Charter schools about choice, not segregation

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I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the continued dialogue on the notion that “charter schools cause segregation,” an unintended consequence of the school choice movement.

As founder and director of the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education — one of the first and most successful charter schools in North Carolina for 22 years — I caution pundits on this line of thinking.

First and foremost, the goal of public schools is to provide a quality education to all students. Economic disparities and shifting demographics make this effort almost impossible, which is one reason charter schools became so popular. It empowered parents to choose programs that best suit their child’s needs rather than be relegated to an ineffective school that was mandated by their district.

Thanks to charter legislation, SBHS was afforded the flexibility to design a curriculum that addressed the unique challenges of students from low-income areas in Wilson County. We offer more than 1,000 African American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian students in grades K-8 a performing arts-based curriculum, a travel abroad program and a culturally diverse faculty. All SBHS students are provided free breakfast, lunch and bus transportation.

Our academic record is strong. We’ve earned a school report card grade of “B” for the last two years, and nearly 100% of our eighth graders are accepted into the early college program at Wilson Community College. Additionally, we are expanding our program to include the SBH High School of Biotechnology and the Fine Arts in 2020.

Parents and students flock to schools like ours for many reasons, but ultimately for the academic success. It’s also understandable that successful schools with a certain demographic will attract students reflecting that same racial makeup.

That isn’t segregation. It’s voluntary association — or, in other words, choice.

Let’s be clear: segregation was legally sanctioned separation based on race and often enforced with violence. It’s a divisive, highly charged term that carries a painful history in this country. Charter schools are about choice. Referring to the unexpected impact of school choice as “re-segregation” is polarizing and distracts from the main issue: student achievement.

This description says it best: “segregation is when someone blocks a door, not when you don’t like the open doors that are freely chosen.”

Rather than condemn charter schools for their freedom to find alternative methods to educating all students, critics and administrators alike should seek to collaborate with successful charters on determining effective ways to close the achievement gap.

It’s time to awaken from the “illusion of our separateness” and unite for a common cause.

JoAnne Woodard is founder and executive director of the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts & Education.