In February 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Capital City Public Charter School in northwest Washington, D.C. They were greeted at the front entrance of the school by 5th-grade students and given a brief tour before taking a seat in the library to read The Moon Over Star to a group of 2nd graders.
This was the First Family's first official public-school visit, just a few short weeks after President Obama was sworn into office. Obama's enthusiastic support for charter schools was one of the things that set him apart from his Democratic predecessors and marked him as a "proreform" Democrat.
Even accounting for the usual political exaggeration, the president seemed pretty impressed by what he saw: "The outstanding work that's being done here ... is an example of how all our schools should be," said Obama. "I've asked Arne Duncan to ... make sure that we're reforming our schools, that we're rewarding innovation the way that it's taking place here."
Little noticed at the time, the school the White House chose for the visit wasn't exactly a typical urban charter. Based on the Expeditionary Learning model and begun by a group of parents in 2000, Capital City is located in an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse part of northwest Washington, rather than in a highpoverty area. It recruits a mix of black, Latino, and white families, in contrast to the homogeneous groups of low-income minority students urban charters generally serve. Last but not least, its teaching approach is designed to work with both advanced and struggling students, and intended to foster abstract skills like creativity, depth of thought, and problem solving, rather than focusing on remediation and basic reading and math skills.
Fueled by a confluence of interests among urban parents, progressive educators, and school reform refugees, a small but growing handful of diverse charter schools like Capital City has sprouted up in big cities over the past decade: others are High Tech High in San Diego; E. L. Haynes in Washington, D.C.; Larchmont Charter School and Citizens of the World Prep in Los Angeles; Summit in Northern California; the five-school Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) network; Community Roots, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, and Upper West Success Academy in New York City; and Bricolage Academy, planned for New Orleans (see sidebar, page 33).
These schools attract children of city workers, project residents, New York Times reporters, and government officials, and simultaneously attempt to address the weaknesses of "no-excuses" charter schools, progressive education, and school segregation: "Usually in the places that are all about accountability it doesn't feel like there is a ton of learning going on as the primary outcome," says Josh Densen, a former KIPP teacher who is set to open Bricolage Academy next year. "In schools where it's all about learning, discovery, and projects and teamwork, there seems to me to be an absence of or a reluctance to have any kind of accountability."
While it is too soon to say whether they are effective over time or at scale, these diverse charter schools are revealing themselves to be popular, controversial, and--not surprisingly--complicated to operate.
Diversity at Community Roots
On a sunny fall afternoon, a group of 5th graders at Community Roots in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, looked over a short passage about the Montgomery bus boycott, practicing how to find extra information in captions and headlines. Some were struggling to get started or needed a review of the basic concepts from one of the two teachers in the room. Others zoomed ahead and were encouraged to think about more advanced ideas like inference and themes. Some had on fashionable ankle boots, while others wore threadbare T-shirts. Their names ranged from Gabe to Ilios to Amira to Bella. …