Dot students’ accomplishments speak for themselves. Their successes are authentic, not manufactured. The four-year cohort graduation rate at our startup high schools matches California’s statewide rate (88%) and nearly meets the rate of the state’s middle-class students (91%).

Student success at Locke has been equally dramatic. Compared to the performance of Locke students prior to the Green Dot transformation, entering freshman now are ten times more likely to enroll in college, and the four-year cohort retention rate has more than doubled. Over the past five years, more than 2,000 students have crossed the stage on graduation day at Locke High School.

The success of transformation schools like Locke is proof of our commitment to high-needs students and to some of the country’s most vexing educational challenges. The work is difficult, but it’s paying off. Critics who claim otherwise aren’t painting an accurate picture of these schools; one might say they’re cherry-picking their facts.


Subscribe to the Green Dot Blog