When friends suggested I include charter schools among the places to visit during my recent trip to see innovative learning models in New York City, I was skeptical. I was focused mostly on spotlighting microschools, learning pods, hybrid homeschools and similar experimental programs created by entrepreneurial parents and teachers who are reimagining K-12 education in their local communities.
While charter schools held promise as “laboratories of innovation” when they were introduced more than three decades ago, that experimentation has largely faded. Or so I thought.
“That’s a stereotype that needs to be smashed,” said Sean Harrell, president of Integration Charter Schools on Staten Island. ICS is a network of four charters including the John Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, which became Staten Island’s first charter school in 2009.
ICS fully integrates students with special needs (about 40%) within the remaining population of general-education students.
“We are doing some really innovative, out-of-the box things,” said Harrell, explaining that one of their schools is committed to individualized learning for students on the autism spectrum, while another offers early college opportunities for students beginning in 10th grade, enabling them to graduate from high school with up to 60 college credits.
“These are students with disabilities who may not be thinking of college, but giving them that access to college courses early on and saving families upward of $60,000 to $70,000 of tuition, we’ve really seen some traction there,” said Harrell.
Another ICS school, New Ventures, is aimed at older, under-credited teens. These students spend the majority of their day doing field internships to gain real-world skills and experience.
Overall, ICS struck me as a calm, joyful, learner-centered environment where children enjoy freedom of movement while maintaining standards of academic excellence. “We’re wrapping arms around children here,” Harrell remarked.
In the South Bronx, the teachers at the Wildflower New York Charter School are creating an equally nurturing space for children’s intellectual and emotional development. Located in Morrisania, Wildflower is a collection of three separate Montessori microschools that prioritize child-led learning, including for the more than 30% of their students with identified special needs.
“Our purpose is the safety of the children, the joy of the children and making sure that they are academically prepared,” said Mario Benabe, a teacher who grew up in Morrisania and helped open the school in 2020.
Wildflower Montessori’s national network of microschools is focused on activating and supporting teacher-entrepreneurs to serve their local neighborhoods within an intentionally small, mixed-age, personalized setting.
The first Wildflower school opened in Cambridge, Mass., in 2014. Today, there are more than 60 of these microschools across the US and Puerto Rico. Most of them are private, but Wildflower public charter microschools now also operate in Minneapolis and Washington, DC.
“Parents want options other than a district school,” said Benabe. “They have a more restrictive setting for students, and parents see us as an alternative to sending their kids there.”
The students at his school are free to explore the beautiful environments that surround them and spend as much time as they want and need mastering important skills and content before moving on to the next level.
As Maria Montessori wrote in her 1948 essay “The Discovery of the Child”: “At some given moment it happens that the child becomes deeply interested in a piece of work; we see it in the expression on his face, his intense concentration, the devotion to the exercise.”
That deep interest, concentration and devotion were apparent in the faces of the approximately 50 students enrolled in New York’s Wildflower school. They are guided by Montessori-trained teachers, most of whom come from the local community.
“It’s all decentralized; we all work together,” said Benabe. “I wake up every day happy to come to work.”
While I did visit with more than a dozen founders of other, noncharter learning spaces in New York City, including Dr. Lisa Scott, an education professor who left her job in academia to launch The Art of Words microschool in Brooklyn in 2020, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that ICS and Wildflower New York were just as innovative as these other, emergent models.
These two schools have embraced the original purpose of charters as incubators of creative thought and practice in education. While still heavily regulated, innovative charter schools and their leaders lean into the autonomy and experimentation that sets the charter sector apart from traditional district schools.
“Let’s look at the regulation and let’s look at what the regulation does not say because that’s where schools can do some really awesome things,” said Harrell. “It’s thinking in that gray space, because that’s where the beauty is.”
Kerry McDonald is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and host of the LiberatED podcast. She is also the Velinda Jonson Family education fellow at State Policy Network.