Ep. 394: What’s Up with Diverse Charter School Coalition

October 20, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, host Mike McShane talks with Sonia Park, executive director of the Diverse Charter School Coalition.

McShane and Park talk about what they are trying to achieve, the actual practices that go on in these diverse by design charter schools, and also the public policy that’s necessary for them to start and grow, and be part of the charter school landscape.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats, and particularly my series, “What’s Up with Mike McShane?” I’m Mike McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice, and today, I’m going to be answering the question, what’s up with the Diverse Charter School Coalition? To help me understand the work that they do, why they do it, what they’re trying to accomplish, I will be speaking with Sonia Park, who is the executive director of the Diverse Charter School Coalition. If you’re curious about the organization in general, on their website, it says, “Our mission is to catalyze and support the creation and expansion of high quality, diverse public charter schools through strategic research, advocacy, membership activities and outreach.” We have a really wonderful conversation, both talking about the ends that they are trying to achieve and the means by which they’re trying to do that. We talk a little bit about the actual practices that go on in these diverse by design charter schools, but also the public policy that’s necessary for them to start and grow, and be part of the charter school landscape.

One thing that I’ll just highlight ahead of time, that I think is really important, we talk about it in the conversation, but it’s worth setting as part of the furniture here at the beginning, is the idea of a big diverse charter school sector, where you have different schools trying to do different things, and people having the freedom to choose between them. I imagine some people who will be listening to this will say, “Oh my goodness, these schools sound amazing. I would love to work in one of these schools, or send my kids to these schools. This is fantastic.” There might be other people who say, “This might not be for me. I’d like a school that emphasizes something else, or is trying to accomplish something else.” This is the beauty of pluralism, and the hope that I think a lot of us that are in the school choice space would like to see, having people have the opportunity to choose these schools if they so desired, but also the opportunity to choose something else if that’s what they’d prefer.

I’ve said too much already. I don’t want to take anything away from the conversation, because it’s a great one. Here is “What’s Up with the Diverse Charter School Coalition,” with executive director Sonia Park.

The Diverse Charter School Coalition. If you and I found ourselves in an elevator, and I needed the quick pitch of the work that you all do, the goals that you’re trying to achieve, how would you describe what you do and what you’re trying to accomplish?

Sonia Park: The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, we’re a grassroots organization that was originally founded by 14 member school networks, and we’ve grown from 14 to over 90. We’re actually 92 members strong, which represents over 240 individual charter schools Across 24 states and DC. Right now, our members are educating over 100,000 students across the country, which is larger than many school districts.

The reason why the original members came together Is that they saw that the work that they were doing around creating intentionally integrated spaces was more than one-off, it was actually part of a growing movement. This is a response to… we’re grounding our vision from the 1960s, when Martin Luther King spoke of a beloved community, and President Johnson also shared his vision for a great society. We see that these civil rights leaders envisioned a nation where Americans of diverse backgrounds would live and thrive together.

If we fast-forward today, our nation is actually more segregated, and is becoming more polarized than ever. This is happening at the same time as our nation’s youngest generation are the most diverse that they’ve ever been. We have more different types of students in public schools across the country than we ever have, but we’ve also retrenched, and moved into more segregated spaces. The work that we do at the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition is to realize the shared vision of MLK and LBJ by supporting and expanding diverse by design charter schools, where all students and their communities reap the benefits of a diverse and inclusive education. It’s a little bit longer than an elevator, it depends on how quickly we were going up.

Mike McShane: Tall building, we were in a tall building.

Sonia Park: We’re in a super tall building.

Mike McShane: You mentioned you engage in a lot of different activities to further those ends. What are the things that you all do?

Sonia Park: We have three big buckets of work. We look to support our members through peer-to-peer sharing and learning through our communities of practice. We look to train educators to lead and launch diverse schools, and we do this through a fellowship program. We seed new school growth through having our unified ed fellows actually embed themselves in the work in a member school, and we support them for up to a year, with the end result being that they either open up a brand new school, replicate an existing model, or expand an existing model.

