Porterfield: When Public Charter School Alumni Thrive in College

Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, center, talks with students, from left, Angela Simpson from New York, Abby Morenigbabe from New York and Brandon Trujilo from Los Angeles on campus in Lancaster, Pa., on November 18, 2014. He has ended all grants to families without need and instead reserved its money for families in need. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In 1938, as a part of American Education Week, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Precisely for that reason I was inspired upon reading Richard Whitmire’s New York Daily News article, “What some NYC charter schools do better than any in the nation: A proud distinction for Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First.” Whitmire presents data showing that fully half of these three charter school networks’ alumni graduate from college within six years, far above the 9 percent national average for low-income college goers.

Not that this report surprised me. As president of Franklin & Marshall College, I personally know an impressive cross-section of those KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools alumni because, six years ago, we embarked on a talent strategy through which we have built relationships with many of the country’s top-performing public charter schools, access programs, scholarship programs, and district public schools.

The 74 Profile: Closing the Opportunity Gap at Franklin & Marshall

As a result, we have tripled the percentage of incoming Pell Grant students while more than doubling the percentage of incoming domestic students of color. Most years, our Pell Grant students have earned the same or higher grades, first-to-second year retention rates, and graduation rates.

The data and numbers Whitmire tracks represent real victories and real students, like those I know here at F&M. For example, in 2013, 10 alumni of KIPP schools entered F&M; nine earned their degrees in four years and the 10th will receive his degree this year. Four Achievement First alumni entered in 2013; all four walked across the stage with diplomas this past May. Uncommon graduates were two for two.

For me, these numbers become even more inspiring when we reflect upon how these students’ futures have been transformed by the quality pre-college educations that set the trajectory for their success at a rigorous national liberal arts college.

Consider KIPP NYC’s Ashley Ceron, who went from F&M’s commencement stage to a prestigious position teaching in the KIPP Capital Residency Program in Washington, D.C.

Or consider Uncommon’s North Star Academy graduate Brandon Smith, now working for Travelers Insurance.

And then there’s Nadia Johnson, Markese Wright, Asia Mateen, and Avril Gordon, all from Achievement First schools — all giving back through Teach for America. Or, in Asia’s case, by teaching first-grade English-language arts at Elm City College Preparatory Elementary School in New Haven, Conn.

At F&M, we also see comparable successes from the alumni of other thriving networks.

There’s Mastery Network’s Josh Strickland, a legal assistant at the firm Green and Spiegel LLC; Jakobi Lehmann from UIC College Prep, a member of the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, now working for the financial tech startup Perpay, in Philadelphia; Geovani Ibarra, from Camino Nuevo High School in Los Angeles, whom we recruited to work at F&M as an alumni admissions fellow; and Brenda Gomez from Green Dot Public Schools’ Ámino Inglewood Charter High School, now helping low-income students as an e-advisor through the College Advising Corps.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy, but all these public charter school alums flourished at F&M — pursuing majors they loved, leading in student government, studying abroad, doing research with faculty, and making lifelong friends from all over the world. Now they’re working, serving, and enjoying life as young adults.

We didn’t recruit these students because they went to public charter schools; we recruited them because they combined talent with a strong education. What demonstrates that combination? Achieving at high levels in rigorous curricula. Seizing any and every opportunity to learn. Craving growth and pursuing education with optimism, discipline, and resilience.

Because they attended stellar schools, these great young people were able to claim and create formative college learning. Their accomplishments testify to what’s possible when we build wide bridges of academic excellence connecting transformative K-12 education to change-minded colleges. I give thanks every day for the work of the visionary founders of our innovative and successful public charter schools who have made it possible for their graduates to forge ahead in college and chart a course for their own empowerment, economic self-sufficiency, and choice-filled lives.

The public charter school alumni who proudly shook my hand at commencement last May in front of beaming families and educators made F&M a richer and finer institution, truer to our mission — and they are going to make their mark on the world. All the visionary work of those who founded their schools and those who taught like champions was well worth it.

My greatest hope is that, each year, still more children may have the opportunity to attend excellent schools like the ones that prepared KIPP’s Ashley Ceron, Uncommon’s Brandon Smith, and Achievement First’s Avril Gordon to succeed at Franklin & Marshall College. Every child deserves a chance to access education and to become a guardian of democracy.

Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D., is president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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