Op-Ed | Supporting students and creating community: 25 years of charter schools in NYC

Charter school
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Twenty-five years ago, despite fierce opposition, lawmakers in Albany passed the New York State Charter Schools Act, giving parents a choice in where to send their kids to school by allowing public charter schools to open. On that day, lawmakers likely didn’t understand the impact, but that vote changed thousands of kids’ lives for the better. I know because I’m one of them – a first-generation Mexican-American and first in my family to go to college. 

I was just seven years old when my family relocated from Mexico to New York City, in search of a better life and access to high quality education. But once we enrolled at the district school in our neighborhood in the Bronx, it quickly became clear that it did not have the right support for me, an English Language Learner (ELL). I was struggling. Before long, I wanted to stop going to school altogether. 

My parents, determined to help their nine-year-old daughter reignite her love of learning, decided to try something new: they enrolled me at a local charter school, KIPP NYC, a ripple effect that would change the academic trajectory for me and my four younger sisters. I’m still thankful for that decision every single day. 

From the first meeting with our new principal, we knew we were in the right place. The staff immediately brought in someone who could translate the conversation with the principal to us. They took the time to explain how the school was different: longer school days to provide students with more one-on-one time with teachers, individualized programming for ELLs, a social worker who could speak my language and also engage my family to provide additional support, a focus on music and extracurriculars in addition to academics, and an open door for parents in the classroom. Walking through the hallways, we saw student work celebrated on the hallway bulletin boards, heard songs from the classrooms and saw students eagerly raising their hands to engage with teachers during their lessons. 

For the first time in a long time – I felt home. 

By 8th grade, I was excelling and my sisters were excited to start their own journey with KIPP NYC. 20 years after walking through the doors of my charter school, my family holds  6 college diplomas, including 1 graduate degree, from schools like Hamilton, Brown, Barnard and Davidson. 

That’s the kind of difference charter schools make for families like mine every single day. Don’t just take it from me – according to data from the New York State Education Department, 46% of charter school students are proficient in math and 55% are proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) compared to students at traditional district schools where 37.9% of students are proficient in math and 48% in ELA. 

Charter schools across New York City implement unique and innovative approaches to education to ensure that every student has the opportunity to thrive. To put this into perspective, 51 schools have programs for students with autism or have more than 25% of students with IEPs for Special Education; 9 schools have dual language programs; 7 schools serve single-sex student populations; and 9 schools serve high school students at risk of dropping out.

Before the New York State Charter Schools Act allowed public charters to open, families had to make do with the school that was around the corner, unless they could afford a private education. Now, they have choices about how to give their children the best education possible. What started as an experiment with a handful of schools and educators with big ideas has grown into hundreds of schools serving more than 142,000 NYC kids each year. 

The first NYC charter students are now adults themselves – they’re doctors, entrepreneurs, artists and educators who are giving back and driving our communities forward. Many are now parents themselves who are choosing to send their children to the same charter schools they attended. 

My own journey took me right back to where my education began – KIPP NYC, where I proudly serve as Director of Advocacy and support for 18 schools with over 8,200 students and their families. I’m where I am today because my parents were able to have a choice in where I received my education – a choice that every parent across NYC deserves the right to make.

Mariela Meza is the Director of Advocacy for KIPP NYC.