We also look to bringing folks together, as I mentioned earlier in our conversation, through our annual convening, where we bring our members into a community where they can actually talk, and be really frank and transparent about the work that they’re doing, and seek to support each other. Another big piece of our work is really to educate policy makers on the power and the promise of diverse schools. We want to be able to spread the word about the reasons why having an intentionally integrated school space is not just good for schools, but it’s also good for communities, leaders, and ideally, for policymakers too.

Mike McShane: Now, when you use the word diverse, or you talk about intentionally diverse, what does that mean? Is it diversity across various dimensions? What dimensions of diversity are y’all thinking about?

Sonia Park: That’s a great question. That’s usually the first or second question that we’re asked. What do we mean when we say diversity? We don’t actually have hard numbers tied to that. For instance, I would never say 30% of your students need to be this, and 15% of your students need to be that. A diverse student body is really reflective of the community that they’re serving, so it has to be contextualized. A diverse school in LA is going to be different from a diverse schools in New Orleans, versus DC, versus New York. We look at a number of different markers for diversity, including race, but also socioeconomic diversity, language ability, and students with disabilities.

Mike McShane: I’d be interested how this is done within the charter school framework. Creating intentionally diverse schools when charter schools are open enrollment, if they’re oversubscribed, you have a lottery, is this something that’s done on the recruiting side of recruiting students and families? Is it something that’s done on the culture side? Are there policy levers that you can use to purposefully have more diverse schools? What does that look like?

Sonia Park: Yes to all of those examples. Depending on a state’s law, some of our members can use weighted lotteries to get a diverse student population. They weight for students that would be considered at risk, whether that’s based upon FRL status, or language ability, depending again on the parameters of their state law. They can do their weighted lottery to ensure a more diverse student population. Other states where they don’t allow for weights, our members do direct and targeted student enrollment practices, so again, trying to get to that balance. Also, all of our members really try to be reflective on the culture, and the intention that they’re creating within their schools, to attract various types of families to their actual school. If you look across our network, we have schools that are international baccalaureate, that are dual language, that are project-based learning, Montessori. It’s really being reflective of what a community may need, and then drawing those families toward that school.

Mike McShane: Obviously, you’re trying to advance the goal of having more diverse schools in general, but maybe narrowly for now, thinking about more diverse charter schools, what do you think is standing in the way of there being more schools like this?

Sonia Park: That’s a really good, big question. I think we can look at a few different levers. It could be based upon location, and facilities. Depending on where your school is located, you will be, or would be challenged to draw a more diverse student population. Tied to that location is also transportation. In some areas, for instance, a district will provide transportation to a charter school, but in most cases, that isn’t the case. A school has to be really creative on how not only are they attracting new families, but how they’re keeping them by getting them to the school, providing greater access. A number of our members are actually paying millions of dollars on an annual basis just to bring families to their actual school. That’s one big aspect of it.

I think another one, again, depending on their state, if there’s a charter cap, you’re not going to see additional growth in certain areas. For instance, in New York there’s a cap, in DC I think there’s been a pause on new school growth, and we can see that also happening in California. Separate from all those things, I would also say that it is really finding the intentionality around that, and it’s having a set of school leaders, and planners, and community members that really want to see this option within their community.

Mike McShane: I’m glad that you brought that up. I’d be fascinated, how do you recruit schools for your network? Do they come to you? Do you go to them? How do you all come together?

Sonia Park: It’s a combination. We have a lot of school leaders come to us to join the coalition. All of our membership information is based on our website, so they can come and take a look. There is an application form, and what we have found is that school leaders seek us out because of the supportive programming that we offer. It’s not easy. Actually, the easiest thing would be to have a diverse student population, creating that mix, but what happens when they’re actually in your school, the after effects of, do we have a culture that’s fully supportive? Do we have curriculum in place that students feel that they are seen and recognized? How are we supporting our teachers? Are they equally diverse? Do they feel like they have the tools that they need to teach a more diverse student population? It’s across these other measures that we see schools come to us. It’s like, “We need help to do this work.”

