At 3:15 p.m. on a May Monday during the last week of school, the lobby of Citizens of the World Charter School in Kansas City, Missouri, is bustling with the traffic of dismissal. A line of chatty kindergartners and first graders—black, Latinx, and white—march through the lobby and upstairs to an afterschool program. It has started to pour outside. Amanda Quance, the school’s director of curriculum integration and educational partnerships, walks in with an umbrella, which she then gives to a Latinx mom waiting with a baby in a carrier and her kindergarten son beside her. Amanda knows that that family has to walk home. At the same time, a white mom walks by with her child in a hurry, telling her, “We gotta get going because you have piano lessons.”1 The receptionist speaks to a father in Spanish. A teacher has a one-on-one meeting with a parent about her son meeting his individualized goals for the day.

When CWC Kansas City opened in fall 2016, several characteristics set it apart. For one thing, it was one of relatively few elementary schools left in Midtown; in recent years, Kansas City Public Schools, in response to declining enrollment, had closed and consolidated a number of schools. For another, the school offered a progressive learning model, including project-based learning, a focus on social-emotional development, and a robust arts program. But perhaps most surprising within the local context was the school’s demographics.

Kansas City is a segregated place. Redlining, housing discrimination, and white flight throughout the twentieth century created a city that was largely black east of Troost Avenue, and white to the west—with schools that reflected that segregation.2 And in more recent years, Kansas City Public Schools has struggled with declining enrollment of both black and white students as well as poor academic performance, such that the district ultimately lost its accreditation from the state in 2011.3 But CWC Kansas City serves a neighborhood that straddles Troost Avenue and that encompasses a diverse population. CWC launched with a student body that was roughly 46 percent black, 37 percent white, 10 percent Latinx, and 56 percent low-income (defined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch),4 putting it closely in line with the neighborhood demographics of 49 percent white, 36 percent black, 10 percent Latinx, and 60 percent earning below the federal eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch (roughly $44,000 for a family of four).5 By contrast, ten of the eleven other district and charter elementary schools in the area enrolled populations in which 84–97 percent of students were low-income, and one of the eleven enrolled a population that was just 24 percent low-income.6 By design, CWC Kansas City was a microcosm of the diversity of Midtown—and that made it an anomaly in the district.

The Exceptionalism of Citizens of the World Charter Schools

While CWC’s intentional diversity is new for Kansas City, the school has the benefit of being part of a national network of diverse charter schools that has developed a school model and strategies over a number of years. Based in California, Citizens of the World Charter Schools operates three charter schools in Los Angeles that demonstrate high performance and intentional diversity can go hand in hand.

Each of CWC’s three Los Angeles schools—CWC Hollywood (serving, as of 2017–18, Transitional Kindergarten through fifth grade), CWC Silver Lake (Transitional Kindergarten through eighth grade), and CWC Mar Vista (Transitional Kindergarten through sixth grade)—outperformed both the state and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) on California’s Common Core-aligned assessments in all subjects, for all subgroups. (See Figures 1 and 2.) Compared to all public elementary schools in LAUSD (including district, charter, and magnet schools), CWC Hollywood scored in the top 4 percent of all schools, CWC Mar Vista in the top 5 percent, and CWC Silver Lake in the top 13 percent.7

Figure 1

Figure 2

CWC’s expansion beyond Los Angeles, by contrast, has been met with mixed success, providing important insights into what it takes to replicate a diverse-by-design school model in a new region. The network’s first effort to expand to a new region, by opening two schools in New York City, was problematic. CWC’s two New York schools faced community opposition and leadership challenges from the start and will close at the end of the 2017–18 school year. But network leaders learned from that challenging experience and have shown a promising start to their second attempt at expansion, in Kansas City, Missouri. Midway into its second year of operation, CWC Kansas City has met most of its diversity goals and, although students will not begin taking state standardized assessments until 2018–19, internal assessments show that more than three quarters of students are meeting or exceeding their expected growth in reading.8

History and Demographics of the Network

From the founding of its first school in 2010 to the closing of their New York schools in 2018, CWC has shown both the promise and the pitfalls of growth over a short period of time. As of fall 2018, Citizens of the World Charter Schools will operate three schools in Los Angeles and one in Kansas City. In their work across these four schools, CWC has developed a number of strategies for setting diversity goals and creating an integrated student body.

Serving Diverse Neighborhoods in Los Angeles

Back when her eldest child was three years old, Kriste Dragon, CWC’s CEO and co-founder, started investigating elementary schools in their neighborhood of Hollywood, Los Angeles. Dragon had moved to Los Angeles from Atlanta, and she was excited for the educational opportunities that living in such a diverse city would unlock for her daughter. Growing up as a mixed-race child in the highly segregated area of Atlanta shaped the way Dragon thought about education—and she wanted something different for her daughter. When they moved to Hollywood, Dragon found the diverse community she was looking for, but the schools didn’t reflect the neighborhood. “All around me there was diversity: economic, racial, ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic. . . . You know, it might be one of the most diverse pockets in the country, if not the world,” she recalls. “I was really surprised to see schools that were segregated and low-performing.”

