What can private schools learn from charters?

Part 129 of 126 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

While private schools — in particular, Catholic schools — have seen a decline in enrollment in recent years, the Catholic school network Cristo Rey has flourished, opening two to three schools each year,

LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Cristo Rey students work part-time to gain experience and offset the cost of tuition.

The schools enroll only low-income students in grades nine through 12. When students enroll, most are two years behind, but by the time they graduate they’ve been accepted to college. Unique to Cristo Rey schools is that every student works at a local business, with groups of four or five sharing an entry-level job.

“A typical student, a typical boy might come in not all that interested in school, but he’s working at a law firm or insurance company,” said Jack Crowe, COO and general counsel for the network. “Typically, they really like that. They enjoy it, and they work hard and do well at it. It helps them to aspire to try harder in school once they realize they can become a lawyer or a doctor.”

The students’ work pays a little less than half what it costs to educate them. Parents contribute a small amount in tuition, and fundraising covers the rest of the cost.

Cristo Rey operates 26 schools in 17 states and Washington, D.C.

Part of the reason for the success is the network itself. The schools share a the work-study model, exchange best practices, compare data and otherwise work together to build the entire network.

Many charter schools belong to similar networks, but it’s uncommon for private schools to function like this. The private school sector could benefit from organizing into networks like Cristo Rey, according to a study published this week by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

“Right around the year 2000 or 1999, a set of organizations realized if there’s one great charter (school), you can replicate and expand it by creating a CMO (charter management organization), a central office that takes your one great school and replicates and expands so it can be two, 20, 40 schools,” Smarick said. “In private school sectors, all these individual, autonomous schools don’t have much central support, don’t have other schools or shared staff that they can rely on.”

CMOs also make it easier to recruit effective teachers, Smarick said. Organizations such as Teach for America, a nontraditional teacher-preparation program, can work with a CMO with 20 schools more easily than it can work with 20 individual schools.

This is one of several successful methods private schools could learn from charter schools. Charter schools, in turn, can learn from the private sector.

While many charter schools are capable of getting students from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted to college, the college persistence rate is higher in urban Catholic schools, Smarick said. Charter schools could learn from Catholic schools how to encourage their students to remain in college and graduate.

“Both sectors would reap enormous benefit from greater collaboration,” Smarick, wrote in the report. “Charter and private schools operate under different regulations, but have many of the same concerns, yes, these schools are more likely to collaborate with other schools in their sector than other schools of similar quality in different sectors.”

The full report is available at the Friedman Foundation’s website.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.