One of the things I mentioned briefly before is that we have communities of practice, and through our COP work, where we have a lot of the peer-to-peer learning and sharing, they are targeted topics that people can lean in, and actually learn in the community about how to do these things a little bit better, how to serve their communities better. We have the aspect of folks coming to us. We do a lot of referral work, so a lot of established members will say, “Hey, you should talk to this school, because I think they would be a good fit for the coalition.” We also seed new school growth through our fellowship program, so fellows end up becoming members of the coalition.

Mike McShane: As you’re describing this, I’m seeing in my head, in order to make all of this work, there’s a practice dimension, and there’s a policy dimension. I’m wondering, from some of that peer-to-peer learning, or what’s going on, what are some things that schools are doing to try and make themselves more integrated in the true sense of that word? Not only do you maybe have students from different backgrounds, different races and ethnicities, different religions, but that are learning together in community with one another. What are some things that they’re doing to foster that?

Sonia Park: There are a lot of different examples of our members trying to do this work, and be really intentional on the integration piece. Immediately, I think of Prospect Schools, and they’re located in New York, and they’re an international baccalaureate school. If you’re familiar with the IB program, there’s a series of coursework and things that you need to complete in order to graduate high school with an IB diploma. It’s usually the last two years of your high school career that you go in and take all the IB classes to graduate with the IB diploma. Prospect Schools decided that they would make the IB program open to every student that was interested in participating in it, and to support students that may be academically challenged, and providing extra work, remediation and tutoring so they actually graduate with an IB diploma. If you look at other IB schools, there is a set of criteria that students have to meet before they can actually qualify to do an IB.

This is a deliberate measure on Prospect Schools’ part to eliminate that, to make sure that there was equal access, and that all students who are interested in it could actually pursue it. I think that’s a great example about being really intentional about your programmatic work. If we look at other schools, I’m thinking about City Garden in St. Louis, and their Montessori program. If you ask folks, Montessori and charter schools, they don’t actually seem to be aligned in a lot of ways, just because of the way the program works. What City Garden has done is that they have been really intentional and deliberate in their student recruitment and bringing families together, and actually, the executive director, Christie Huck, was really instrumental in advocating and helping to change Missouri charter law to allow for weighted lotteries, to make sure that they were actually much more intentional in their student enrollment.

For a lot of folks that think about a Montessori program, it can be centered more on middle-class families, White families, and so her approach was to really be explicit that this is for everyone within our neighborhood regardless, and pushing that out there. That work, and her advocacy in changing Missouri state law has really led to a really rich and diverse student population. There are different ways that school leaders can actually do this work, and be really reflective about it.

Mike McShane: No, I’m glad you brought up that… A, I’m glad you brought up City Garden, because that’s a great school.

Sonia Park: It’s a great school.

Mike McShane: It’s had this wild impact on the whole neighborhood that’s around it. I think there’s a doctoral dissertation to be written by a demographer, or someone that can actually show this wonderful, rippling positive effects in the whole City Garden neighborhood there. One of the things you brought up, as if educating kids well wasn’t enough, also doing work on the policy side. We think one side of this is practice, and the other side is policy. You’ve mentioned a couple of things, allowing for weighted lotteries, eliminating charter caps. Are there other things that you see in the policy space that could help with this? Are those the big levers that states should pull, or even maybe that states have pulled, but you think weighted lotteries have problems as well? I don’t want to assume that you’re advocating for anything. What do you see on the policy side?

Sonia Park: Policy side, yes on weighted lotteries, but weighted lotteries, again, within the parameters of what is permissible under… as Ashley said, stay tuned for our policy platform, which will be released later this spring. Thanks for that. Yes for weighted lotteries, especially when it’s weighted towards the students that are considered disadvantaged. Another big thing that we have been talking about is transportation. Federal transportation dollars actually aren’t available right now for buses to cross district lines. If there was more federal dollar support to allow for that transportation, that would actually make creating integrated schools easier because of where students can be drawn from. That’s a big piece, and that’s separate from CSP funding, which we are always in partnership with the National Alliance, and Next, and other national organizations that advocate for more CSP dollars.

