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The Truth About charter Schools: Teachers

30 Oct

 

It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

 

Steve Jobs in a 2005 commencement address to Stanford students

 

One of the lost stories in the controversy around charter schools is the stories of teachers. We hear about parents and students who end up doing battle against some sort of administrative body trying to start a charter school or trying to get into one. Or there is the corporation trying to start a school for profit. Or a local district trying to stop them.

 

In the middle we have teachers. And I’m ashamed to say we are often at odds with one another on this subject. Many of my fellow teachers don’t hate me for what I do so much as where I do it. Perhaps they think I have sold my soul to the corporate devil. I do not fully understand why I and my school are disliked so much, but we are. Public school teachers seem to generally oppose charter schools because we are seen as robbing the public treasury of money that should rightly go to them.

 

Full public disclosure: I currently teach in the largest charter school in the state of Georgia which is affiliated with the largest virtual public charter school in the country. I DO have skin in the game when it comes to how charter schools fare in the upcoming election.

 

Prior to coming to this school, I have taught in a variety of settings, traditional and not so traditional. I taught at small public schools and large ones. I taught in a residential private boarding school and then later at a residential hospital. I also taught in the state psychoed network. But over half my career of nearly 20 years has been in a traditional brick and mortar setting. Most of this blog was written while in that setting, albeit teaching mostly nontraditional students.

 

But I did get to a point where I was no longer willing to settle and wanted something different. So I resigned out with the idea of reapplying and effecting a transfer that I was unable to get any other way. I asked for several years and the answer was always the same: “We’ll let you transfer when we can find someone to replace you.” But they never looked for anyone to replace me!

 

The result was that I was out, very much like Steve Jobs when he got fired from Apple. I spent the next 2 years trying to get back into a field where I had formerly occupied the top of my game. I had a 100% pass rate on my GAAs every year I ever did them. I proved myself over and over in long-term substitute positions and had administrators who were interested in me. But the board office was not. I was branded for trying to take control of my own destiny.

 

I was not proud of going on food stamps, and was plagued by self-doubt. I still loved teaching but no longer felt like this business had any use for me. Perhaps it was time to go back to the farm in Iowa and forget about teaching.

 

But I held out, hoping that the speech Steve Jobs gave might one day be something I could also say.

 

Yes, life hit me with a brick. But I can honestly say that through the loss, I managed to find life again. I’m passionate about reaching out to kids again. I’m passionate about helping the parents of kids again. Actually, it was always my passion, but I just needed to rediscover it. And the virtual academy has helped me do that. I love what I am doing, and think of it as great work. I have never been a traditional teacher of traditional students. I am an oddball, an out-lier, a nerd, a geek and a misfit in so many ways. But the kids I reach out to are also feeling those feelings and need a hand that will not judge or bully them. They need to relate to someone who is like them and for a lot of them that someone is me.

 

The traditional brick and mortar setting works for many ‘traditional typical kids.’ But it is very unyielding and even cruel to those who do not fit the traditional or typical mold. This is equally true of teachers. Those of us who are nontraditional often come up against stiff opposition from traditionalists. It has always been the case throughout educational history that the industry has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into more modern methods and technology. Much of the opposition to me being rehired in my county was because of the fact that I had a blog. THIS blog. They hated the fact that a teacher could write and publish their own material free of their ability to control or censor it.

 

Any administrator or school board member can have their own blog if they want. But instead of joining the conversation, they want to shut down everyone, so that no one has a voice. And I am not a good fit for that sort of atmosphere. And I am not the only teacher who is not a good fit for stiff and inflexible working conditions.

 

Schools like my school become a haven for teachers like me who are otherwise nerdy misfits who will never coach a football, basketball or soccer team. I didn’t fully realize just how well fitted I was for this job until my mom asked me questions like “Don’t you get tired of being on the computer all day?” or “Don’t you start to feel closed in and get a little stir crazy?” No and no. I don’t mind it because I am, in fact, reaching out continuously and touching students and families where they live, no matter where in the state they reside. I had never heard of Grovetown, Georgia until I talked to a student and parent that lived there.

 

I am where I am meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. I’m helping students and their families get the best education that I possibly can give them. I am making a difference. I am passionate about what I do.

 

I’m not kicking dirt on my fellow teachers in traditional settings who are passionate about what THEY do. So I find it hard to understand why the opposite might be true. My former traditional school system turned their back on me for the sake of petty politics, and yet opponents of the Charter School Amendment are trying to scare people into voting against it with the claim that a charter school commission would be a purely political body. For 11 years such a commission approved charter schools in the state of Georgia including the one I work for now. It was not until a group of school districts, among them Gwinnett County, Dekalb County and Atlanta Public Schools filed their lawsuit, costing their districts in excess of $300, 000 did the State court overturn the constitutionality of the commission in a 4-3 decision. These 3 districts are the epitome of political hubris and nepotism that stifles the educational creativity and achievement that we need to get Georgia’s educational system out of the national gutter. But they claim the the commission is too political.

