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Guest Contributor | Mylo Miller

Why College Preparatory Charter Schooling Matters In Oklahoma 

Historically, college preparatory schools were designed to make sure their ‘‘college prep’’ students were prepared to attend some of the oldest and most elite colleges in the U.S. These college-preparatory schools disproportionately served selectively-admitted whites, males, and/or students from wealthy families (Powell, 1996). Due to college preparatory schools’ long association with wealth and privilege, the concept of ‘‘college preparatory’’ continues to signify schooling that is exclusionary and “beset with monocultural educational practices that reproduce social and economic power among the elite” (Cookson & Persell, 1985, p. 37; Peshkin, 2001). These college preparatory schools reinforced the social, cultural, and economic capital of selectively-admitted students (Powell, 1996).

College Preparatory Charter Schools (Disrupting the Opportunity Gap) 

This history of exclusion and lack of social, cultural, and economic reinforcement is still influential for students of color as Tierney (2002) explains that integration into the institution’s environment and academic success can be exceedingly difficult, especially at majority white institutions. Also, much of the existing research on student retention (aspiration and actualization) was conducted before minority students became a “critical mass” on college campuses. Consequently, the research was often based on white male students (Tierney, 2002) and hence produced a “monolithic view of students devoid of issues of race/ethnicity, culture, gender, politics, and identity” (Hurtado, 1992, p. 52).

For minority youth, this historical influence of assimilation, poor school quality, and social class disenfranchisement all contribute to the infamous “college actualization problem.” This gap was enlarged by the many years that college preparatory schools helped elite families in the U.S. replicate and reinforce their social and economic power. Cookson and Persell (1985) note that college preparatory schools have ‘‘trained the children of such illustrious American families as the Rockefellers, Kennedys, and Vanderbilts, and prep schools have gained the reputation of being educational country clubs where children of wealthy families are sent to get socially polished and prepared for admission to acceptable colleges’’ (p. 4–5). Many studies of college preparatory schools report that these schools not only attract powerful and wealthy families, but also reinforce their social and economic power by maintaining a selective social climate (exclusive admissions process), offering advanced courses (Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses) and guaranteeing access to elite colleges and universities (personalized college planning guidance, bartering with universities for students’ admissions) (Cookson & Persell, 1985; Peshkin, 2001; Powell, 1996).

Ironically, college preparatory charter schools once reinforced the social, cultural, and economic capital of only a select few; now, they are an attempt in many urban areas to do this for diverse racial and ethnic populations. Given the educational problems for poor and minority students at the national and state levels, college preparatory schools utilize different strategies to increase social capital networks for students. Kirp (2011) references one important social phenomenon in peer relationships by stating, “the most valuable thing that schools could offer to poor children—far significant, in terms of its impact on achievement, than smaller classes, more up to date textbooks, or well-equipped labs- is the chance to attend school with classmates from better—off families” (p. 96). This access to schooling, that is truly diverse across multiple categories of difference, attributes benefits to less well-off students through a social phenomenon known as cultural capital. Cultural capital “rubs off” in multiple ways, from academic vocabulary to more complex issues of identity formation and achievement goal orientation (Kirp, 2011; DiMaggio & Mohr, 1985; Hagedorn, 2002).


Another strategy to close the opportunity gap for poor and minority students that many college preparatory charter high schools utilize today is the requirement to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Increasing the participation in AP and the number of AP courses in high schools in less-advantaged urban school districts is widely being viewed as a solution for low-achievement among low-income and minority students (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000, 2001; McDonough, 2004). This makes sense to some in view of overwhelming research indicating that the most substantial barriers to four-year college enrollment are a lack of academic preparation, a lack of access to support and information about college enrollment, along with the numerous other barriers that prevent low-income and minority students from enrolling in four-year colleges (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000, 2001; McDonough, 2004; Perna, 2000; Freeman, 1997; Hamrick & Stage, 2004; McDonough, 1997, 2004, 2005; Perna & Swail, 2001). In this sense, closing an opportunity gap precedes closing an achievement gap.

The justification for these new college preparatory charter schools and their methods is to prioritize the ideal of ‘‘college for all’’ by reconceptualizing the educational pathways of students who have been made academically and socioeconomically vulnerable by the generational disinvestments of educational resources in urban communities (Farmer-Hinton 2008; King 2004).  As King (2004) outlines the ‘‘college for all’’ concept, in college preparatory charter high schools, largely in school communities of color, the educative process involves specific organizational throughputs such as consistent messages between staff and students regarding clear expectations for college preparedness. Additionally, these college preparatory charter high schools emphasize consistent discussions about students’ college-going activities, provide rigorous courses, and academic resources dedicated to students’ college preparation and college counseling, which are central features of “college for all”, where college expectations guide student advising on both instructional and non-instructional issues (Farmer-Hinton, 2006).