While teaching middle school math in Los Angeles and later working for Teach For America, Dragon also joined the board of Larchmont Charter School, an intentionally diverse charter school in Hollywood that boasted strong test scores and long wait lists. “What I learned was [that] it is absolutely possible to open a school as diverse as the community that’s extremely high performing.”9

Dragon found an opportunity to expand the model of intentionally diverse education she saw at Larchmont to more students in different neighborhoods when she partnered with Mark Gordon, a successful television and film producer who wanted to help improve education in Los Angeles. After several years of planning and community engagement, Dragon and Gordon co-founded Citizens of the World Charter School Hollywood, an elementary school which opened in 2010. Over the next three years, with the support of two additional national board members, CWC opened two more elementary schools in Silver Lake and Mar Vista, Los Angeles neighborhoods that, like Hollywood, had socioeconomically and racially diverse populations.

All three of CWC’s Los Angeles schools, which have expanded to serve middle school students in Silver Lake and Mar Vista, enroll racially and ethnically diverse populations reflective of the neighborhoods they serve. (See figure 3.) The schools are also roughly in line with the socioeconomic diversity of their respective neighborhoods, based on the percentage of households earning at or below eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch: 40 percent of students at CWC Hollywood, 45 percent at CWC Silver Lake, and 26 percent at CWC Mar Vista are socioeconomically disadvantaged.10

Figure 3

Expanding to Other Regions

Early on, Dragon and others at CWC began hearing from education leaders and parents in other cities that were interested in bringing diverse-by-design charter schools to their communities. In 2011, just a year after the opening of their first school, representatives from Citizens of the World began meeting with a group of parents in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn about the possibility of starting schools in New York. From the start in New York, CWC opted for a governance model that emphasized local control; CWC as a national organization did not directly manage the school leaders in New York. Eric Grannis, a New York City attorney and the husband of Success Academies CEO and former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, helped to facilitate the meetings as part of The Tapestry Project, an initiative designed to support intentionally diverse charter schools.11 But while the meetings ultimately led to a successful charter application to open two schools in Brooklyn—one in Williamsburg and another in Crown Heights—they also generated community backlash. A parent group based in Williamsburg sued the State University of New York, the authorizer that approved CWC’s New York charter, charging that the authorizer ignored opposition to the charter school. The group, Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for Our Public Schools, argued that the neighborhood did not need a new charter and accused CWC of targeting affluent parents.12 The court, however, sided with the authorizer, finding that CWC had met the legal requirements for community engagement in their charter application.13

When CWC’s two New York schools opened in 2013, they struggled with low enrollment and did not have the socioeconomically and racially diverse student body that network leaders had hoped for. Far from catering to affluent families, however, both schools had roughly 90 percent low-income enrollment.14 Instructionally, the schools also did not fully implement the CWC model, in large part because they struggled to hire teachers and leaders with experience in project-based learning, according to CWC’s national staff.15 While community opposition to the schools eventually quieted down, the schools never reached the diverse enrollment they had hoped to achieve, and also struggled with transitions in leadership. Test scores at the two schools were low, and when it looked in 2017 as though their charter might not be renewed, the local CWC governance, with encouragement from the CWC network, decided to withdraw their charter renewal applications, effectively shutting down both New York schools at the end of the 2017–18 school year.16

CWC’s experience in New York was sobering, even before it became clear that the New York schools would close. “Given our experience in New York, as we looked at the prospect of launching new regions, we were cautious and transparent about what it would take for us to launch a new site,” Dragon reflected.17

The same fall that CWC’s two New York schools opened, the Midtown Community School Initiative (MCSI), a group of parents in Kansas City, Missouri, issued a Request for Proposals to create a new public school to serve the diverse Midtown neighborhood of the city. A contact in Kansas City forwarded the RFP to CWC’s leadership team, and CWC decided to apply.

In January 2014, MCSI extended CWC an offer to partner. Parents in MCSI were eager to get a new school opened—some hoping for a school that would open in time to serve their children when they reached kindergarten. But mindful of the challenges and mistakes of the New York expansion, CWC insisted on a slow process of community engagement and planning as well as direct management of the Kansas City region—in contrast with the locally controlled approach they had taken in New York.

When CWC Kansas City opened in fall 2016, it enrolled a diverse student body that tracked closely with the goals they had outlined based on census data for the Midtown neighborhoods served by the school and featured the core elements of the CWC model, including a project-based learning curriculum and a constructivist approach.