 

I’ve seen and personally experienced the hurt and damage inflicted by the nepotism of the local community school district. My fellow teachers know it exists and live in fear of it. Everyone knew what was happening but no one could do anything about it. They couldn’t even talk about it because some unelected person sitting in the board office had friends and relatives who were waiting to take their jobs irregardless of qualifications or merit.

 

In a charter school, parental and student satisfaction matter. They do not HAVE to be there. The local control exercised by the parents in their own homes with their own families can be exercised at any time. They do not have to appeal to a board member who gets elected once every 4 years to exercise the right to vote with their feet. I feel some obligation to honor those parents who choose to stick with me for the year and do the best that I can for them. I think all of my fellow teachers are committed to the kids they teach in the same way. We are born into it, and feel joy in doing what we feel is an important work.

 

All of the teachers I teach with are just as committed as our traditional counterparts. We are all certified and highly qualified, many with advanced degrees. We like what we do. We chose to be here. If you are a teacher, you don’t have to settle. There are other places and options where you can discover and exercise your passion for teaching. I highly recommend that you consider keeping as many of those options open as you can for yourselves as well as for other teachers like me.

The Truth About Charter Schools: Funding and Local Control

27 Oct

In the interest of disclosure, I do work for the largest charter school in the state of Georgia. My views do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer and should not be construed to reflect any other opinion other than my own. But I’m trying to present mostly facts here to educate those who might seek more knowledge before they make any decisions.

There is an election coming up, in case you might not have heard or have missed it. In the state of Georgia, neither of the presidential candidates have spent much time or money here, and neither state senator is up for re-election so it has been comparatively quiet here. Except for one issue: The State Charter School Amendment.

You can read the entirety of the legislation here. It’s barely over 2 pages long. In a week or so, the people of Georgia will cast their vote on this question:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local

approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” YES NO

That’s it. That’s all there is.

The Georgia school districts and the state Superintendent of Education have campaigned relentlessly against this amendment. I was going to link to the Boards of Education who have come out against the amendment, but instead I’ll link you to the school boards that I know of who have supported it:

[….sounds of crickets…]

Well, that was nice. If anyone knows of any public county or city school system that has voiced approval for the amendment, please let me know!

I will link to one BOE’s resolution here.

I actually agree with over half of of the preambular clauses of this resolution. I agree that education is important and that public education is critical to the future of our community, nation and state. I linked in an earlier article to Condolezza Rice talking about education as a national security issue and the civil rights issue of our times. I also know the reality of education funding, and the squeeze it has put on districts. Districts in the state are repeatedly being asked to do more with less.

And so, the districts across the state opine that state funded charter schools will divert money away from the local school districts thereby impoverishing them even more. But is this true?

Most of the funding for traditional public schools come from the local property taxes. There have been many efforts to reform how money is raised to pay for education but no one has succeeded in changing it and so property owners foot most of the bill for their local district expenses in education. The meltdown of the real estate market during the current recession put most districts in Georgia in a state of crisis as property values plummeted and tax revenues followed. But everyone who owns property still pays taxes on the assessed value whether they have children that go to the school or not. The only way I can escape paying my property taxes is to sell my property.

In the state of Georgia, the average district spends about $9,000 per student. And roughly $4,000 of those dollars come from the state. The other $5,000 comes from taxpayers of that district. If a student moves from one district to another, the state money follows that student while the local money stays. But when a school district is so bad that families begin moving out in en mass, then property values suffer and the district’s revenues suffer as well. Wherever the student moves, the state still recognizes its obligation to educate him or her.

So what affect does the charter school amendment have on this funding dynamic? If it is a charter school established and supported by the local school board, things don’t change much at all. The board still does the oversight of funds, same as usual according to the school’s charter.

However if it is a state charter school, then it is written in the bill that the state would fund it and not the local district.

So if Thomas is attending a regular school and withdraws to attend the school I work for, then the school district does indeed lose about 4,000 state dollars that go to my state funded charter school. However the remaining 5,000 local dollars are distributed among the remaining students to be used as the local board sees fit. In addition, since my school does not require students to leave their home towns or counties, the family continues to reside there and pay their taxes as normal. Thomas does not have to move to find a school that better works for him, and the district actually gains $5,000 as it no longer has to educate a student that was probably unhappy there anyway.

So the district’s argument that they lose money because of public charter schools is simply not true. Local school superintendents would have you believe that public charter schools are gigantic leeches on the backs of already beleaguered traditional schools. But this is untrue, and the only thing the Charter School Amendment does in regards to funding is to guarantee that local districts get to keep their local money. This amendment actually protects them and the majority of their funds!

