2020 Conference: The Impact of Education Innovation in Grades K-12 for Communities of Color

Presented by Gregory M. Weston, Trustee of Democracy Prep New York Schools

The Challenge

Communities of Color (COC) in the U.S. are challenged today as never before. The disparate impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on Communities of Color have laid bare the existing inequities in our healthcare system. Prior to the pandemic chronic health problems have plagued such communities at much higher levels than the general population. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and asthma are ever present while access to quality health care is increasingly difficult and often impossible, given increased attempts to roll back the Affordable Health Care Act.

With that backdrop, COVID 19 has created a catastrophe for COC. According to the CDC, African American and Latinix residents are three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors and nearly twice as likely to die. In some counties the infection rates for POC or six to seven times that of white residents. The prevalence of chronic health problems and the disproportionate number of people from COC that are considered essential workers are primary factors of the health disparities.

The pandemic has also created in economic crisis in COC. As with healthcare, significant disparities existed pre-COVID. For example, the median wealth for Black families is $17,600 vs. $171,000 for white families – 10%! Now with COVID over 45% of Black businesses are at risk of failure.

As all of these issues were playing out in 2020, the vicious murder of George Floyd galvanized attention on another set up disparities – criminal justice. For decades, police violence, mass incarceration and gun violence have plagued COC in ways that are just receiving recognition of much of the country.


The challenges facing COC often seem permanent and unsolvable and indeed, the intersection of these problems complicate the possibility of meaningful change. However, the path for future generations does not have to be bleak. The zip code that a person in born in does not have to create an impenetrable ceiling of progress. The promise of free education for all Americans has provided a path for upward mobility for many generations of Americans. Unfortunately, that promises has remained unfulfilled for most COC. Due to historical racial segregation and wealth gaps, zip codes far too often dictate outcomes for K-12 students. For many COC schools not only fail students but through the frequent criminalization of discipline incidents have created a School to Prison Pipeline. Recognizing this fact, an effort to reform current public education has created a number of initiatives designed to impact outcomes. At the federal level, examples include No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and 2010 Common Core States Standard. Locally, voucher programs and charter schools have offered more private sector approaches to educational reform.

Charter Schools

In many communities, including COC, charter schools have offered a successful model for quality public education. So, what is a charter school?

Charter schools are schools that are publicly funded but operated by independent groups. The name comes from the contract, or “charter,” that a group gets to operate a school.

First it must be understood that charter schools are public schools, rather than private academies or schools. However, they don’t have to follow the same regulations from states, municipalities and school districts as traditional public schools. In general, charter schools have more flexibility to set curriculum and school hours and rules than traditional public schools. And because they’re not bound by union contracts, they also have more leeway to hire and fire teachers. They also have flexibility to incentivize teachers with merit based bonuses. In exchange, they have to meet accountability standards. About 15 percent of charters nationally have been closed for failing to do so.

Charter school laws vary from state to state, and some states have no charter schools at all. The first charter school law was enacted in 1991 in Minnesota. Over the past two decades, the number of charter schools and students in the US has grown explosively. About 5 percent of all public school students now attend a charter school. In some districts, including Washington, the proportion is much higher. In NYC the figure is 11 percent. Just like traditional public schools, charter schools can be effective or ineffective, depending on teachers, leadership and other factors. But some have achieved notable success in helping low-income and minority students achieve high test scores and prepare for college.

Democracy Prep

The mission of Democracy Prep Public Schools (DPPS) is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship. Democracy Prep began as one middle school in Harlem in 2005. DPPS was founded to show that regardless of what ZIP code they are born into, students can perform at high academic levels. Democracy Prep seeks to transform not only the lives of the students at Democracy Prep but also the expectation of what public schools can achieve.

After great success in New York, the school grew to a national network. DPPS now operates 21 high-performing charter schools and one program in New York, NY; Camden, NJ; Baton Rouge, LA; Las Vegas, NV; and San Antonio, TX. DPPS educates over 7,000 citizen-scholars. It also aims to strengthen communities by graduating young adults who are prepared for career success, who will vote in their local elections, run for elected office, volunteer and serve others, and donate to worthy charitable causes. All students learn the mantra “Go to College, Change the World” and take it to heart. One example of living that mantra is that DPPS currently employs 30 alumni as teachers and administrators. 55 of our alumni work as Alumni Captains supporting DP scholars on their path to and through college right from their college campus.

DPPS Impact on Voting and Civic Engagement

A study by Mathematica found that there is a 98% probability that enrolling at Democracy Prep produces a positive impact on both voting and voter registration. Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points. The study also found that there is a 98% probability that enrolling in a DP school produced a positive impact on voting in the 2016 election.

College Access and Acceptances

Last year, despite the pandemic, our nearly 400 seniors and now graduates, persevered and received an average of 4.57 college acceptances each. 75% of college acceptances were to schools ranked “competitive” or higher. DPPS scholars have been accepted into a variety of Historically Black Colleges & Universities, including Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, Hampton University, and Grambling State. In addition, we congratulated our fourth college graduating class in Spring. They have earned college diplomas from Yale, Barnard, Columbia, West Point, Duke, Smith, Harvard, Brown, Boston College, SUNY Albany, SUNY Plattsburgh, Middlebury College, and so many others. These results are even more remarkable given the economic challenges facing most scholars, over 90% of whom are First Generation college attendees in their families.

Examples of Innovation at Democracy Prep

  • Korean Culture & Language. The mission of the Korean Culture & Language Program is to provide students with a unique, in-depth immersive experience and foster a development of identity, cross-cultural awareness, and language proficiency. Students will step out of their comfort zone and have an opportunity to broaden their perspectives through culture and language.
  • Visual Arts. Scholars contribute to their school’s arts culture through regular showcases, concerts, exhibitions, and other opportunities to share creative output.
  • Speech & Debate. Democracy Prep’s strong Speech & Debate team consistently wins awards at the national level. We made history at Nationals as the first school to have two finalists in Duo Interpretation. Democracy Prep also earned the highest distinction which is only awarded to the top ten high schools in the nation. Last year, the Speech & Debate team traveled 16,940 miles!
  • Music Academy. Grade 3-12 scholars in our NYC schools enjoy complimentary access to the DPNYC Music Academy, which meets after school and on Saturdays from October to June. Music Academy participants learn how to play the keyboard, read music, and pursue excellence as a musical ensemble.
  • Global Travel. DPPS scholars are groomed to be world citizens. While most come from COC will little opportunity to travel, DP scholars visit dozens of elite college campuses and have opportunities to visit London, Ecuador, South Africa and Seoul Korea.


College Matriculation

During the 2020 application season:

  • Democracy Prep seniors received an average of 4.8 college acceptances.
  • Our scholars were accepted into a variety of Historically Black Colleges & Universities, including Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, Hampton University, and Grambling State.
  • Seniors got into all eight Ivy League schools and six of the Sister Schools.
  • 75% of all acceptances were to schools ranked “Competitive or above.”


As noted above the challenges facing Communities of Color are significant, interrelated and long-standing. All of those challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is no silver bullet, history shows that quality education remains the best solution for families to provide their children with life altering changes in their opportunity set. Rather than navigating the School to Prison Pipeline, diminished work opportunities and low wealth probabilities students attending quality K-12 schools can truly enjoy the American Dream.

Sadly, with few exceptions, family wealth and location usually dictate the ability to access quality education. That is where innovation is needed. While innovation takes many forms good charter schools are a viable solution to this dilemma. The great success of Democracy Prep Public Schools provides a vivid example of how innovation in education can transform students, families and communities.