Strategies for Diverse Enrollment

Identifying diverse neighborhoods and setting enrollment goals is the first step in CWC’s strategy for creating integrated schools. Each of CWC’s charter applications identifies the communities that will be served by a school, looks at demographic data for the community, and sets enrollment goals to mirror that diversity. In areas where many white and middle-class families are currently opting out of public schools, CWC sets goals to create schools reflective of the local population rather than local public school enrollment. For example, the original charter application for CWC Hollywood describes the diversity of the Hollywood neighborhood and notes that the public elementary schools in the neighborhood only enroll about half of all children who live in those zip codes, with many families opting for private and parochial schools. The application explains: “We believe that the remarkable diversity of this community presents an opportunity that, to date, has not fully been realized in Los Angeles public education.”18

“We believe that the remarkable diversity of this community presents an opportunity that, to date, has not fully been realized in Los Angeles public education.”

In order to reach these diversity goals, CWC then creates robust recruitment plans to attract a diverse pool of applicants. In Los Angeles, recruitment efforts focus on disadvantaged students, since more advantaged families tend to find out about the school through their own research or social networks—in contrast to the New York City experience. Schools have partnered with youth organizations, health networks, Head Start, churches, the YWCA, and Big Brothers Big Sisters to distribute information to low-income families and families of color. CWC Kansas City has a partnership with a local nonprofit, Operation Breakthrough, that provides early childhood education and after school programs for low-income families. Operation breakthrough helps families navigate the school enrollment process and also runs a shuttle to and from Citizens of the World for families that choose to enroll at the school and use Operation Breakthrough’s before and after school program.19

Source: Citizens of the World Charter School.

School leaders track the diversity of the lottery pool throughout the recruitment period to get a sense of where they should target additional efforts. They look for geographic diversity among applicants to ensure that all corners of the diverse neighborhoods that each school serves are represented. When regulations allow, CWC schools have also asked parents to provide optional information on free and reduced-price lunch eligibility.

In recent years, CWC’s three Los Angeles schools have also started using a weighted lottery that includes a preference for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to help ensure diversity at the school.20 Dragon sees the weighted lotteries as important tools for ensuring socioeconomic diversity, especially once their Los Angeles schools started receiving many more applications from affluent families as the schools’ reputations grew. Dragon said she does not favor using a weighted lottery when a school first opens, however, because she does not want it to be used as a crutch in place of robust recruitment and community engagement: “I think it’s really good to be going door-to-door and ensuring that you’re deeply embedded in the community in your early years.”21

School leaders have also learned from experience that efforts to enroll a diverse student body do not stop after the lottery is done.

School leaders have also learned from experience that efforts to enroll a diverse student body do not stop after the lottery is done. Once students are admitted, their families still have to decide whether to enroll. At CWC Mar Vista, data showed that low-income students were less likely than their higher-income peers to enroll, so founding principal Alison Kerr started new recruitment and engagement programs to stay in touch with low-income families after the lottery and throughout the summer. Some of the school’s current parents began serving as parent ambassadors to answer questions and share information with admitted families. The school offered opportunities to organize play dates among prospective students and created other events for parents to meet each other. The school intentionally held many of these events in the neighborhoods where low-income families lived in order to eliminate transportation barriers and create a welcoming environment.

CWC’s Unique Approach

CWC’s commitment to diversity does not stop with its efforts to enroll a diverse student body. Diversity is woven throughout the network’s educational model, from pedagogy to parent engagement.

Leveraging Diversity in the Classroom

CWC’s approach to learning is designed to make sure that students have opportunities to interact with diverse peers and with a diverse curriculum. “We don’t think that just by making your population diverse that inherently leverages the diversity itself,” Dragon explained. “Just looking at the history of our country in terms of institutionalized racism and other forms of discrimination, we believe that in order to truly leverage diversity, you need to think about the structures and processes that will ensure no one dominant culture is present. We think you actually have to design in ways that ensure that children are working together, and that you’re talking about those interactions, talking about collaboration in a way that strengthens the ability to develop the skills to work across lines of difference. That, we believe, maximizes the diversity that we have in our student population and keeps us from re-creating the status quo of discrimination that we see and experience still today in our country.”22

CWC’s leaders claim that, as a result, their learning model is constructivist, project-based, culturally relevant, and data-driven. Kindergartners write and illustrate persuasive letters about climate change as part of a unit on ecosystems. First graders hold a rally to end homelessness, writing letters to the mayor, creating posters, and writing a song about the issue. Second graders learn about Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers union through roleplay and group decision-making. Students whose home language is Spanish help teachers and classmates with pronunciation and translation of a Spanish song. In fourth grade, students learn about the Gold Rush by writing journal entries from different points of view—mine owners, white workers, and the women and people of color that worked alongside them. And throughout all of this, teachers and school leaders collect data and track students’ progress toward specific goals for each unit.