The other club that districts are using against this amendment is that of taking away local control from local school boards. This is probably closer to the truth behind the popular opposition to this initiative. And when I first heard about this amendment, I was thinking much the same way. It was the state, taking money away from me, and establishing schools that my local school board did not want over their objections. It certainly smells like Atlanta butting in where it isn’t wanted, doesn’t it?

But the fact of the matter is much different. Charter schools are not initiated by the state. They are initiated by concerned parents of children who want to be served in a different way than the traditional schools are able or willing to do. So the first step is to petition the local board to establish a charter school. In the current climate, you can see that there is not going to be much sympathy toward such parents in these districts. So then they petition on the state level to the state Board of Education. Again, our beloved State Superintendent of Education has stated his mind in regards to charter schools. So where can families go now? Some of them are pulling up the stakes and leaving. Some of them are homeschooling. And some try private schooling. But remember the preambular statements in the above resolution? Public education is important, and parents ARE willing to make enormous sacrifices for their children to obtain a decent chance.

Local school boards are NOT the lowest level of local control. The most local control of all is in our own houses at our own kitchen tables. Families all over the state exercise their most fundamental right to local control and self governance when they decide how their children should be educated. What this amendment does is help to give parents an option; an avenue of control that is apart and distinct from that of the local board of education.

The 180 schools systems in Georgia are not ALL bad, but several of them seem to have distinguished themselves as being sub par. Many of the school boards seem to have proven out Mark Twain when he said “God made the idiot for practice and then He made school boards.” Just what is a parent supposed to do in such circumstance? Surely they can vote, but in the meantime their children still need to get educated.

Charter schools would not exist at all if no one wanted them. These same school officials speaking out against this amendment are the very ones who have helped create the demand for them, and yet want to cut off that option from parents.

The fact is that this amendment recognizes the right of charter schools to exist and the right of the state to fund them while protecting the local funds from being used to fund them. If parents don’t like a charter school, they do not have to send their kids there. Parents can and will vote with their feet. And this is precisely what local districts are afraid of. They are of afraid of the state taking control away from them, they are afraid of parents taking control way from them by opting out of their own systems. If the status quo is allowed to continue, districts will continue to deny opportunities for parents and students, and keep them bound to the same system.

In my previous article I pointed out why many of the students that I teach are ill-served by the present system. Public charter schools provide them the opportunity to continue their education while remaining in their home communities.

Voters who are concerned about this topic should vote their conscious, and make a decision based on the facts, not on the series of fictions and fears currently being publicized. Do not be swayed by Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: FUD. Be informed and be proactive. People need facts, not FUD. Read the bill as it is written, and make your decision based on whether it is something you agree with or not, not because of what I say or because of what your district superintendent says. Sure, I definitely have an interest in keeping my job, but I also have an interest in the students that I teach and their families. Shutting down state charter schools may make life easier for 180 superintendents who no longer have to compete with us, but it will not help the students that I teach who DO have to compete with the rest of the world.

Note:I saw this AFTER I had already written my piece. If you would like to see a debate on the issue, you can watch it here. My favorite quote is by Supt. Wilbanks “Parental choice is an issue that is overplayed.”

The Truth About Charter Schools: The Students

14 Sep

I knew not everyone would agree with my take in my last article on Charter schools and the charter school amendment.  I will admit that the issue is a bit complex, muddied by some emotional rhetoric on both sides.  And I freely admit that I can be as shameless of a purveyor of rhetoric as anyone.  Writing without hyperbole is just kinda boring.

Lost in all of the debate, accusations and political gamesmanship is the main focus and subject: students.  They are the ones who will ultimately gain or suffer by what we do or don’t do in November.

The anti-choice folks state very passionately that the students in traditional schools will ultimately suffer due to the funding that will be taken away from their schools, causing more overcrowding and more deplorable conditions.  And I can sympathize as I have witnessed first-hand what has happened to the education system in my beloved district.  Paras were the first to be let go, and then the furloughs and then loss of benefits and finally the overcrowding of almost every class in every school.  Teacher morale was at an all-time low when I left that setting.  Conditions have not improved by any degree or measure in the 2 years since then.  So in some sense, it appears that by taking money away, I advocate making things even worse!

I do not advocate taking money away as much as I advocate taking children away.  And many parents are doing just that, at great cost and sacrifice.  The giant brick and mortar factory schools are crumbling.

So who are the students in my school?  I am now teaching in the largest charter school in the state, and one of the largest in the nation.  We don’t have buses, we don’t have lunchrooms and we don’t have sports teams.  What we do have are students.  Over 12,000 of them in Georgia, with a long waiting list of more who want to get in.

