An Interview with Ursula Walsh: Charter Schools Improving School Achievement in Underserved Areas

May 27, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Ursula, I understand that you have recently released a national brief regarding charter schools. What would you say are the main points?

This week, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) released an issue brief titled, “A Mission to Serve: How Public Charter Schools are Designed to Meet the Diverse Demands of our Communities.” The report recognizes six high-performing charter schools in three underserved communities that have proved successful at closing the achievement gap for their largely African American and Latino student populations; thereby serving as a case study for how communities can leverage charter school autonomy to close the achievement gap in diverse or homogenous school environments.

2) Now, how did this brief measure “school achievement “?

A number of different variables were looked to determine student achievement. They include, but aren’t limited to student gains, standardized test scores and graduation rates.

3) What exactly do you mean by underserved areas?

We are referring to communities where the majority of children qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

4) In general, what is the feeling of the American public about charter schools?

In general, the more the American public learns about public charter schools the better they tend to like them. The August 2011 Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll reported that Americans increasingly embrace public charter schools as they became a more significant part of the education landscape. In 2000, only 42 percent of Americans favored charter schools while the rest didn’t really know what they were. By 2010, favorable opinions of public charter schools had increased to 68 percent with strong support and a better understanding across a range of demographics. That same study also showed that 70 percent of respondents favor giving teachers more “flexibility to teach in ways they think best.” Flexibility and autonomy are core to the definition of a public charter school. Public opinion surveys conducted by NAPCS in prior years confirm this finding.

5) Obviously, we are approaching a major election- what have you interpreted the position of the two main candidates regarding charter schools?

Both President Obama and Governor Romney are supporters of high performing public charter schools, which illustrates the rare bipartisan support this education innovation has earned.

6) To what do you attribute the success of charter schools?

Flexibility and autonomy for educators to address the needs of the student at the school level, in real time.

7) Many attribute the success of charter schools to fewer discipline problems, while others indicate that there are fewer kids with special needs. What have you found?

We’ve found that charter success is largely dependent on a school culture defined by high expectations for all students, a strong school leader who is free to recruit and develop a great team, freedom to adjust curriculum and scheduling to better serve students, and the ability to make operational decisions at the school level. All of which are afforded to it by the autonomous nature of public charter schools. More specifically, we tend to find that when a new charter school opens up in an underserved community, it’s the families who were least served or had children struggling in the traditional system, who flock to charters.

8) When and how will others be able to get a copy of this embargoed report ?

They can download it from our website at

9) What have I neglected to ask?

It’s important to point out the impact of charter schools on the public education landscape.

Today, charters comprise 5% of all public schools in this country and enroll more than two million students across 41 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to those students currently enrolled, hundreds of thousands more sit on waiting lists, desperately waiting for an opportunity to attend the public charter school of their choice.

The public charter school community has made quite an imprint since the first charter school opened in 1992 which makes this year – – our 20th anniversary year – – one to celebrate. In fact, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools will be hosting the largest observance of the charter movement’s 20th anniversary in its birthplace – – Minneapolis, MN – from June 19 – 22. Hope to see you there!

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