A year ago, few of us understood exactly how much our world was about to change. Lockdowns, face coverings, business closures and mandatory remote learning were issues that people in other countries were contending with, not those of us here in the United States.
Obviously, that is no longer true. It was a year of change, and arguably nowhere was that change felt more than in our education system. The challenges of moving to remote learning with little warning were felt by every school, teacher, parent and student.
Despite these challenges, I’m proud to say that Colorado charter schools rose to the occasion. The innovation and flexibility that are baked into the charter school model served students and families well, and as a result our schools were able to weather the pandemic far better than most.
This past year, according to Colorado Department of Education figures, charter schools in Colorado actually saw a 3.9% increase in enrollment – about 5,000 more students – during one of the most difficult times for education in our state’s history. Charter schools now educate 15% of our state’s public school students, and those 131,000 children represent about 40% more students than the number enrolled in Colorado’s single largest school district, Denver Public Schools.
Last year’s spike in enrollment is a continuation of a trend that started long before the COVID-19 pandemic. While last year’s jump in enrollment was likely influenced by the flexibility that charter schools offer, it is the quality of the charter school experience that has driven the longer-term trend.
The state Department of Education’s most recent triennial report on charter schools showed that charter schools continue to outpace statewide averages when it comes to academic performance. Colorado charter schools serve higher percentages of students of color and English language learners that traditional public schools, and they do so while consistently delivering lower achievement gaps for our state’s highest-needs learners.
So how have charter schools managed to not only maintain their momentum but even grow it during a pandemic? Largely by leaning on the flexible culture and community connections that are inherent to their approach.
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One of the key strengths of charter schools has always been their nimbleness and ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Because of the site-level control they have over such things as budget, scheduling and staffing, charter schools are able to adjust rapidly as the needs of their community change. Never has this trait been more apparent — and important — than in the current COVID-19 context.
The momentum that charter schools have built is continuing in 2021. For example, charter schools in Colorado in January received more than $2 million in grants from Gov. Jared Polis’ Response, Innovation, and Student Equity (RISE) fund. The fund supports innovative solutions to help students affected by the economic, social and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state only funded those proposals it deemed best.
There is no question that the pandemic has caused many of our state’s students to regress, and innovative programs like the ones our charter schools have proposed can be an important step to mitigating that impact.
One of the RISE programs will formally assess student engagement, create tools for schools to increase that engagement, and then share those lessons with public schools across the state. Another program will redesign the school year by offering more than 2,000 of Colorado’s highest-need students the opportunity to participate in innovative extended- year programs that include academic, social-emotional and experiential components.
The reality is that charter schools in Colorado offer some of the most innovative public school options in our state. The pandemic has served to highlight the importance of this innovation and flexibility, and these lessons are ones we should take with us as we slowly begin to look past COVID-19 and consider the reimagined public education system our students need and deserve in the future.
Dan Schaller, a former high school teacher, is the president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, representing the interests of Colorado’s public charter schools. He and his wife have two school-age daughters.
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