Social-emotional learning is also a significant component of CWC’s educational approach. CWC Hollywood’s halls are lined with signs for peacemaking “coaches,” older students who lead by example and help resolve interpersonal conflicts among their peers. Most classrooms have a “peace corner,” where children can go to take time to calm down or talk through a problem with a classmate. At CWC Kansas City, a kindergarten math lesson ended with going around the circle and checking in on classmates’ feelings, and at CWC Silver Lake, a kindergarten teacher created a unit on stereotyping after noticing that students were talking a lot about “girls’ games” versus “boys’ games” at recess.

Just as educators track students’ academic progress, they also collect data on social-emotional outcomes, although the network’s assessment tools for social-emotional learning are less developed—something that CWC hopes to improve through its ongoing codification work. Currently, classroom teachers use a social mapping tool that shows friendship networks within a classroom, helping to identify patterns in friendships across lines of similarity or difference, provide feedback on which students might need help connecting with peers, and measuring the cohesion of a classroom over time. They also complete a survey based on teacher observations of students’ social-emotional skills.

Below is a video from Citizens of the World Charter Schools featuring CWC Hollywood’s second grade teacher, Ms. Nicole Hill of the ‘Snow Leopards’ class.

CWC’s project-based learning, intentional diversity, and focus on social-emotional learning are important draws for many parents. Nayla Santo chose CWC Mar Vista for her daughter because of the racial diversity and emphasis on social-emotional learning, pulling her out of a private French immersion school where her daughter had been one of very few black students in her grade. Liz Marchioli chose CWC because she liked the teaching style and felt that it was somewhere her two sons—a third grader who loves reading and baseball, and a first grader who loves sparkly clothes and tennis—would be allowed express themselves, use different learning styles, and be supported in their Latinx heritage. Paola Torres was attracted to the network for her daughter because of the project-based learning and how it different it was from the way she had been taught as a child.

CWC recently began describing this approach as three-stranded DNA molecule that twists together core academic mastery with social emotional development and a focus on difference and inclusion. Dragon hopes that codifying their focus on these three areas will help them work toward making sure that all three strands are equally supported, “not just in outcomes and outputs, but also in the inputs.”23 Just as education organizations have already created sets of aligned curricula, materials, assessments, and teacher trainings for the Common Core, CWC leaders want similarly aligned resources for the other two strands of their learning model. CWC’s network staff is exploring the resources that already exist for social and emotional development and difference and inclusion while also helping to develop new resources. Network leaders hope that this will result in a framework that allows them to measure success towards their desired ultimate graduate outcomes—a series of skills and traits that include critical thinking, cultural competency, empathy, and lifelong learning. They are also working to develop materials to support this work in the classroom and teacher training.

Hiring and Training a Diverse Staff

In order to serve a diverse group of students, CWC also strives to hire a diverse staff and train teachers to meet the needs of students of different backgrounds. Across the network, CWC sets a goal of having the staff mirror student diversity, which means that roughly 50 percent are people of color or from low-income backgrounds. So far, CWC’s Los Angeles schools have met this goal overall, but representation is not equal across all levels of positions—for example, teaching assistants are more likely to be people of color or from low-income backgrounds, and executive directors are less likely. (One success so far, however, has been that the senior leadership team at the network has always been at least 50 percent people of color, with 100 percent of the current senior leadership team identifying as people of color.) CWC has refined its goals to look at diversity within each level at the school and network and has made changes to recruitment and hiring to try to diversify. As principal of CWC Mar Vista, for instance, Alison Kerr worked to increase the percentage of teachers and leaders of color at the school by recruiting from diverse networks, such as Teach For America, but also by taking a critical look at the school’s advertising. A group of teachers and parents of color at the school as well as some professors from UCLA and other professional contacts reviewed the school’s job descriptions and recruitment materials. They gave feedback on the language and values implied by the listings, helping revise them to reflect a more diverse community and culture.

Across the network, CWC sets a goal of having the staff mirror student diversity, which means that roughly 50 percent are people of color or from low-income backgrounds.

Dragon says that having concrete, quantitative goals for staff diversity has pushed the network to make it a priority. “I think having a goal is really helpful. The truth is if we didn’t have the goal, we wouldn’t have the data. It wouldn’t have been a conversation, and we wouldn’t have made progress.”24

After assembling a diverse staff, CWC is also focused on preparing staff to teach a wide range of learners. The network trains teachers in culturally responsive pedagogy and helps teachers recognize ways to increase equity in their classrooms. As principal of CWC Mar Vista, Kerr instituted a peer feedback structure for teachers, using the Critical Friends Group framework, to examine their own teaching practices through a lens of difference and inclusion. For instance, peer observations helped one teacher realize that she had a pattern of calling on boys during math class and needed to develop strategies to eliminate the “participation gap.”

