Students in the District's charter schools have opened a solid academic lead over those in its traditional public schools, adding momentum to a movement that is recasting public education in the city.
The gains show up on national standardized tests and the city's own tests in reading and math, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Charters have been particularly successful with low-income children, who make up two-thirds of D.C. public school students.
A dozen years after it was created by Congress, the city's charter system has taken shape as a fast-growing network of schools, whose ability to tap into private donors, bankers and developers has made it possible to fund impressive facilities, expand programs and reduce class sizes.
With freedom to experiment, the independent, nonprofit charters have emphasized strategies known to help poor children learn -- longer school days, summer and Saturday classes, parent involvement and a cohesive, disciplined culture among staff members and students.
The emergence of a thriving charter system has altered the dynamics of education in a city struggling to repair its reputation as one of the country's most troubled school districts. Since taking control of the traditional public schools 18 months ago, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have pushed for major reforms. But enrollment has continued to shrink, falling 42 percent since 1996. The growth of charters has accounted for almost all of that decline.
The city's charter system is now one of the largest in the country, fueled largely by word of mouth among parents looking for better public schools. Charters have grown to 60 schools on 92 campuses with 26,000 students, more than a third of the city's public school enrollment. In a few years, charters could become the dominant form of public education in the District.
Not all charters are successful. Many struggle to raise money and attract students. A few have gone out of business or been absorbed by other schools. Some officials who oversee the charters have also been involved in making private loans to them, creating possible conflicts of interest.
District children in both systems still fall short of national averages on standardized tests. But students in charter schools have been more successful at closing the gap. According to a Washington Post analysis of recent national test results for economically disadvantaged students, D.C. middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than the regular public schools in reading and 20 points higher in math.
On the city's standardized tests, the passing rate for charter middle schools was 13 percent higher on average.
District school records show that charters also have better attendance and graduation rates than the regular public schools and that their teachers are more likely to fit the city's definition of "highly qualified," meaning that they have expertise in what they are teaching.
Charter schools were envisioned as a way to prompt public school reform and give low-income families better educational options. They are publicly funded, and any D.C. student can attend for free. But the schools operate independently of the regular school system under rules set down in their charters and with the oversight of the seven-member Public Charter School Board.
The two public systems are, in general, educating students from similar backgrounds. About two-thirds of the students in both systems live in poverty, and more than 90 percent are minorities, according to school records. The traditional schools enroll a slightly higher percentage of special education students and students with limited English.
Charter schools must accept any student who applies, using a lottery if they have more applicants than spaces. That prevents the schools from cherry-picking applicants. But each school is free to set its own rules on expelling students.
Susan Schaeffler, who heads the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools in the District, said expulsions have not been a major factor. Almost all of the students at KIPP's three D.C. middle schools come from poor backgrounds, but the schools are among the highest-performing in the city. Within a decade, KIPP, a national charter network, plans to have 10 schools in the District, with a total of 3,400 students.
"Our success is not from moving kids out," she said, but is attributable to a highly unified school culture that teachers and students embrace.
Four days into the start of school this July, a teacher gave a hand signal to 80 fifth-graders waiting for lunch in the white cinder block cafeteria at KIPP KEY Academy in Southeast Washington. The students were already well drilled in the mind-set of their school, and the room immediately fell silent. The teacher began the call-and-response: "What room is this?"
Shouting at the top of their lungs, students and teachers belted out one of KIPP's signature rhythmic chants:
This is the room
That has the kids