Understanding Public Charter Schools

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Charter schools are an increasingly popular option for Philadelphia families who want educational alternatives for their teens but want to stay within the public system. 

Charter schools are public schools that operate with a greater level of independence than district schools. This means they have greater freedom to design classes and to hire and fire teachers. They often have longer school days and sometimes longer school years than district schools. Many require students to wear uniforms or follow a dress code.

Many charter schools admit students via lottery. Others, called Renaissance Schools, are neighborhood schools that must admit all students living within specified boundaries. By law, there can be no restrictions on which students can enter a school lottery. Charter schools cannot set minimum grades or test scores for admission. (However, they can give preference to younger siblings of currently enrolled students and for certain other special factors.)

There are over 100 charter schools in Philadelphia, 34 of which include high school grades. About one of every three students in the city attends a charter school (including almost 5,000 students who attend cyber charter schools; see more information about this option). The types of students vary considerably from one school to another. You can learn more about the student body of each charter by reviewing the school’s profile.

Charter schools and district schools are both listed as public schools on GreatPhillySchools. You will know which schools are charter schools in many cases by their names or by reading their mission statements.

A Charter School Education

Like any public school, charter schools focus on providing students with a strong education in the core subjects of math, reading, science and social studies. They also typically provide instruction in art, music, physical education and other subjects.

However, charter schools operate with the freedom to design their own academic programs, and many accordingly offer a unique approach. For example, in Philadelphia there are charter schools focused on technology, multiculturalism, the environment, bilingual education and African studies. The diversity of educational approaches is one reason it’s important to do your research before deciding to apply to a specific charter school.

Some charter schools have school days longer than those at regular public schools (sometimes starting as early as 7 a.m. and running as late as 5 p.m.) and mandatory summer sessions. Some charter schools also require students to attend classes on select Saturdays. Charter schools also often insist on a high degree of parental involvement.

Charter school students are eligible to play sports and participate in clubs offered at other public schools if those activities are not available at their school.

Charter School Networks

In Philadelphia there are several Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) that run more than one charter school. Here’s a quick rundown of these organizations:

  • Mastery Charter Schools. A network of 19 charter schools throughout Philadelphia, ranging from elementary to high school, focused on providing students with a college-preparatory education. Many Mastery schools are Renaissance Schools.

  • Universal Companies. A network of 8 charter schools focused on preparing students for college and careers.

  • ASPIRA. A network of 4 charter schools with the mission to empower Puerto Rican and Latino youth.

  • KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools. A network of 6 charter schools affiliated with the national KIPP charter network. KIPP Philadelphia focuses on providing students with a college-preparatory education.

  • American Paradigm Schools. A network of 4 charter schools working to build collaborative school communities.

  • Community Education Alliance of West Philadelphia. A network of 4 charter schools serving the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia.

  • String Theory Charter Schools. A network of 4 charter schools focused on the arts and sciences.

Together, these CMOs operate nearly half of all Philadelphia charter schools. The other half consist of standalone, single-location charter schools.

Are Charter Schools Better Than Traditional Public Schools?

Academic performance at charters varies, just as it does at traditional public schools. Some charters are among the best schools in the city, and some are among the worst.

Given the difference in performance, it is important to learn about the academic results at schools you may be considering. Visit if you can, and ask the staff what will be expected of your teen if he or she enrolls there. Also be sure to ask how the school will support your student if he struggles in class.


The School District of Philadelphia’s Charter School Directory.

For more information about Renaissance Schools, visit the district website or call 215-400-5847.


More Information

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