Sara Beshawed, a kindergarten teacher and grade-level lead at CWC Mar Vista, came to the school because of its focus on social-emotional learning and the diversity of the student body. Beshawed came to CWC from a progressive private school where the student body was relatively racially and socioeconomically diverse, thanks to large financial aid programs, compared to most private schools. But CWC was more diverse in many ways, including enrolling more English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and Beshawed feels that it has made her a better teacher. “Being at CWC has really forced me to re-examine all that I do as a teacher through a lens of equity, and serving all students well.”25 She has also seen how having a diverse teaching staff benefits students. Beshawed is the child of Ethiopian immigrants, and her experience as a person of color and first-generation immigrant has helped her connect with students. For example, when a biracial student with hair similar to Beshawed’s was being teased about her hair, Beshawed became a teacher and ally. “We had a discussion about how it can feel to be different, and the many types of beautiful hair that exist—then we decided to wear matching hair the next day. What a powerful moment!” Beshawed recalled. “Representation matters, and that has become so clear to me and such a driving force in my work and commitment to diverse schools.”26

Source: Citizens of the World Charter School.

Parent and Family Engagement

Diversity also comes into play when CWC is planning for ways to engage parents and families. With families of different socioeconomic, linguistic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, CWC faces the challenge of making all families feel welcome and giving all families the chance to participate in school activities and decision-making. “The biggest challenge [of serving a diverse school community] really comes from the parent perspective,” Kerr noted.27 Higher-income white parents tend to be highly engaged in the school, while low-income parents and parents of color are less engaged. Beshawed noticed this challenge as a classroom teacher, when parents with more resources would advocate for specific accommodations for their child—such as a higher math group or more academic support—and could end up having more influence over the direction of the school. Research has shown that advantaged parents can end up marginalizing low-income families and families of color in diverse schools.28 “One thing, to be really candid, that we’re still grappling with is just the idea of what’s the dominant culture. And the dominant culture in schools right now is still white, it’s still educated, it’s still of a higher socioeconomic bracket. And so we’re really looking at a very complicated and intentional plan of through time changing how that dominant culture might influence structures and processes in the school,” Kerr explained.29

“One thing, to be really candid, that we’re still grappling with is just the idea of what’s the dominant culture. And the dominant culture in schools right now is still white, it’s still educated, it’s still of a higher socioeconomic bracket.

CWC translates parent materials, meetings, and conferences into other languages for parents, but one way that Kerr worked to change the dominant culture was by intentionally flipping the power dynamics of translation. Kerr began leading many of the school’s parent meetings in Spanish, with English translation. Although only a minority of parents in the room were Spanish speakers, this sent a message of belonging to those parents and also challenged the English-speaking families to understand what it is like to be in the minority. In written materials, school leaders also ask themselves, “How does this read to our families? Is it from a voice of a very Western, white, educated person, or are other voices coming into the mix?”30

Kerr enlisted parents as partners in figuring out how to make a more inclusive culture for families. She started a parent think tank group that included families with many diverse perspectives that put them in the minority—including gay and lesbian parents, parents with nontraditional work schedules, parents of color, and parents of adopted kids of color. The group conducted interviews with other parents at the school to hear about the experiences and challenges that they were facing, and parents opened up to their peers in a way that they had not done with school administrators. After completing interviews, the parent group has continued to meet to develop strategies for making the school community more inclusive based on families’ feedback—starting with some simple fixes like offering other meeting times and formats to accommodate a wider variety of schedules.

Codifying a Commitment to Diversity

At a network level, CWC is working to codify their commitment to diversity as it applies to every aspect of their network—enrollment, hiring, family engagement, decision-making, curriculum, pedagogy, discipline, organizational and human resources systems, and more. Over the past two years, Angela Cobb, an organizational consultant and former Chief Diversity Officer at Teach For America, has led CWC’s Los Angeles region in efforts to define diversity, equity, and inclusion as they apply to their work, and to clearly state the network’s commitment to these principles. To tackle these questions, the network invited staff and teachers to apply to join a working group on diversity, equity, and inclusion, ultimately selecting a diverse group from different levels within the organization—principals, administrators, teachers—representing all three schools in the region as well as the regional support office for the network. CWC invested in this effort not only by contracting with Cobb but also by paying for stipends for each of the working group participants and funding substitute teachers so that participants could leave the classroom to join five full-day sessions with the working group.

At a network level, CWC is working to codify their commitment to diversity as it applies to every aspect of their network—enrollment, hiring, family engagement, decision-making, curriculum, pedagogy, discipline, organizational and human resources systems, and more.