Over 50% of our kids qualified for free and reduced lunches when they went to a brick and mortar school.  Over 1000 receive special education services at every level.They come from towns that I have never heard of, all over the state, from every ethnic background.  Some are urban and some are rural.  But one thing they all have in common is hope.  A hope for a better future, a new start and some way of attaining their goals.  Intimately linked to these students are their parents who aspire for better and greater things for their children.  Most have chosen to stay home to be their children’s learning coach and to invest personally in their child’s education.  They make the sacrifice of career in order to offer something better for their children, giving up much economically, which is especially poignant in today’s economy.  A few of them were already homeschooling while for many this is their first foray into taking charge of their children’s education, becoming true partners with the educational system, interfacing with the teachers, the curriculum and the classes.  Every single day, there are parents who attend classes with their children, sitting right beside them, helping and guiding them.

K12 has a Facebook page which often asks parents this question: Why did you choose K12?

There are scores of replies that can generally be categorized as follows:

“My child was bullied”, “My child was too distracted,” “My child was repeatedly bullied and there was nothing the school could do”, “The classes were too overcrowded for my child to learn” “My child was bullied and did not want to go to school anymore” “My child was not making progress” “My child was bullied and harassed daily and the school would not do anything” “My child needed a more stable learning environment and I did not have enough knowledge to home school” “My child was attacked and stabbed” “I was fed up with what was going on in my home school” “There were too many fights at my child’s neighborhood schools” “My child needed to learn at her own pace” “My child was afraid to go to school because of the bullying and fights””My child became afraid to go to go to school after she was attacked” “My child has a medical condition and she was missing too many assignments” “The only social skills my child was exposed to was fighting, bullying, cursing and swearing””We could not afford a private school and our neighborhood school in south Fulton was too violent and my child was not learning anything” “My child had a disability and his needs were not being met” “My child has aspergers and was teased relentlessly” “My child needs 1:1 support to be successful” “My child became so depressed and withdrawn, they did want to leave the house after starting middle school.  I later found out she was being teased and bullied daily”

You get the picture?  Your school may not have any of these problems and you may have the best and most dedicated teachers in the world.  But these children are refugees from the world of traditional schooling.  Their entire school experience, for many of them, was dictated by their zip code.  If you live in a nice, suburban wealthy neighborhood, you might not have many problems in your school of overcrowding, gangs, bullying, distractions or other things that make daily life for many students a living hell.  All of the families might be well-adjusted and involved in the local PTA.  Every classroom might be staffed by a highly qualified, enthusiastic teacher who incorporates technology and engagement into every lesson.

But for too many of the children I and my fellow teachers serve, this was not their experience.  Their experiences were so bad, that many single parents sacrificed many opportunities in order to provide the safe, nurturing and distraction-free environment that only a parent can provide in their own home so that their children can attend school without the fear and anxiety that comes with being a victim of harassment, bullying and abuse.  They were looking for a new start where they could again become confident learners without being persecuted for being “different.”

I hope to eventually blog my own transformational experience since joining this incredible team.  But suffice it to say that I adore my students as well as their parents who have sacrificed so much to offer their children what they perceive to be their best chance at success.  I owe it to them to do the best that I can for them, and I am a tenacious advocate for their cause.  They inspire me to be a better teacher.

I know that those who oppose the charter school amendment, in their own way, are advocating for children too.  They fear that the traditional schools demise will be hastened by the advent and rise of charter schools like these.  But the genie is out of the bottle.  While you might be able to slow the process, the changes are coming.  I’m not sure what you expect to happen within the next 10 years with traditional schools, but I can tell you what we saw in the last 10 years does not bode well.  Schools, schooling and learning are going to be transformed.  They MUST be transformed.  Putting these kids back into traditional schools after what they suffered through and after having tasted the sweetness of success, would be devastating.  Why would you do this?  Why would you send a child who has found success and confidence in this new environment back into the old environment where fear and failure ruled their lives?

Many detractors point out that charter schools do not do any better than the traditional schools when it comes to test scores, the current rubric of measured success in American education today.  And this is true in my school, where the gains are often modest at best.  But read the comment excerpts above.  The case could be made that many of these students suffer from PTSD, and many of them came to us 1, 2 and even 3 years behind.  These are not kids who were achieving well in their old schools, and often sought escape, refuge and asylum after a long string of failure.  I know of no parent who makes the decision to withdraw their child from their neighborhood school lightly as the decision carries with it some serious economic, social and lifestyle consequences.  Change is never easy, and this sort of change for young people is pretty drastic.  But given the comments above, I have to ask you: What would YOU do?  Should your zip code be the sole arbiter of your child’s educational success?  Should the quality of your child’s education and life be dictated solely by the economy of your neighborhood?

