Charter High Schools and the “Backfill” Debate

A debate about “backfill”—whether charter high schools should add students to replace those who drop out—has just begun (see here, here, and here). Some argue that successful charter school models should not have to deviate from their focus by admitting children who don’t enter at the beginning of 9th grade. Others believe that a school is inherently inequitable if it closes its doors to any subset of the local population. The current debate is raw and polarized between the extremes that schools should never have to backfill students, or that they be legally required to replace every student they lose.

As usual, the extremes are unrealistic. There is no way to completely relieve charters of any pressure to backfill, because lost enrollment means lost revenue. On the other side, it makes no sense to require schools to fill every vacancy, no matter when it occurs and no matter whether the newly admitted student has any chance to earn enough credits and skills to graduate.

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The debate is about the role and responsibilities of charter high schools. High schools often have specialized graduation requirements (one school may require that a student complete four end-of-year portfolio projects to graduate, while another may require 200 internship hours), potentially setting late-coming students up for failure. High school transfer students in later grade levels also face a serious uphill climb to graduate if they enter a college-prep charter school with cumulative academic deficiencies that put them many grade levels behind.

As in most other debates about school freedoms and responsibilities, the solution involves smart trade-offs. Charter high schools in big cities inevitably serve a diverse set of students who enter with different levels of preparation. The schools need to work hard to keep the students they have, and to develop ways of bringing newcomers up to speed.

CRPE has launched a small study of how independent, district, and charter high schools minimize student attrition and admit and integrate new students to replace those who do leave. In the first phase of research, we are finding that religious and independent schools replace departing students (in part because their missions drive them to do so and in part because they need the tuition money) and have well-defined approaches to helping newcomers catch up. These schools want incoming students to be at or near grade level, but know that some will require significant amounts of help and some extra time in school. New York City-based Democracy Builders has been studying the issue of backfill and is scheduled to publish a report on their findings on April 10.

Some religious and independent schools arrange for students who are not on track to graduate to get up to speed via summer school or whole-year, pre-9th grade preparation. Some also send students to post-12th grade schools before recommending them for college admission. Adaptive online instructional content could also prove to be a powerful tool for incoming students with low academic skills. These ideas (and others we hope to discover) illustrate how charter schools can maintain their culture and academic expectations while serving students who enroll after the beginning of 9th grade.

Even with such efforts, equity problems are sure to emerge in a locality where there are only a few good high schools or a limited number of school models. The only way to avoid these problems is for charter and city leaders to develop a diverse set of high school options, with every school shouldering some of the burden of helping students who are not ideally prepared. Families should be able to pick the school in which their child is most likely to graduate and thrive, and schools need to clearly communicate to parents and oversight authorities what their particular model can and cannot do.

Building a system of mutually complementary charter high schools is a challenge (like special education and student discipline) that the charter movement must now face. Charter schools—individually and as a group—need to figure out how they can provide effective education for all children in a locality. If they can’t do that, they will reinforce the case for capping charter growth and protecting the traditional school district, which, regardless of its many failures, accepts responsibility for educating all children no matter how challenging.

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