by Genevieve Demos Kelley
A lively discussion at the April 25 Board of Education meeting focused on College Park Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Prince George’s County that benefits from a partnership with the University of Maryland. The argument centered around a proposal that the school reserve 35% of its seats for students living in a “catchment area,” a geographic area that includes neighborhoods close to the university. (Watch video of the entire discussion here.)
College Park Academy was praised for its comparative success on standardized tests — and rightly so. “As many of you already know, we have scored exceptionally high on state assessments,” said Executive Director Bernadette Ortiz-Brewster, “consistently for four years with our blended learning model.” Interim Principal Steve Baker gave details on the school’s impressive standardized test performance (watch the video here).
But no discussion of the school’s success is complete without comparing the population served by College Park Academy with that of the school district at large. In short, the public schools in Prince George’s County tend to serve a higher percentage of kids who have risk factors that may increase the probability of academic underperformance.
The table below shows the percentages of students at College Park Academy needing various special services, as reported by the Maryland Report Card, compared with the percentages of all PGCPS middle school1 students needing special services.
As the table shows, College Park Academy has almost no students with limited English proficiency. In comparison, about 1 in 10 PGCPS middle school students have limited English proficiency. While the majority of PGCPS middle school students (64.1%) qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS), only 36.3% of students at College Park Academy qualify for FARMS. These differences are significant.
But these numbers don’t tell the whole story: There are other factors that narrow the pool of students able to attend a charter school like College Park Academy. Every student attending the school has a parent or guardian who completed the charter school lottery application process, demonstrating a level of engagement and awareness that is by no means universal. Moreover, families who attend College Park Academy — and other charter schools in the county — are responsible for transporting their children to and from school. According to PGCPS, “Charter Schools may opt to offer transportation at cost to the parent. Transportation is the sole responsibility of the parent.”
The fact is that College Park Academy does outperform the school district on standardized tests, and the school’s blended learning model may have much to teach us. But as we celebrate the school’s success, we must also acknowledge that it serves a population that does not mirror the school system’s. Doing so does not dismiss the success of its students or diminish the hard work of the faculty and staff, but adds essential information to the conversation.
1 Though College Park Academy currently serves students in grades six through ten (according to this Wikipedia article), it is listed as a middle school on the Maryland Report Card. This data is from the 2015-2016 school year.
The table below gives the percentages of students at College Park Academy belonging to each of the five largest racial/ethnic groups, as reported by the Maryland Report Card. Comparable demographic information was not available for PGCPS middle school students, so the rightmost column gives information for all (elementary, middle, and high) PGCPS students.