Jane and I are in the midst of the very same discussion as so many parents today.  We look at the declining state of our neighborhood schools and we are fearful of what will happen in the future.  My oldest son’s middle school does try very hard and they have done their best to address the instances of bullying that have occurred.  They really have put a lot of effort into trying to provide a safe environment that enables him to succeed as best they can.  But the high school up the street is a nightmare engaged in a seeming race to the bottom.  We are looking at our options, and they are few.  But there ARE options, thank goodness.

And this is one thing that I think detractors of charter schools overlook.  Simply having viable options in place that are close by can actually help your neighborhood school.  When those options are not in place, the more dramatic sacrifice is to pull up the stakes and move.  When your option is dictated solely by your zip code and there are no other options many, many families choose to change zip codes.  At least a neighborhood charter school keeps involved families in play to be won back if the schools can turn things around.  But once families leave their neighborhoods, you begin to see businesses close their doors and board up their windows.

Is K12 or any other charter school perfect?  Absolutely not, and I do intend to blog an open letter to the good folks in Herndon, VA at some point.  But in the meantime, it provides a place for at least 12,000 of Georgia’s children who, for whatever reason, did not fit in at their traditional brick and mortar schools.  Our beloved State School Superintendent has voiced his willingness to send those 12,000 students and their families back to the schools they fled from, and bar the door to keep them there.  Georgia’s families will be once again tied to their schools based on their zip codes and their income.

In a world where knowledge and information are ubiquitous, it is time to put an end to the educational apartheid that exists in the state of Georgia and around the country.  The quality of a child’s education should not be dictated by their township anymore than it was in South Africa in 1980.  It was wrong then and there, and it is wrong here and now.  Today I can shop in a neighboring town’s store (or online) for better goods, go to a neighboring town for better health care or attend a church anywhere that I care to drive.  But my child can not attend a school outside of the district or zoning lines.

We owe it to our children to offer opportunity and choice.  We need to decide the type of world we are going to live in.  The amendment, like it or not, IS a referendum on choice and opportunity for Georgia’s families.  Are we going to follow the same path that we have been on for the last 10-12 years?  Or are we going to risk something different?

The traditional public schools have a problem that has become a ubiquitous epidemic.  It is persistent and rampant.  It is also a problem that completely disappears once students enter our school.

John Barge, the teacher’s unions, the school boards and so many others who hate our charter school are not addressing or talking about it.  Their failure to effectively deal with it has created a demand that would simply not otherwise exist.   Now these same people are are trying to take my kids; the ones I teach; the ones who have escaped to a safe and secure place where they can actually learn and return them to the same conditions they fled from.  Where is the outrage?  Where is the shame?

 

Myths About Charter Schools

11 Sep

The Georgia Charter School Amendment is gearing up to be one of the hottest items on the fall ballot for the state of Georgia, outside of the presidential race.  I have wanted to write on this for some time, as I am now intimately connected to the charter school movement.  I am currently working for the largest charter school in Georgia, so it might be fair to say that I might be a little biased.  At the same time, both my children still attend their local non-charter public schools.  And I do have experience teaching in public schools for over 20 years.

I am writing mostly in response to the article by Matt Jones, 8 Myths About the Proposed Charter Amendment which was published in the AthenPatch site.  I was originally going to write about myths, but Mr. Jones beat me to it!  So, I guess I’ll have to play the role of Mythbuster for a minute.  I do admit that my experience is confined to the Georgia Cyber Academy, but I did not see where he had taught at any charter schools.

When I first heard about this amendment, I was worried about the implications of a state agency leaping over a locally controlled one, and thereby robbing the local community of tax dollars without representation or oversight.  But a few things have taken place since then which have changed my views.  One of which was working for the GCA.  Another of which was the horrific meltdown of our local school board and administration into a hopeless morass of infighting, nepotism, sniping, circling the wagons and otherwise failing to exercise leadership.

It is useful to read a bit of background about what happened in Cherokee County.  This is what was being mirrored around the state in many counties.  In fact several counties joined in the Cherokee County lawsuit.

So let me look at this issue through the lense of Mr. Jones, and clarify a few things.  His article is worth the read, simply because it provides a handy repository of half-truths and its own share of myths.  Many of the myths around charter schools could be avoided if people would simply do a little diligence and read the DOE’s website on the topic.

Myth: The State Does Not Have the Power to Approve Charter Schools That Were Denied by Local School Boards

Fact:The Georgia Department of Education currently has the authority to review and approve state charter applications.

According to State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge, “with the state charter schools review process already in place, why does Georgia need another state agency that can do the same thing?”

It is true that the State DOE does have the power to approve state charter schools: those that are considered special schools.  From the DOE FAQ:

Who are charter school authorizers in Georgia?

In Georgia, local boards of education and the State Board of Education are charter school authorizers. In order to be granted a charter, schools must be approved by both their local board of education and the State Board of Education with the exception of state-chartered special schools which are authorized by the State Board of Education only.

