How Diverse-by-Design Public Charter Schools Meet Community Needs

How Diverse-by-Design Public Charter Schools Meet Community Needs

This blog post was written by Sonia C. Park, Executive Director, Diverse Charter Schools Coalition. The mission of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition is to catalyze and support the creation and expansion of high-quality, diverse-by-design public charter schools through strategic research, advocacy, membership activities, and outreach. DCSC’s membership has grown from 14 founding member schools and networks to over 70. Collectively, DCSC members represent 211 individual schools serving close to 80,000 students in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

Authorizers are receiving applications from, and approving, a more diverse array of public charter schools than ever before! This is exciting: it means that one of the primary goals of the charter movement—innovation—is alive and well.

Although there was a consistent decline in the opening of new public charter schools from 2014 until 2017, more recently there has been an increase in the number of new independently run and community-focused schools. This suggests that charter school authorizers are listening to the desires and aspirations of communities and families, and providing unique learning opportunities tailored to the students they serve. 

One public charter school model that is increasingly seen over the past five years is the Diverse-By-Design model (DBD). Diverse-By-Design schools include a commitment to student diversity as part of their mission or design. In addition to diverse enrollment demographics, DBD schools often aim to ensure that: 

  • internal resources are allocated fairly; 
  • strong relationships are built between students, families, and staff; 
  • restorative justice is prioritized over traditional discipline methods; 
  • and teachers and staff reflect the diversity of the students they serve

Though the educational program of Diverse-By-Design public charter schools can differ (from Montessori, to International Baccalaureate, to dual language programs) the underlying DNA of these schools is a commitment to intentional integration. 

Anecdotally, Diverse-By-Design charter schools often embody the principles of NACSA’s vision for charter schools to keep communities at the center. Many Diverse-By-Design schools open in historically segregated areas to try and integrate not only the school, but the communities where they are located. In these communities, diverse schools can invigorate and strengthen urban neighborhoods by bringing families together across lines of differences. As we’ve recently seen and experienced across the country, this is more important than ever. The ability to work, live, and understand each other—regardless of race, culture, or language—makes us stronger as a society. Diverse learning environments develop cultural literacy, social empathy, compassion, and the capacity to not just tolerate, but respect and understand one another. In 1974, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the dissent to the Milliken v. Bradley Supreme Court decision that “[u]nless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”

The rise of Diverse-By-Design public charter schools seeks to counter the trends in American schools, which are more racially segregated now than in the 1970s. Studies have shown that school segregation breeds social inequality, disparate access to society’s resources, and less acceptance of people who differ across multiple social identities. Since Justice Marshall’s dissent, researchers have proven these benefits of socio-economically and racially diverse school settings: 

  • Academic achievement improves. 
  • Achievement gaps decrease.  
  • College attendance increases.  
  • 21st Century skills sharpen.

Creating and sustaining Diverse-By-Design charter schools does take concerted efforts and making use of flexibility under charter school laws. Diversity can be achieved through deliberate efforts via recruitment, admissions policies, and school design. For example, in New York, charter schools can draw students from a wider area beyond traditional attendance zones, overcoming the structural impediment behind a major cause of school segregation—housing segregation.  

If we take a look at Prospect Charter Schools and Central Queens Academy Charter School, both academically successful public charter schools in New York City, each with large admissions waiting lists, we see racial/ethnic and socio-economically disadvantaged student populations similar to the demographics of their districts. These schools use guardrails, in the form of admissions preferences, to ensure their student populations are intentionally diverse, and that families do not have to choose BETWEEN an excellent academic program or a fully integrated school.   

The national conversation about school integration and segregation largely exists at the education policy and regulatory levels: how many schools are segregated? Are they more or less segregated than before? These are important conversations but they miss a critical ingredient: school-based proof points of excellence. As Daniel Kikuji Rubenstein, DCSC founding board chair and CEO of DCSC member Prospect Schools says: “Enrolling a diverse student body is step one. The harder work is having a diverse and successful program…. How do you seed and make that a fully integrated community where equity and inclusion are really woven into the fabric of the community?”    

With greater flexibility and support from the authorizer (e.g. Prospect Schools and Central Queens Academy are both authorized by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute), dedicated Diverse-By-Design public charter schools can create the possibility of providing more quality seats in integrated learning environments.  

The answer isn’t necessarily more choice or less choice; it’s the right kind of choice for a particular community. With charter school authorizers continuing to focus on innovation, more schools of a variety of models (from culturally-affirming to single-gender to Diverse-By-Design) can be created to offer families the ability to choose from among diverse, high-quality options.

  2. Palardy, G. (2008). Differential school effects among low, middle, and high social class composition schools. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 19, 1: 37.
  3. Mantil, A., Perkins, A. G., & Aberger, S. (2012). The challenge of high-poverty schools: How feasible is socioeconomic school integration? In R. D. Kahlenberg (Ed.), The future of school integration: Socioeconomic diversity as an education reform strategy (pp. 155–222). New York, NY: Century Foundation Press.
  4. Palardy, G. J. (2013). High school socioeconomic segregation and student attainment. American Educational Research Journal, 50(4), 714–754, p. 714.
  5.  Perry, L. B., & McConney, A. (2010). Does the SES of the school matter? An examination of socioeconomic status and student achievement using PISA 2003. Teachers College Record, 112(4), 1137–1162. See also Willms, J. D. (2010). School composition and contextual effects on student outcomes. Teachers College Record, 112(4), 1008–1037.

Read more about how this commitment to collaboration #WithCommunities happens in practice and why it’s critical to advancing quality education systems. To read the full guide for educators, school leaders and advocates, visit

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