Our admissions system is simple and open: we educate as many students as we can and select them through a blind lottery with no admission requirements, tests or fees. There is no possible way for us to “cherry pick” students through the blind-lottery process. Achievement First public charter schools are equal-opportunity, open-access schools. The result is that our schools look as much as possible like the neighborhoods in which they are located. For example, 78 percent of our students in New Haven receive free or reduced lunch, compared to 78 percent in the city as a whole. Across all Achievement First schools in Connecticut and New York, more than 98 percent of our students are African American or Latino, and 90 percent of our high school graduates are the first in their families to attend college. That doesn’t mean our job is done. We work hard to make sure that our schools reflect and serve the diversity of our communities, actively recruiting and working with the parents of special-needs, English-language-learner and other historically underserved children throughout the lottery process.
Achievement First students have a proven track record of success, outpacing their district and state peers on assessment tests. Due to this accomplishment, critics have suggested that our schools are selecting students who have more engaged parents or fewer risk factors than their community peers. This is simply not true. Our students aren’t handpicked; they are selected based on blind lotteries without admission tests or fees. All students, including those who have special needs or are classified as English Language Learners, have an equal chance of gaining enrollment.
Justine Hastings, a Yale University economist, found that “parental selection” is not the reason Achievement First students perform at higher levels. (Hastings, Neilson, and Zimmerman, "Magnet and Charter School Achievement: Evidence from New Haven Public School Lotteries". Yale University. 2010). Critics argue that charter school parents are inherently more engaged since they’ve taken the time to enter an admissions lottery. To check this, the Yale research team tracked the progress of all students who applied to Achievement First lotteries, whether they were selected in the lottery or enrolled in traditional district schools. The lottery creates a perfect randomized control group, which is the highest standard for scientific research.
The study found that attending an Achievement First school for just one year increased students’ reading and writing scores significantly and substantially. Since all of the families in the study had applied to the admissions lottery, Achievement First student performance gains could not be the result of parent selection.
On a related note, Mathematica Policy Research found that students who enter an Achievement First school academically outperform their demographically similar peers in traditional district schools. (Teh, McCullough, and Gill, “Analysis Impact Estimates for Five Schools Affiliated with Achievement First and Uncommon Schools”. Mathematica Policy Research. 2010). Critics argue that charter schools are successful because they (knowingly or not) select the highest performing, least “at-risk” students. To check this, the study controlled for previous academic performance and demographic risk factors, such as low-income status.
The study found that after three years at an Achievement First or Uncommon Schools middle school, students performed nearly a full grade level ahead of demographically similar peers in traditional district schools who began at the same academic “starting line.”
The Yale and Mathematica research confirms that Achievement First schools add substantial value to our students’ education, irrespective of other factors cited by critics. Achievement First students excel because of the quality of our schools.
Achievement First partners with over 6,000 parents across Connecticut and New York, and the vast majority report high satisfaction with their child’s school experience. For instance, at AF East New York Middle School, recent survey answers reflect 99 percent of parents feel “my child goes to a great school.” Because of our success in helping students reach their potential and climb the mountain to college, the community has a very positive impression of our schools. In fact, we had eight applications for every seat in our schools in a recent enrollment lottery. Across the Achievement First network, our daily attendance is about 98 percent. This high attendance is only possible because our students want to be in our classrooms. That’s because of the overwhelmingly positive experience students and their families have in AF schools.
Teachers and parents have the same goal: student success. Our schools partner with parents in many ways:
Our discipline system is rigorous but fair. We believe in high expectations and “sweating the small stuff,” an approach that allows us to stem problem behavior before it escalates. Our policies are focused on creating a safe and productive learning environment where every student can thrive. Because our policies are enforced, predictable and respected by students, we are able to spend less time on discipline and more time on the elements of instruction that matter most: teaching and learning. Our program is thoughtfully based on best practices within Achievement First and at a number of excellent public charter schools throughout the country and their experience in figuring out what works to achieve exemplary student achievement.
Our schools foster a caring, nurturing environment that is built on engaging students and building strong relationships with students and their families. While our system of consequences, which include demerits, acts as a deterrent to making bad choices, this is balanced by a system of celebration and positive reinforcement that recognizes good citizenship. Achievement First schools are designed to help students make the right choices by rewarding good behavior with merits, assemblies, public shout-outs, profiles on our walls and newsletters, and more. Each week, students who make poor choices are significantly outnumbered by their peers who make the right choices on their way to successfully climbing the mountain to college.
