It’s college acceptance season, and if you’re a senior at one of Democracy Prep’s high schools in New York City chances are you are very happy: No charter network has demonstrated more success getting its students into and through college.
A video of one Democracy Prep student, Xaviera Zime, opening her acceptance email from Harvard University went viral recently. (No more “fat envelopes;” it’s all done via cyberspace these days.) Xaviera is the third of three sisters, Democracy Prep graduates all, to be admitted to an Ivy League college. Two years ago, her oldest sister Chris got into Dartmouth College, and a year later her sister Ella got into Yale University. All three emigrated with their mom from the African nation of Cameroon. (Cue “Hamilton”: Immigrants, they get the job done!)
Democracy Prep doesn’t get as much attention as some of the better-known charter networks, but it should.
The Zime family is not that much of an outlier at Democracy Prep. According to the network, last year 189 of the 195 seniors in its three high schools that had graduating classes went on to college. And although the sample size is small (the network has graduated fewer than 400 students), the network estimates that 80% of its graduates either are still in college or have graduated.
Democracy Prep’s impact is not limited to New York. The network’s high school in Camden, N.J., is graduating its first class this year. All 34 of this year’s seniors have already received at least one college acceptance. This is revolutionary change for a city that five years ago only had three students graduate high school “college ready,” according to the College Board.
Nearly all Democracy Prep graduates are from low-income families. Nationally, less than 20% of high school graduates below the median of household income receive bachelor's degrees within six years. But Democracy Prep’s success reflects findings by economists Raj Chetty and Caroline Hoxby that many low-income students, if given the right guidance and backing, can succeed in college.
Democracy Prep doesn’t get as much attention as some of the better-known charter networks, but it should. Like other charters, Democracy Prep features a longer school day, rigorous academics and data-driven instruction. But the network sets itself apart from other high-performing charters by taking on the toughest challenges.
Unlike other charters that don’t accept new students after a certain grade, Democracy Prep — which operates elementary, middle, and high schools — takes in new students whenever a new spot opens up, even in later grades. The network has also participated in a number of school turnarounds, taking over troubled, low-performing schools. (Most charter networks prefer to start fresh with young students and build out one grade at a time.)
When asked how the Democracy Prep succeeds in the most important metric — getting kids into and through college — the network’s chief executive officer, Katie Duffy, emphasizes the “sense of ownership” given to students over their education and their futures. To the fullest extent possible, the network treats its high school students like young adults. With its explicit focus on civics, Democracy Prep allows students to make proposals to improve their school and encourages students to be actively engaged citizens.
Students travel to City Hall, Albany and Washington, D.C., to lobby elected officials on issues ranging from charter school funding to the DREAM Act. If they meet certain benchmarks, students even travel overseas to countries like Ecuador or South Korea. All seniors complete a capstone college-level research project that examines a social or political issue of their choosing.
More concretely, counselors work with students beginning in sophomore year on the college application process: helping them think about what colleges might be a good fit, build a portfolio, polish their personal essays and practice for interviews.
Counselors try hard to match students to the right college, which sometimes means not the most prestigious school but the one that’s the best fit or that offers the most financial aid. “We don’t want students far from home if they’re not ready for that,” notes Duffy. “And we don’t want them graduating thousands of dollars in debt.”
Democracy Prep runs all its schools on public dollars. The only fundraising it does is for its college support program, which might pay, for example, for a bus ticket so a parent can visit their child for parents’ weekend. Recent college graduates also help mentor current students.
Democracy Prep’s motto is: “Work Hard. Go to College. Change the World.” Its students are meeting the first two challenges — and thereby offer hope for the third.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Daily News