We’ll talk a bit about funding in a bit, but basically the approval and funding of charter schools are intimately tied together.  Gov. Deal approved HB 797, but that law hinges heavily on whether or not the state has the power to approve charter schools over local board objections.  And that power can only come from a constitutional amendment, at least according to Georgia’s Supreme Court which argued that the state did not have the constitutional authority to over ride local school boards on this issue.  So while it IS true, it is only sort of true.  If this amendment fails, the same schools who presented the first case are poised to launch into a second round against charters already established.  And Dr. Barge and the DOE have already expressed opposition in word and deed to the state charter schools.

Moving on:

Myth: Charter Schools Are More Innovative and Flexible

Fact: Charters are allowed to “kick out” students for behavior or academic reasons.

And Mr. Jones hasn’t heard of “suspension” “expulsion” or “alternative school?”  Our regular public schools find innovative ways of getting rid of students with behavior problems all the time.  Not a lot innovative there, true enough.  An odd, and little known fact is that in my home county we have exactly one locally approved charter school.  That school has never made AYP and yet it is allowed to exist.  Why?  Because it is a nice handy place to send students with behavior and academic problems.  This street runs both ways.

Fact: Charters are able to hire uncertified teachers/staff and ignore class size caps.

Class size caps?  Mr. Jones again ignores facts and the sad state of education in Georgia.  There are NO class size caps in the state of Georgia!  Our beloved legislature lifted all that over a year ago.  So whining about Charters doing it seems very ill-sighted indeed.  As far as uncertified teachers, this is another blatant falsehood and I have no idea where it came from.  We have this thing call No Child Left Behind, with the flagship provision of being HIGHLY QUALIFIED!  Charter schools are still public schools and can not opt out of Federal laws and regulations, as per our friendly and helpful GA DOE site:

Charter schools and systems are subject to all provisions outlined in O.C.G.A. 20-2-2065(b). In particular, charter schools may not waive state laws or State Board of Education rules pertaining to health and safety, funding formulas, or accountability provisions. In addition, charter schools may not waive any aspect of federal law. This includes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and all applicable civil rights legislation.

Due diligence, Mr. Jones.

Myth: State Charter Schools Will Not Take Funds Away from Traditional Public Schools

Fact:If the proposed charter amendment passes, charter schools authorized by the Commission will be 100% funded by the state.

Actually there is some truth in your fact because charter schools, will in fact, take money away from the traditional public schools.  I’m not going to deny it at all.  This is because some of the money is bound to follow the student, as parents vote with their feet.  When students leave the traditional school, much of that money departs with them, which is a good incentive for traditional schools to try to hold on to their students and keep as few other options open as possible.  But the cut is much deeper than the money, albeit it is a very painful cut to systems already strapped.  The worst part is that the parents who take the initiative to start a charter or move their children into a charter are the ones most school really like.  The involved parents who care about their children’s education and the ones willing to make certain sacrifices in order to make that happen such as providing transportation and packing a lunch.

Fact: The state has a constitutional obligation to fully fund and provide for an adequate public education for every student in Georgia.4

Currently, the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility. Most Georgians understand that budget cuts were necessary due to the economic downturn, but the passage of the charter amendment would bind the state to additional funding obligations.  

This assumes that Georgia was meeting its responsibility before the economic downturn, and that responsibility is limited to providing funds.  By almost any metric. calling Georgia’s education system as “adequate” is generous at best.  Charters exist and have the support that they do because parents crave an option.  Americans like choices, especially if the only one that exists isn’t that good.

Myth: Charter Schools Are Public Schools

Fact: There are many elements of charter schools that make them appear more private than public.

Again, Mr. Jones might wish to do some research into “Theme Schools” and “Magnet Schools.”  In my county, we have a “Parent involvment” theme school which my youngest attends.  They have criteria for admission that would prevent my oldest son who has high functioning autism from being admitted.  They also make parents sign a contract, pledging to do so  many hours of service.  They don’t provide transportation but DO provide the yummy lunches proscribed by our beloved USDA.  This school has the approval and support of the local board of education, but it has more elements that make it look private than and charter school would be allowed to do.  Why is it allowed here?  The same reason it allowed the charter school mentioned above, only on the other end of the spectrum.  At least this way, they keep the kids and their funding.  Local boards do this in response to parent demands and that is a GOOD thing!

Fact:The charter movement has close ties with the pro-school choice movement. 

Heaven forbid parents might actually CHOOSE.  I hear people complain about the lack of parental responsibility with their kids and yet many of these are the same people who want to block the school house doors and keep kids trapped.  Choosing a school or how to educate their children is the most responsible and involved thing a parent can do, and yet systems do all they can to block that avenue of responsibility.  The Anti-School choice movement has close ties with socialism and Communism, but I’m not going to make that an issue in this debate.

