Over the past twenty years, opponents have charged charter schools with further Balkanizing America’s education system. Give parents a choice, the thinking goes, and many will choose homogenous environments for their children. And there’s certainly evidence that charters in some cities tend to be more racially isolated than traditional public schools.

Capital City Public Charter School
Capital City Public Charter School in Washinton, D.C., has achieved a nearly even racial and socioeconomic balance.

    But could charter schools actually be a solution to segregation—particularly as gentrification brings more white and middle-class families to our urban cores? A growing crop of social entrepreneurs thinks so. In cities across the country, educators and parents are starting charters expressly designed for diversity.

    Charter schools have certain advantages. As start-up schools, they can be strategic about locations, picking spots that are well positioned to draw students from different racial and socioeconomic groups. They can design academic programs that take diversity as a given and make the most of it. And they can be thoughtful about putting elements in place to appeal to whites and blacks, Asians and Hispanics, rich and poor.

    Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., was founded in 2000. It’s one of the oldest charter schools with significant racial and socioeconomic diversity. It serves elementary and middle school students from almost every zip code in the city, which helps it achieve a nearly even racial and socioeconomic balance. Of its student population, 36 percent are black, 32 percent are white, 28 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent are Asian. Forty percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Perhaps its demographics help to explain why Cap City was the very first school Barack and Michelle Obama visited after the president’s first inauguration.

    Capital City is also a proudly progressive school; it uses an Outward Bound expeditionary-learning approach that engages students in fieldwork, community service, and interactions with experts. This is a big attraction for many parents, especially the more affluent ones. (Research has shown that upper-middle-class parents, especially whites, are more likely to want a “progressive” education for their children, though this type of teaching is generally less popular among blacks and low-income parents.)

    Another reason the school has successfully attracted affluent white families and maintained a racial balance is that it was founded by white parents. At the time, the founders’ children attended Hearst Elementary, a public school in a ritzy Northwest D.C. neighborhood. After becoming upset when a new superintendent imposed an unfriendly principal on their school and transferred some of their best teachers elsewhere, these parents recruited Karen Dresden, one of their teachers, to run the charter school. Dresden is still running Cap City today, and she credits the parents for having the vision to create a diverse school. “What I was really impressed with was they were committed from the very beginning to creating a school not just for their own kids to attend, but for all children,” Dresden told me.

    The school’s original location was critically important, too. Like many charters, Cap City had to scramble to find available space; it settled on a commercial facility in the heart of the city. Ten years ago, Dresden said, “This was really a rocky area. It was all vacant lots; it wasn’t developed like it is now. When we decided to locate the school here there were a few members of the founding group who decided, for various reasons, that they did not want their kid to come here. I think they were feeling a little too unsafe. But that was actually a really good thing. The people who were really committed to it said, ‘This is where we’re going to have the most diversity.’”

    Now Cap City has such a strong reputation that it doesn’t have to worry about recruiting enough white and middle-class students. There is a mile-long waiting list of children from affluent neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Chevy Chase. “There are families choosing Capital City today that would have never chosen it when we started,” Dresden shares. The school’s bigger problem is making sure that enough low-income and minority students enter its lottery. (Local policies don’t allow charter schools to hold separate lotteries by race or class.) To that end, the school does an enormous amount of outreach in Latino and African American communities. So far, it has maintained its diversity, but as the District of Columbia continues to gentrify, this will be a continuing struggle.

    Nevertheless, schools like Cap City demonstrate that charter schools, with their regulatory freedom and entrepreneurial zeal, can be spunky solutions to seemingly intractable problems— including, it turns out, America’s segregated schools.

    This piece originally appeared in the American Sociological Association's Contexts magazine and is adapted from The Diverse Schools Dilemma.

    Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

    View Full Bio