I love CSP, and it is also earmarked for schools that are brand new, or replicating, or that are doing dissemination work. That actually cuts out a number of other schools that may be in their 10th year of operations, that aren’t looking to replicate or expand. They’re happy with their size, but they don’t have access to any additional federal funding. Advocating for federal dollars for transportation actually can make a larger impact across the whole entire charter landscape. That’s one of the things that we’ve been looking into, and we see as one of our emerging policy platforms.

Mike McShane: As you look back on the work that you and your organization have been doing, I’d be curious, have you learned any lessons? Has anything caused you to change your mind, or maybe the broader thing of, what lessons have you learned doing this work?

Sonia Park: I’ve learned that if you say integration as a thorough way, that is not a good way to approach it. Depending on who you speak to, and it could be a generational shift, integration as a word is pretty weighted. People reflect on forced busing, they reflect on when Brown V Board happened. A lot of really great schools and school leaders were basically pushed to the side because they were Black. The negative connotations for forced integration is one of the things that we have tried to be really mindful of, that we’re not saying it’s integration that’s being done to you. It’s the intentionality about approaching it from a community-based perspective, really working with folks in the community, the schools, the parents, to say that this is an option that we think can lead to not just greater academic outcomes for all students, but really, on the qualitative side of things, to a greater society.

There’s all the data pieces, that students that graduate from an intentionally integrated school not just perform better, but also are more likely to go and stay in college, that live in integrated neighborhoods, and to actually be more participatory in societies, in democracy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal that we want to see happen? Those are some of the things that we learned about how we talk about the work that we do. We don’t want to alienate people when we talk about integration, and that could be sometimes a reaction for folks. We try to be really intentional with our language, and also to say that when we talk about Diverse by Design Charter Schools, we see it as an and, not an either/or, to other charter school models and designs. We should be part of a continuum of high quality school options that parents have.

Mike McShane: I think that’s such an important point, recognizing that the whole idea is for people to have different choices to choose from that might be pursuing different goals in different ways, and you’ll get in where you fit in. That’s where it wants to be. When you were saying that, it made me think of a lot of the chartering process, and charter school authorization and regulation, has really boiled down, in a lot of places, to test scores, or some very strict metrics. You need to be hitting these three things to get reauthorized, or frankly, to get authorized in the first place, you need to explain how you are going to sort maximize these, some might say narrow metrics, you may agree or disagree with me on that one.

I’m curious, because as you brought up, whenever we talk about education, we tend not to say, “Well, these schools exist to increase kids’ test scores.” We say, “We want them to do a lot of things. We want children to be good citizens. We want them to understand how to live in community with one another, and participate in our democracy.” Have you seen schools that are trying to take this more expansive vision chafe up against those strictures? Have you seen places that have figured that out? To my mind, the whole point of charter authorizing is to try and create more flexibility, and to not have to regulate as narrowly. On either side, have you seen places where folks have had problems with that, or places where folks have found solutions to work through that?

Sonia Park: Next actually came out with a report, and this is a few years ago, they did a survey of authorizers, and based upon their analysis, the number of schools that would be considered diverse by design have increased in their authorizers portfolio. They’re more willing to say yes to a diverse by design school versus a school that would be considered maybe like first gen charters, more structured. I wouldn’t want to say inflexible, but a very particular model. I think there has been an evolution in authorizing approach from that side of it, and especially post-pandemic, a lot of conversations about, what are the right metrics to determine what a quality school is? When we didn’t have state assessment data because of the pandemic, how were authorizers actually viewing school work? That’s an ongoing thing, and what we have seen on our membership side is that not only are schools still performing well according to those set data points, but it is an and to other work that they’re doing.