These methods attempt to close the opportunity gap for poor and minority students by establishing organizational arrangements that combine academic rigor and school-based social support which are more likely to help underrepresented students transition to college. Martinez and Klopott (2005) found that many of these efforts are bundled in different ways across various college-preparatory charter schools; typically the combination of academic rigor and school-based social support exists in pre-packaged programs like AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), Gates Foundation-funded programs like Early College High Schools, or even small learning communities. While research is still emerging about these varied efforts, there is growing evidence that students of color may outpace their counterparts in public school contexts in terms of higher educational aspirations, more rigorous courses taken, and higher college admissions rates (Alvarez & Mehan, 2006; Fashola & Slavin, 1998; Kahne & Bailey, 1999; King, 2004).

Charter schools and EMO (educational management organization) networks such as KIPP, YES!, and High Tech High, and charter management organizations such as Achievement First and Uncommon Schools and many small individual college preparatory charter schools have opened to serve local neighborhoods with sometimes poorly performing district public schools (Bowles & Gintis, 2002). Some of these schools are located in blue-collar neighborhoods and serve only local students while others are located outside the neighborhood and draw students from a wider area. Of those charter schools located outside the neighborhood, some are able to provide busing while others rely on parents and public transportation to bring students to school (Bowles & Gintis, 2002). Many students who attend these schools are ethnic minorities from low-income families and many have demonstrated in some way that they are motivated and willing to make significant commitments of time and energy to school (Bowles & Gintis, 2002).

Charter schools continue to spread and these schooling efforts exist in almost every type of body politic, their service in extreme need districts with large concentrations of poverty and educationally underprivileged groups place them in a position to disrupt the educational challenges facing these groups (Adelman, 1999, 2006; SRI International, 2002). Charter schools enroll students based on family choices, rather than contiguity assignments. They are public schools, bound by the First Amendment’s disallowance against religious teaching, and typically are exempt from some of the regulations that apply to district public schools. Freed from many bureaucratic restraints, charter schools are, hypothetically at least, held accountable for performance by the threat of closure and by parental choice (Garn & Cobb, 2001), although many if not all charter schools must comply with statewide academic achievement testing requirements.

This autonomy in theory is supposed to provide room for innovative curricular and instructional approaches (Bulkley & Fisler, 2003). Even though charter schools are still a relatively new schooling “innovation,” they are expanding in numbers, perceptibility, and influence—not only in Oklahoma, but also across the nation. Since the early 1990s, many states have been ratifying charter school legislation. Currently, 40 states plus the District of Columbia have charter schools. Over 5,200 charter schools are operating in the country, serving over 1.8 million students, almost double that of estimates of the homeschooling population in the U.S. The number of charter schools has increased each year, currently comprising 5.4 percent of all public schools (NAPCS, 2011). Interestingly enough, several large urban school systems are referred to as “portfolio districts”, essentially indicating the range of both private and public education service providers that are contracted through LEA governing apparatus (Hill, Jochim, & Campbell, 2013).  Portfolio strategies and charter management organizations (CMOs) stem from the ideas of Osborne and Gaebler’s (1992) Reinventing Government. The primary principle is that government should steer—set goals, determine expenditure levels, run competitions to find the best providers, judge performances, and replace ineffective providers—but it should not be a provider itself (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992).

President Obama announced his reinforcement for charter schools, by increasing funding for this reform and calling for the lifting of caps on the conception and enactment of charters (Maxwell, 2009). The Obama Administration has encouraged charter school expansion through the Race to the Top initiative that, initiated proposals for sizable grants to states meeting selection criteria that include advocating for the establishment of charter schools (U.S. DOE, 2009). Although there has been fleeting evidence of any action to date, the President has symbolized support of the accountability goal of the charter movement, urging states to shut down low-performing charter schools (Maxwell, 2009).


Mr. Miller graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in 2004 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Political Science. He began his teaching career in Midwest City, OK at Monroney Jr. High School and Midwest City High School. Miller taught Geography, Oklahoma History, and U.S. History for six years. He also coached football, cross-country, and track and field while at Midwest City.While teaching and coaching at Midwest City, I obtained my

While teaching and coaching at Midwest City, he obtained a Masters Degree in Secondary Public School Administration from East Central University. He earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Oklahoma, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in 2014.

Mr. Miller is now the Principal at Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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