From the first day a student -- any student -- arrives at one of our schools, we are 100 percent committed to retaining and educating that student. We embrace students who have a wide range of academic abilities and backgrounds, and our schools do not encourage struggling students to leave. In fact, we work hard to keep every child in our schools and refer to our students who struggle as the “Kids We Love the Most” (KWLMs) to remind ourselves that these students often need more support and care. Through our individualized approach, extended school day and year, small-group instruction, tutoring programs, and analysis of achievement data, we work hard to ensure all students stay on track and don’t fall through the cracks.
We actively partner with traditional public schools since we know that educating our nation’s future leaders and workforce is far more important than turf battles. That’s why we’ve set up, among our other partnerships, a residency program for school leadership. Offered through Achievement First’s New Haven and Hartford public charter schools, the program provides paid residencies, including mentoring, coaching and professional development opportunities, to promising assistant principals, coaches and teachers throughout New Haven and Hartford public schools. Additionally, we share hundreds of classroom and professional development resources found in Achievement First public charter schools through constant collaboration, school visits and a free website accessible to the entire education reform community.
The percentage of our students who are English Language Learners is currently lower than the New York and Connecticut state averages. In part, this is because many of our schools are located in historically African-American neighborhoods. We have taken the initiative to make sure that our schools reflect and serve the full spectrum of our communities by actively recruiting and educating the parents of English Language Learner children around the enrollment process.
Our overall instructional approach is well suited to help ELL students gain fluency in English. Smaller class sizes, an intensive focus on phonics and decoding, and more time for reading and math due to the extended day and school year all contribute to an environment where students learn English quickly. As a result, Achievement First Bushwick in New York City, which has a significant concentration of ELL students, recently earned “full credit” from the New York City Department of Education in its 2011 Progress Reports for exceptional gains with ELL students, defined as scoring in the top 20 percent in the city in both English and math.
Fewer students at Achievement First are designated as requiring special education services than their traditional public school counterparts. That designation deserves a closer look, though. To begin with, many of the students with the greatest needs aren’t in traditional public school classrooms -- they opt for out-of-district placements or private, specialized settings. Additionally, our individualized education program and close attention to individual student needs means that some special-education students become successful in our classrooms without the need for additional services. In fact, there are many examples of students who entered Achievement First schools bearing special education labels, only to shed those labels within our schools as they grow and thrive. This remarkable transformation is due to our rigorous yet supportive “full-inclusion” learning environment, which holds all students to the same high expectations, but provides each with the support they need.
We are extremely proud that, for the third year in a row out of as many graduating classes, 100 percent of our seniors have been accepted into four-year colleges and universities. We believe one of the biggest ways to eliminate the achievement gap is to empower students with the ability to make choices. Our high expectations, our focus on college preparation and our high-quality skill building give our students a choice to attend college that is not a false choice -- because we know that our students have the belief and the skills to succeed. Due to our high expectations and focus on higher-order skills, even those students who do not attend college have acquired the critical-thinking skills and self-confidence they will need in any career.
It is illegal to have for-profit companies run charter schools in Connecticut or New York. Achievement First is a nonprofit, 501(c)3 entity originally started nearly 15 years ago as Amistad Academy by a group of community activists who believed that equality in education is the civil rights issue of our time. Since Achievement First is nonprofit, all funds are directed toward our goal of closing the achievement gap between underserved, low-income students and their affluent peers. Some critics have unfairly dubbed Achievement First as “corporate” because some of our donors are private business leaders. The private sector has engaged in philanthropy throughout history, which doesn’t make their philanthropic interests corporate. Andrew Carnegie, an accomplished business person in the steel industry, funded more than 1,500 libraries in the United States. Carnegie’s business success does not make his libraries “corporate.” As such, Achievement First is not corporate, nor are the many organizations our donors support. The Walton Family Foundation, a valued partner in our work, also donates to the Environmental Defense Fund and National Wildlife Federation, and the Broad Foundation, a respected leader in education reform and AF donor, gives to the Foundation for Digestive Health and Nutrition as well as the Museum of Modern Art. None of these nonprofit organizations would be considered corporate. Achievement First is funded just as nonprofit and civic organizations have been funded for centuries -- in part by private philanthropists donating toward the public good.
Achievement First is committed to creating the kind of top-quality public charter schools our students need and deserve, and doing so at a meaningful scale with a per-student cost equal to or less than that of our host public school districts. This is evident in each of our full-size schools in both New York and Connecticut. In Bridgeport, for instance, we spend just more than $13,000 per student, about $93 less than the host district on a per-student basis.