They try and meet all the metrics that they’re required to as a charter school, but also have that as part of a portfolio of other things that they consider to be quality markers in their particular context. If I look at, for instance, Yu Ming Charter School and they’re located in Oakland, if you look at their academic record, they’re high performing in regards to assessment data, but they also have a massive long wait list. They have done a tremendous amount of outreach to their community, and despite some of the challenges in California around growth in charter schools, they still have managed to expand their campus, and they’ve recently just moved into their final permanent space. Despite all these things that may be considered negative pressures from the outside, they continue to thrive as a school, and are highly desirable along a lot of different metrics, and use as part of their DNA that they are an intentionally integrated school. I think there’s a way to answer all those things and still stay true to the vision about intentionally integrated schools.

Mike McShane: Well, I think the point that you made earlier is worth emphasizing here as well, which is that this is one model amongst many that we would like to see operate in communities. Again, I think education reform in general, and sometimes charter schooling in particular, has loved the one great solution.

It’s like, “We’re going to try all this stuff so that we can find out the one way that works, and then we’re going to have everybody do that.” It’s like, “Well, I don’t think it really works like that.”

Sonia Park: It’s never worked, right? Even pre charters, it never worked. Why is it now going to be all of a sudden different?

Mike McShane: Maybe this time it will be different. Well, if more folks want to find out about the work that you’re doing, where can they go to find that?

Sonia Park: They can go to diversecharters.org. All of our information is available off of our website. We also have social media, so you can find us on LinkedIn and on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Mike McShane: Whatever it’s called now.

Sonia Park: I don’t know, Elon’s thing.

Mike McShane: Whatever verb is now, because tweet was at least a thing that we could think about. I don’t know what to X is.

Sonia Park: I know, because if you say you were X’d, I don’t know if that actually works as well. We’re there, and my last thing I would love to share out is that, as I mentioned, we have our annual convening, where we bring our leaders together. We have our 10th anniversary coming up, and our convening is going to be in Los Angeles, January 31st to February 2nd. Folks are invited to come and join us, and they can see in person the work that we’re doing, and have a chance to really lean into conversations with other school leaders, and find out more about what we mean when we talk about intentionally integrated schools.

Mike McShane: Well, wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time to join the podcast today.

Sonia Park: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Mike McShane: Well, that was a fantastic conversation. I feel like Sonia and I say this in a lot of these conversations, but it’s true, because I get to pick the people that I talk with, so I generally only talk with people that I find interesting. We could have kept talking for a very long time. I think the work that they’re trying to do is interesting and important, and I think that this is an option that people should have. I think in so many cities, there are people who are really trying to solve these longstanding problems. There are people who want these types of environments for their kids. There are people who want to be part of these communities, and want to see their positive ripples out into the broader community around them. I really appreciate the work that they’re doing. I’m glad that they are part of the charter school landscape, and I wish them nothing but success in the future.

As always, if you’re interesting, or if you know somebody who’s interesting, and you think people would benefit from me talking with them, please be sure to send them my way. You can tweet at me, I’m @MQ_McShane. As we said on there, I don’t know if it’s tweet at me anymore, you can X at me. Whatever that website is, whatever the term is, whatever the verb is for getting ahold of me, feel free to use it, MQ_McShane. Or you could just email me, and I hope no one ever changes that term, because no one’s going to figure that out, but email me. I’m just at mcshane@edchoice.org. Feel free to email me interesting people.

Generally, how I find out people to talk about this podcast is folks emailing me, or reaching out to me, or me meeting them. I want to crowdsource that to all of you wonderful people who are listening. As always, thanks to the EdChoice communications team who edits this, and is going to put it out and promote it. Thank you so much for all of that work. Thanks to all of you for listening, and I look forward to chatting with you again, on the next edition of EdChoice Chats, and the next edition of, “What’s Up,” where I try to find out what’s up with either someone, somewhere or something that’s interesting in the world of education. Take care, and talk to you soon.