The working group’s work began with creating definitions, a commitment statement, and a vision. Although this work sometimes meant long conversations parsing phrasing, Cobb emphasizes that language matters. “If you’re not explicit in your language, then everyone can fill in the blanks for themselves. That doesn’t get you to alignment. It doesn’t get to a system of shared beliefs or shared understanding.”31 The group decided to be clear about naming differences that are both seen and unseen, to include more than just race and socioeconomic status, to extend the commitment to interactions both within and outside of the classroom, and to identify CWC’s commitment to disrupt structural racism.

Last summer, the working group shared their draft diversity statement with the broader community of teachers and staff in the network to collect and incorporate feedback. As they get closer to finalizing the draft, they will also begin sharing it with families through community workshops to be held at a variety of times. They will incorporate the community’s feedback in the final version of their commitment.

The purpose of this shared statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion is ultimately to shape the practice of their schools. Some of this happens on the classroom level, encouraging teachers and administrators to take a critical look at engagement and the relative power of students and families within their classrooms and schools. For example, do parents who volunteer in the classroom or donate to the school get faster responses from teachers? Who has influence regarding which plays students perform or what field trips they take? Is the school facilitating opportunities for students to socialize outside of school that are open to families of all socioeconomic backgrounds?

Some of these conversations have already begun. For example, the working group delved into the question of whether the school was looking at social-emotional development through the lens of white-dominant culture in their definitions of skills such as self-regulation.

Rather than providing the final word on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the codification work is designed to create a framework that will help CWC to keep engagement with these issues going. “This isn’t ever finished,” Cobb explained. “You’re always in process.”32

Growing Pains and Opportunities

CWC has faced a number of challenges over its eight years operating schools in three cities.

A Bumpy Road to Expansion

The rocky opening and ultimate closing of CWC’s two New York schools revealed the challenges of expanding CWC’s model to new regions. The network moved too quickly to replicate their model, trying to expand before creating the materials and systems needed to codify their educational approach. They did not do enough to engage or understand the local community before opening their schools. And although they had a clear vision for a socioeconomically and racially diverse student body reflective of the community, their community engagement in the lead up to opening the schools did not adequately reflect this diversity, with a disproportionate focus of recruitment resources targeted at middle-class and white families.33

Andrea Arroyo joined CWC as director of new site development and community engagement shortly after the opening of the New York schools, and one of her first efforts was make sure that CWC learned from its challenges in New York as they began working with parents in Kansas City. While some parents were eager for CWC to open a school in time for their children to attend kindergarten, Arroyo explained the need to invest time in community conversations and to plan carefully. She also emphasized that planning for a new school required meaningful engagement with families of diverse backgrounds throughout the Midtown community.

The initial group of parents that formed the Midtown Community School Initiative and developed the RFP were mostly white and middle class. Andrew Johnson, a white father who is one of the co-founders of MCSI and whose son now attends CWC, grew up in Kansas City. He was aware of the current and historical racial divides in the area and wanted the creation of a new school in Midtown to be an opportunity to create the integrated community that the city lacked. He knew, however, that, figuring out how to get there would be difficult. “We are in a city that is still dealing with segregation,” he noted. “As parent leaders, we were still struggling to work across lines of difference and bring folks into something that could be a shared process.”34

As a black woman, Erica Woodson was often one of few people of color at MCSI meetings. Woodson was a teacher at a Kansas City public school when she got involved with MCSI. She was hesitant to join an effort to create a new charter school that might further divide the education landscape in Kansas City, but she was impressed with the track record of CWC’s Los Angeles schools in terms of academics, diversity, and culturally responsive teaching, and she thought starting a new school would provide much-needed options for families in the short term. Having grown up in an upper-middle-class family in Ohio and attended college in Chicago, however, Woodson was mindful of her role as a newcomer to Kansas City. “I oftentimes just felt uncomfortable having to be this voice for people of color when I was not fully representative of the communities I thought the school was hoping to serve,” Woodson reflected. “If you are truly looking to build partnership alongside a community, then those people need to be in the rooms and helping make those decisions and having this conversation. Not just engaging people after all the big decisions have been made, if it feels comfortable for you, but working alongside the people that you’re hoping to build community with at every step of the process, in a way that’s authentic.”35

Arroyo was responsive to Woodson and shared her concerns. If CWC was going to open a school in Kansas City, Arroyo wanted to make sure that a more diverse group of stakeholders were at the table during the planning process, and that advantaged parents were not making assumptions about what all parents wanted. “I shared what my experience was as a Latina growing up in a predominantly Mexican community, that there were many people and organizations that came in with really good intentions and wanted to help, but few started by asking what we needed,” Arroyo explained.36

Once CWC became involved in the effort to create a new school in Midtown, they began extensive outreach to parents and stakeholders of diverse backgrounds, not just partnering with organizations like Operation Breakthrough or local black parishes, but also investing in many one-on-one and small-group conversations to share CWC’s educational vision and collect feedback.

