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Celebrating charter schools in North Carolina

At a time when the news seems full of negative press coverage, many might long to hear some good news. Thankfully, when it comes to one of the most important topics around — giving our children a quality education — North Carolina has an impressive, yet unheralded, story to tell. This National School Choice Week, we should celebrate the way in which charter schools and other educational options are giving more students access to a quality education.

School choice recognizes that no two students are alike and parents need options to pick the best school and learning program that meets their children’s needs. In North Carolina, school choice gives parents many options, from virtual schools to magnet programs offering specialized education to home schooling. The state also offers opportunity scholarship options to some students and grants for children with disabilities.

Among these school choice options, North Carolina also provides an array of charter schools — publicly funded institutions with greater freedom and flexibility than traditional neighborhood schools. Enrollment in the state’s 185 charter schools recently exceeded 100,000 North Carolina students — an important milestone for this relatively new innovation.

Many charter schools deliver impressive results when compared to their more traditional peers. Take Henderson Collegiate, a charter school that first began in 2010. Over the past decade, the school has grown from 100 students in one grade to more than 1,200 students in elementary, middle, and high school programs.

As a charter school, Henderson Collegiate operates with autonomy from the local school district, allowing it to innovate in its curricular offerings. For instance, Henderson Collegiate operates on a longer school day — from 7:40 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. — and includes mandatory summer school. During the course of a year, students will benefit from 26 extra days of curricular instruction. Over the lifetime of a full K-12 education, students will receive 338 more instruction days — nearly two full years of extra time in the classroom.

Henderson Collegiate not only provides more hours of instruction to students, it also delivers results. Despite having a disproportionately low-income population, with more than five in six (86 percent) students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, Henderson Collegiate students outperform higher-income students. Whereas only seven in ten non-economically-disadvantaged eighth-graders statewide achieve grade level proficiency, more than nine in ten (93 percent) Henderson Collegiate students do.

Or consider Bradford Preparatory School: about one fifth of Bradford’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch based on family income and the school makes changes accordingly. It offers an ENRICH program, where students learn social skills, public speaking, emotional intelligence, personal finance, and other skills. Health and nutrition also play important roles in learning at Bradford.

Perhaps most importantly, students in seventh grade at Bradford begin the extensive six-year process of college and career planning. This is especially important for students who may be the first in their families to attend college.

As with many North Carolina charter schools, Henderson Collegiate and Bradford Prep have received high performance grades from the state for several years running. But the true measure of success for Henderson Collegiate, Bradford Prep, or any school choice program, does not lie in performance statistics. It comes from seeing children develop a love of learning and work to achieve their fullest potential inside the classroom.

National School Choice Week serves to celebrate the achievements of millions of school choice students. At more than 40,000 events nationwide the week of Jan. 20-26 — including our Jan. 22 rally at noon at the Fairview in Raleigh — parents, teachers, educators, and students themselves will commemorate the benefits of school choice and work to bring those benefits to every household and family.

In North Carolina, we can use National School Choice Week as a time to reflect on the successes of charter schools and other educational options. Since their creation in 1996, charter schools have grown and flourished, providing a quality education to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina students. Those students provide a good news story right here in our state — one we should celebrate, and extend throughout North Carolina.

Rhonda Dillingham

Rhonda Dillingham is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools.