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As Education Evolves

• Sam Duell

University Charter School, a new chartered public school in rural Alabama, opened its doors for the first time last week, and it’s getting a lot of attention for intentionally integrating students in a county whose other public schools continue to be racially concentrated. (See coverage from local outlets, Associated Press, Reason, Slate, The Hill and EdWeek.) But there’s more to the story and a lot more to the new school.

The new school was formed in partnership with the University of West Alabama, a small state-college with a history of pushing boundaries dating back to 1839. UWA was founded to provide education and training to women at a time when many women (and men, for that matter) did not attend school at all. UWA’s first mission was to train teachers and their new partnership with University Charter School will build on that history.

University Charter School (UCS) promises great opportunities for families in their rural community. With a plan to eventually serve students from Pre-K to 12th grade, the charter will afford students the opportunity to dually enroll in college courses while taking advantage of project-based learning and a focus on technical subjects like engineering. UCS graduates could potentially leave the charter having completed the equivalent of two years of college, dramatically lowering the cost of a bachelor’s degree. That’s an enormous opportunity for any student.

UCS and charter schools are part of the evolution of public education. In fact, Brown v. Board of Education recognized that public education evolves. To strike the “separate but equal” precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and to properly interpret the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), Chief Justice Warren wrote about how much the public education system had changed in 60 years.

The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown…In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954)

UCS is in good company, which is evidence that public education can – and should – continue to evolve. Just take a look at the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization that boasts over 100 individual schools serving 50,000 students as members. They believe that charter schools offer a great opportunity to intentionally and freely integrate our schools, and David Osborne of “Reinventing America’s Schools” fame agrees with them. In some ways UCS reminds us of what Summit Public Schools was ten or twelve years ago: a California charter network (and member of the coalition) that is supporting hundreds of traditional public schools across the country to adopt personalized learning. UCS and Summit are both intentionally integrated, they share a focus on personalized learning and they are looking for opportunities to build partnerships.

Perhaps when families believe their children will have great educational opportunities, they will cross boundaries to obtain them.  After all, we have new evidence that most parents want the same things for their children. Schools like University Charter School provide valuable and meaningful education that can change the lives of individual students and families while helping a community grow and integrate at the same time.  As our education continues to evolve — and creates more promising schools like UCS — we may just find that integration is the happy byproduct of a quality opportunity.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.