The work in Kansas City has paid off so far in terms of diverse enrollment and many community partnerships at the school. But CWC has decided to pause any plans for future expansion. In the spring of 2017, CWC applied for a charter to open schools in Washington, D.C., but the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) denied the application.37 In their review of the petition, DC PCSB staff noted CWC’s strong community engagement and outreach and the inclusiveness of their educational model, but they expressed concern about the speed of the charter’s growth plan given the poor results of CWC’s New York schools.38

CWC’s Los Angeles schools have expanded to serve middle grades, and Kansas City also has plans to start a middle school in 2019. According to Dragon, “our first path to impact lies in supporting those regions.”39

Addressing Achievement Gaps

All subgroups of students at CWC’s Los Angeles schools outperform the district and state on standardized test passing rates, with some subgroups performing at more than twice the rate seen in the district and state averages (see figures 1 and 2). However, despite the fact that its student subgroups are high-achieving, the network still has considerable gaps in achievement between groups within its schools. At CWC Hollywood, for example, economically disadvantaged students were twice as likely as their low-income peers in the state or district to pass the state standardized test in mathematics (65 percent passing, compared to 25 percent in LAUSD and 26 percent across California) but still passed at a rate that was 15 percentage points lower than non-disadvantaged peers at the school. Some of the achievement gaps based on race were higher. At CWC Silver Lake, 6 percent of the student body is black, which matches the demographics of the Silver Lake community. Of the black students at Silver Lake, 26 percent passed the state test in math, ahead of the 20 percent passing rate for both the district and the state, but behind the 68 percent of white students at the school who passed.40 In English Language Arts, 53 percent of black students passed, once again ahead of the district and state rates of 28 percent and 29 percent, respectively, but 21 percentage points behind the 74 percent of white students at the school who passed.

All subgroups of students at CWC’s Los Angeles schools outperform the district and state on standardized test passing rates, with some subgroups performing at more than twice the rate seen in the district and state averages.

CWC is not alone in having achievement gaps, and many of the gaps seen in their schools are smaller than those in the district. The gap in math passing rates between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students at CWC Hollywood and the gap in English Language Arts passing rates between black and white students at CWC Silver Lake were both notably just half the size of the comparable achievement gaps for students in grades three through seven districtwide. But some of the gaps are larger: the 41 percentage point gap in math between black and white students at CWC Silver Lake was slightly greater than the 39 percentage point gap seen across the district.

Addressing these achievement gaps is a key focus for the network, and it is in large part why CWC is driving their work in the social emotional development and difference and inclusion strands. CWC’s leaders believe that a singular focus on traditional academic subjects like English Language Arts and math will not fully close the racial gap, and that outcomes for social emotional development and difference and inclusion are just as critical as outcomes for core academics. They hope that by creating an inclusive culture in their schools and nurturing all students’ social emotional development, they will not only see a reduction in academic achievement gaps but also help students to develop a broader set of skills and dispositions that will allow them to thrive. Dragon notes that many of the problems faced by adult leaders stem from difficulty working across lines of difference rather than lack of academic skills.

CWC also provides tutoring, small group instruction, and one-on-one help for students who are performing below standards on assessments throughout the year.41 For example, CWC Hollywood has had a multi-year focus on instructional supports for English Learner students and has seen state assessments reflect that progress. Likewise, once English Learners at CWC Los Angeles schools are reclassified, their performance on state assessments reaches levels achieved by the highest performing subgroups. At CWC Hollywood, 91 percent of reclassified students passed the state assessment in English Language Arts, and 89 percent in math. CWC’s leaders are open about the difficulty of this challenge. “We hope that by sharing our challenges with these gaps, that we will help to push the conversation amongst intentionally diverse schools around what success looks like,” Dragon noted.42

Source: Citizens of the World Charter School.


From its expansion to new regions to the launch of its diversity, equity, and inclusion codification work, CWC has shown willingness to take risks and experiment. Reflecting on her experience across multiple roles in the network—first as a founding lead kindergarten teacher at CWC Silver Lake, then the founding principal at CWC Mar Vista, and now at the network level leading work to innovate on CWC’s educational approach and redesign the existing middle school model—Alison Kerr put it this way: “I really appreciate that we’re an organization acknowledging how vulnerable and how messy and how challenging this work is, but yet we are not willing to let those things get in the way.”43

