Categories: Opinion

THORBES: A Call For A Change: Broadening The Mission of New Jersey Charter Schools

Cedric Thorbes is a proud graduate of Morehouse College and most recently a 2021-2022 JerseyCAN New Jersey Teacher Leader Policy Fellow, where he advocated for the benefits of career & technical education in urban charter schools. He is currently Director of School Culture & Career Technical Education for a public charter network in Newark.

The charter sector in New Jersey boasts exceptionally high graduation and college acceptance rates. However, these statistics do not shed light on how students fare after high school. For the past 20 years, charter schools have missed the mark by promoting a singular mission of sending students to college, suggesting graduating from a 4-year university is the only path to success. While charters aim to close the achievement gap for students in underrepresented communities and send them to college, research suggests that scholars need more support to succeed in post-secondary life. To illustrate, the National Student Clearinghouse published a benchmark report stating many students graduating from the inner city or low-income high schools simply do not possess the life skills to graduate from college on time.

The disheartening data in this report demonstrate a disconnect between what students learn in school and what is happening in the real world. It also highlights the need for robust career exploration programs for scholars during high school to determine if college is the best path. In my experience, the future of students who attend charter schools is dictated by the charter management organization and the college counselors who support students in the postsecondary process, not the students themselves. In some cases, students have been told not to apply to certain schools or not given the assistance needed to complete applications for specific colleges. The lack of exposure makes it extremely difficult for students to pursue the post-secondary success they imagine for themselves. In conjunction with rigorous academics, charter schools should make concerted efforts to broaden their missions to incorporate career and technical education programs into their curriculum to reach the full range of students who attend their schools. 

Serving as a leader in several inner city charter schools in New Jersey has allowed me to experience this dilemma firsthand. I can attest that providing scholars with rigorous instruction, extended learning days, and smaller classroom sizes did not change the fact that students need exposure to various post-secondary options regardless of their academic achievements. In my experience, students tend to stray away from more technical jobs because alternative post-secondary pathway options are not deemed successful. Therefore, these options are never presented to students within the school. Consistent conversations with scholars about the pressure placed on them to go to college even when they don’t see it as the best option contribute to student anxiety and low morale. For this reason, scholars’ view of their life trajectory is skewed, leaving them to feel lonely, ostracized, and mentally overwhelmed for not fitting the stereotypical identity of a charter school student.

It is essential to acknowledge that charter school students attend and graduate college at levels higher than the national average for African American and Latinx students. Many of the largest charter networks have supported students looking to complete the collegiate process by developing to-and-through college offices that provide post-secondary guidance counseling, post-graduation incentives for alumni, and keep track of their scholars as they matriculate through college. With this in mind, credit can be given where it is due, as charter schools have identified this gap and are looking to remedy the issue best they know how. While these efforts should be applauded, it is vital to explore whether these strategies address the root cause of the problem. The lack of retention for minority low-income students leads to charter schools and colleges placing blame on who is responsible for student success at the post-secondary level.

With the majority of charter schools being located in urban cities and 74% of students enrolled as of 2019-2020 identifying as Black or Hispanic, charter schools are most responsible for the preparation and success of low-income minority students at the post-secondary level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 54% of Hispanic and 40% of Black college students attain a degree within six years. Career and technical education can help charter schools be proactive and combat the disheartening numbers around student success post-graduation. Without a shift in their educational focus and mission, charter schools may not be best-serving students who could thrive academically and economically in the future from exposure to career and technical education. 

Of course, there will be extreme pushback with every new idea, especially when you request institutions who have seen success with their model change how they view educating their children. However, a study from the U.S. Department of Education shows students who have exposure to CTE programming during high school attend college, graduate college and gain living wage employment at higher rates than students who do not participate in CTE while in high school. Career and Technical Education allows students to explore different career paths and get a sense of where they see themselves in the world after high school. There are 16 career clusters students can explore, some of which don’t require students to attend college. U.S. News & World Report highlights over 25 lucrative careers obtained without a college degree. Occupations such as coder, carpenter, electrician, mechanic & firefighter provide a living wage and the potential for career growth. By 2030, each of these fields will be in high demand, allowing students to live lives of choice while experiencing post-secondary success.  

Providing scholars with various options that lead to post-secondary success and job attainment will expose them to different careers. It would likely prevent students from going to college and majoring in subjects with no interest: causing them to change majors,  stay in college longer, and accrue large sums of debt. The proposed curriculum and school structure changes will take time and resources to execute correctly. A transformation of this kind will take buy-in from stakeholders, incentives for teachers to become certified in CTE education, and, most importantly, funding. Although daunting, the reward for taking the risk and making a drastic shift will be astronomical for colleges, charter management organizations, and their scholars, providing an alternative path to students who don’t see college as the only option.

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