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. The result is that our schools look much like the neighborhoods in which they are located. For example, 89 percent of Connecticut students receive free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 86 percent of students in our host districts. Across 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 English Language Learners, students who have special needs 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 thousands of parents across Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, and the vast majority report high satisfaction with their child’s school experience. For instance, at AF East New York Middle, 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, there is high demand for our schools. In fact, we had nine applications for every seat in our schools in a recent New York 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. We are always refining and improving our practices to better serve students.
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 decisions by rewarding positive choices and accomplishments 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. 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, Hartford and Bridgeport 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, Hartford and Bridgeport public schools. Achievement First leaders also participate in the program, learning from counterparts in the traditional school districts. 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 informing the parents of English Language Learner children around the enrollment process. In Rhode Island, Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy Elementary served 30% ELL students during its first year, compared with 20% in Providence Public Schools.
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, which has a significant concentration of ELL students, 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. However, that statistic deserves a closer look. 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 approach is founded on a special education model in which ALL students receive targeted support, and our inclusive approach results in fewer students being identified as requiring special education services. This is critically important because, nationally, African-American students and students from low-income communities are more likely to be referred for special education services, classified as having a disability and placed in restrictive environments. We are committed to our individualized approach, and to making sure students aren’t over-identified as needing special education services. Some students with special needs 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 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. In 2013, the New York City Department of Education highlighted AF Bushwick as one of eight city schools with high-needs populations that excel at preparing students for college and careers. AF Bushwick earned special credit for making outstanding gains with special education students.
We are extremely proud that, for the fifth year in a row out of as many graduating classes, 100 percent of graduating seniors have been accepted into 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.
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. It is illegal to have for-profit companies run charter schools in the communities we serve. Achievement First is a nonprofit, 501(c)3 entity originally started in 1998 as Amistad Academy by a group of community activists who believed that equality in education is the civil rights issue of our time. 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, but this 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.
How can I best support my student through the transition to Common Core?
The New York State Department of Education launched a website that offers resources for families about the shift to the Common Core Standards, including a helpful parent guide.
What is the Common Core?
John King, New York State’s commissioner of education, explains the purpose and impact of the new standards. Watch the Video