A look into public charter school success: Achievement Prep

“What’s the secret sauce?” asked one member of the group after we toured Achievement Preparatory Academy. At Achievement Prep, a public charter school serving 200 students in Ward 8, test scores are among the best in the city although the students are among the most disadvantaged. They are closing the achievement gap, turning the students who come to them 2-4 years behind into some of the highest achieving students in the District’s public schools. How do they do it? This was the question we all had in mind during the First Fridays tour.

College-readiness practically oozes from the classrooms. The 4th - 8th graders attending Achievement Prep are not just students but “scholars;” cooperative teams have names like Howard University, Williams College and University of Virginia; bulletin boards feature students with high quiz grades from the previous week—bachelor’s for 80% or higher, master’s for 90% and up, and PhD for 100%. Founder and Head of School Shantelle Wright says that for her scholars it’s about creating equal access to quality schools.

Alongside high expectations and fostering strong character is also a sense of fun and community. One fourth grade classroom chanted state capitals, complete with clever rhymes and hand motions. There’s also the energy the scholars gave each other. Fifth-graders wiggled “spirit fingers” at a peer who was explaining a practice problem. (The teacher in me thought, “brilliant!” Such a simple thing but it engages students, connects them to their peers and gives their squirmy limbs something to do.) Underneath it all was a feeling of structure and a focus on the serious task of learning.

To me, the secret ingredients are what all schools strive for: high expectations that shape every aspect of the day, caring adults who put children first and teachers constantly improving their craft. But other key elements play a role in the school culture. Achievement Prep also has an extended day and school year, a Saturday Academy and an emphasis on using data to drive instruction.

One of the roles of public charter schools is to try out innovative ideas and “demonstrate what is possible.” Achievement Prep is certainly doing that, and people are paying attention. Now the question is how to bring some of its successful strategies to other struggling schools.