CWC has succeeded in creating high-performing, diverse-by-design schools that mirror the diversity of the Los Angeles neighborhoods in which they are located, and it is on track to succeed in these ways in Kansas City as well. The network has made mistakes, particularly with its rapid expansion to New York, and achievement gaps between student subgroups remain a central challenge and focus of the schools’ work. However, CWC has learned from its experiences and, through its dedication to ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion in every aspect of their work, is creating a more authentic process for community engagement in school. Moving forward, the work that CWC has begun to codify a learning model that addresses a full range of outcomes—academics, social emotional development, and difference and inclusion—promises to strengthen practices within the network and could create new resources to help other diverse schools facing similar challenges.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from interviews or observations by the author.
  2. Briana O’Higgins, “How Troost Became a Major Divide in Kansas City,” KCUR 89.3, March 27, 2014,
  3. David Martin, “Families That Once Fled the Kansas City School District Are Staying Put. But It’s on Their Terms,” The Pitch, March 27, 2018,; “Kansas City Public Schools History,” Kansas City Public Schools webpage, (accessed May 1, 2018); A.G. Sulzberger, “Kansas City, Mo., School District Loses Its Accreditation,” The New York Times, September 20, 2011,; and Rebecca Haessig, “Student Demographics within KPS Boundaries – Part II: An Analysis,” Set the Schools Free: A Kansas City Public Education Blog, April 10, 2018,
  4. “Citizens of the World Board of Director Meeting – Executive Director Report – Dashboard,” Citizens of the World Kansas City website, September 21, 2016,
  5. Citizens of the World charter Schools Kansas City Charter Application, August 2015, 30,
  6. “Citizens of the World Charter Schools Kansas City Charter Application,” August 2015,, 84.
  7. “California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, 2016-2017 Results,” Citizens of the World Los Angeles website,
  8. “Citizens of the World Kansas City Trimester Report, Winter 2018,” Citizens of the World Kansas City website, 9,
  9. Kriste Dragon, phone interview with Halley Potter, August 30, 2017.
  10. 2017–18 enrollment data from California Department of Education DataQuest, Neighborhood demographics from CWC Los Angeles schools’ charter petitions, available at
  11. Beth Fertig, “A Charter Booster Says He’s Helping Parents Find New Choices,” WNYC SchoolBook, December 20, 2012,
  12. Meredith Hoffman, “Parents Sue State for Approving Citizens of the World Charter School,” DNAinfo, January 29, 2013,
  13. Matter of Williamsburg & Greenpoint Parents: Our Pub. Schools! V. Board of Trustees, State Univ. of N.Y. (2015), NY Slip Op 05690 (Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, July 1, 2015),
  14. Lisa Fleisher, “A Charter School’s Struggle for New Students,” The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2013,; and New York City Department of Education Demographic Snapshots,
  15. Laura Furlong and Kriste Dragon, email to Halley Potter, March 23, 2018
  16. Monica Disare, “Two Citizens of the World Charter Schools Will Close at the End of This Year,” Chalkbeat, December 15, 2017,
  17. Laura Furlong and Kriste Dragon, email to Halley Potter, March 23, 2018
  18. “Citizens of the World Charter Hollywood: A Public School. Charter Petition for Five Year Term (2010-2015),” January 14, 2010,
  19. Amanda Quance, interview with Halley Potter at Citizens of the World in Kansas City, Missouri, May 22, 2017.
  20. “Lottery,” Citizens of the World Charter School Silver Lake, (accessed May 1, 2018); “Lottery Info for the 2018–2019 School Year,” Citizens of the World Charter School Hollywood, (accessed May 1, 2018); and “Admissions,” Citizens of the World Charter School Mar Vista, (accessed May 1, 2018).
  21. Kriste Dragon, phone interview with Halley Potter, August 30, 2017.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Sara Beshawed, email to Halley Potter, April 3, 2018.
  27. Alison Kerr, phone interview with Halley Potter, September 7, 2017.
  28. Alexandra Freidus, “‘A Great School Benefits Us All’: Advantaged Parents and the Gentrification of an Urban Public School,” Urban Education, March 27, 2016,
  29. Alison Kerr, phone interview with Halley Potter, September 7, 2017.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Angela Cobb, phone interview with Halley Potter, March 27, 2018.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Sonja Sharp, “Brooklyn Charter School Targets Rich White Parents, Enrollment Plan Shows,” DNAinfo, April 23, 2013,
  34. Andrew Johnson, phone interview with Halley Potter, March 22, 2018.
  35. Erica Woodson, phone interview with Halley Potter, April 11, 2018.
  36. Andrea Arroyo, phone interview with Halley Potter, September 14, 2017.
  37. “Board Meeting Update: May 2017,” D.C. Public Charter Schools Board, May 2017,
  38. Katherine Dammann, Memo to the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, “Subject: Charter Application—Citizens of the World DC—Vote,” May 22, 2017,
  39. Laura Furlong and Kriste Dragon, email to Halley Potter, March 23, 2018.
  40. California Department of Education DataQuest.
  41. Citizens of the World Los Angeles, “Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP 2017–18—Progress on Current Goals: February 28, 2018,”
  42. Laura Furlong and Kriste Dragon, email to Halley Potter, March 23, 2018.
  43. Alison Kerr, phone interview with Halley Potter, September 7, 2017.