Myth: Charters Serve All Students

Fact: Many charter schools use lotteries to avoid qualifying for AYP testing, making it difficult to compare their success to public schools. 

The lotteries are simply a tool used to insure the distribution of students matches the district demographics within the smaller size of the charter school.  This is like saying “Many Georgians use cars in order to avoid buying new shoes.”  Small sample sizes do make comparisons difficult, but its erroneous to accuse them of deliberately keeping their sizes small just for AYP, especially when you’re going to accuse these same players of ties to big business designed to maximize their numbers.

Fact:Overall, data suggests that students who are the most challenging to teach and require the most resources are not being served by charters in the state.

I’m one of a large number of special educators currently serving students with disabilities in the largest charter school in the state.  And I happen to be certified and highly qualified.  Whatever data you have can suggest what it wishes, but the facts are much different.

Myth: Charters Seek to Put the Interests of Families and Students First

Fact: Proponents of the proposed charter amendment wave the banner of families and children, while advocating the interests of business interests over students’ interests.

You mean like those teachers on strike in Chicago?  Schools of any size are businesses with stakeholders that include families and students and all the other business entities that serve them.  The people making the textbooks in your school are businesses and they have lobbyists and marketers targeting people in your district.  They are also political.  However, unlike the traditional schools, charters DO have to be able to attract students/parents and retain them over time.  Parent satisfaction is critical to their existence!  Or at least higher satisfaction than the neighborhood school.

Fact: For these groups and individuals, support of the proposed charter amendment equates to making a business investment, instead of investing in all of our schools and all of our children.

The reason there is money to be made is the high dissatisfaction among families with their neighborhood schools.  But it’s hard to know a person’s real motives.  What I do know is that traditional schools have struggled with the disruption caused by technology and the social changes of the last decade.  They are trying to give their children every advantage they can.

Myth: Charter Schools Increase Student Achievement

Fact:Multiple Studies and Reports Call Into Question the Effectiveness of Charter School

This fact is actually not too much of a myth, at least for our school. We do track and strive to achieve success but our results are not always at the state level.  But test scores only provide part of the equation.  I’ll have to give a narrative composite sketch of our students next time.  You’ll be surprised at how it looks.

Fact:Charter school proponents regularly cherry pick data and make broad comparisons.

Sorta like Mr. Jones’ critique of the pro-school choice movement??  Actually, making a few broad comparisons is better than just making stuff up.

 

Myth: Charters Will Expand Choice and Create Competition 

Fact: Passage of the charter amendment does not guarantee that charters would be added to areas that have chronically underperforming schools. 

But the failure of the amendment will almost certainly prevent them from moving in.  It is probable that many that already exist will die off from lack of funding or be sued out of existence from the opponents.

Fact:True competition can only exist if the same system of rules and regulations are in place for all participating parties.

Again, this street runs both ways.  Fact is, my charter school is undergoing a lot more scrutiny on compliance issues compared to the traditional schools because the state DOE does NOT like us and would rather we did not exist.  Dr. Barge has already stated his position which is that no charter school should exist while other schools don’t have enough money.  And since NO regular school district EVER has enough money then we should not exist.

Charter schools employ many of your former colleagues who were otherwise unemployed or laid off.  Charter schools also educate students that traditional schools have been either unwilling or unable to serve.  And they do so at a much smaller cost to the tax payer much of the time.

Having choices is a very American thing.  Having choices in education is a humane and just thing, especially if we can offer free and public choices.  People will vote with their feet.  Since most charters have waiting lists and most traditional public schools have declining enrollments, it might be wise to look around and recognize that times are changing.  The present structure has existed for at least the last 40 years and Georgia has never been in the top 10 in education but consistently been in the bottom 10.  Mr. Jones makes an appeal to fix the system in place, but that system has consistently refused to allow itself to be fixed and it is way past adolescence.  We need real change as it is too important to put off any longer.

Countering a Culture of Abuse

15 Dec

I said last time that I would give some ideas on how to prevent or avoid the pitfalls that I listed and detailed in my previous post. It’s one thing to criticize, but another to propose concrete steps to right the wrongs and prevent things from getting so bad as they did in Fulton County. So I’ll take it point-by-point:

  1. Open up the classroom, at least to the parents but also to others: Transparency. Make the place visible! This addresses the problems of isolation and powerlessness. The tendency to isolate this population is exactly the opposite of what should be done. Being visible will minimize the risks of abuse because everyone will see. It also helps educate everyone else about this population. And if there are problems, it will be more difficult to sweep them under the rug. The privacy concerns for these students are secondary to the safety concerns and that needs to be looked at. The privacy and confidentiality provisions of the law have been used to keep things out of the light that would have prevented abuse had they been known in the Fulton County case. Parents did not know their children had been abused until almost 2 years after the final report was released! Keeping secrets never benefits the students.
  2. Get them out of the single room and enforce LRE. Least Restrictive Environment is built into the law, but with the most severe group, it is the least enforced. Community-based outings should count toward LRE as they are in the community with nondisabled community members. Also more than one teacher should be involved with these students in a given day. That means they need to move around within the building and spend some part of their day, even a short time, with nondisabled peers. This is a VERY inconvenient thing, but it is part of the law and it is part of the solution that can keep classrooms for the students with the most complicated disabilities from becoming incubators of abuse and neglect.
  3. Hire people that are the most qualified and experienced possible. And some schools are not doing that because they need a coach or because there is a relative of someone who needs a job, or because there is a teacher they know of who needs a job but can’t teach in another area. For whatever reason, some administrators are NOT hiring the most qualified and experienced people. This alone might have saved years of abuse, if the recommendation that the existing teacher not have her contract be renewed would have been followed. But that did not happen in the Fulton Middle School. And it does not happen in many other counties. The nepotism and corruption will eventually find your district and be costly. And this goes also for the paras and assistants. The most needy students need the most competent people. But they tend to be staffed in the reverse fashion.
  4. Make sure that those who need the most training have some good models. One of the most beneficial things I ever did my first year was visit the classroom of someone who was experienced and qualified. That totally helped change and shape the way I would teach this population. So even if you can’t find someone who is experienced, the chances are there is SOMEONE in the district who is. In my case, that first year it was a middle school teacher. In later years, I was allowed to travel and visit the classrooms of new teachers to help model and demonstrate things to do with them. And sometimes they came and visited me. One of the biggest breakdowns I had was when I asked to visit any other school that had a program the size and scope of the one I had. Sometimes just seeing is believing and if I could have connected with other teachers who were coping with similar challenges I think it would have made life more bearable.
  5. Keep the class size manageable. Doubling the size literally triples the problems in this sort of classroom. The logistcs of having enough floor space for wheelchairs, adaptive positioning equipment and just space for the students to be able to move becomes a serious issue. We ended up stacking a lot of the chairs outside when we had the students positioned in other devices, which also had the benefit of letting the chairs air out. Class size is always an issue for all classrooms, but for students with multiple needs, there is always a safety concern as there needs to be enough people t move students efficiently and safely.
  6. Connect with others who are in the same business. This is something that does not have to be very costly at all, but can pay dividends in professional growth. In a lot of ways, this blog has functioned that way for me. A lot of special education teachers have found their way here, and have gotten some degree of affirmation knowing they were not alone in their struggles and feelings. Other teachers take this somewhat for granted as there is almost always another math, science or English teacher around with whom to swap ideas and commiserate. It is almost never true for those who teach students with multiple needs that there is someone down the hall to talk to. BUT even having someone across the county can be a source of strength and comfort. Let these folks get together on professional learning days, where they can tackle issues and swap ideas.
  7. Let the teacher who is going to supervise and train them help hire new parapros. Imagine if the superintendent did the hiring of everyone from the central office who was going to be in the building. The principal or a committee designated does this for a very important reason, as they know their own culture and their own needs. The same should be true of the classroom serving students with severe disabilities. I actually had the privilege of doing this for a couple of years when we had an administrator who admitted he was less familiar with my classroom and allowed me to sit on on the interviews. I was able to explain what we we did and what the requirements of the job were upfront. It saved a ton of grief down the line when they knew ahead of time that diapers and feeding tubes were involved. As a side benefit, this can also help groom teachers for leadership, helps the administrator know what the teacher needs and expects as well as helps the administrator become more familiar with what is happening in that classroom.
  8. Keep the lines of communication open. And this is between everyone, including the families and the administration. This particular population requires more collaboration and communication than any other teaching I have seen or done. NOT having open lines causes more problems when things eventually come to light. I am basically reiterating the call for transparency in point #1. I always wrte something to each parent, each day, about their son or daughter. Most parents were fairly decent about keeping up with my notes and responding to any questions that I had. I tried to make sure that parents especially had as much access to my classroom and had as much awareness as to what was going on as possible. The most uncomfortable position in the world is when a body feels like they have to hide something. Whenever we had staffing cuts and reductions mid year, I always struggled on how to inform parents.
  9. Require high standards in regards to student welfare as well as professional and personal integrity and ethics. It’s hard to put a price on such a thing, but this is probably THE biggest thing that could prevent abuse and neglect. It means being conscientious, striving for excellence in all things. “Excellence” with this population is measured differently than in most, as they don’t produce test results. But steady improvement is always something to strive for, as well as fighting against stagnation and regression. This was something that I was never willing to compromise on, even though it became harder and more challenging at times. Mediocrity was simply not acceptable to me. One does need to pick their battles, but in all things I wanted to get the best from my students and then stretch them even more. And I did it. In many ways this has driven my desire to work with a slightly younger population in order to see if I might be able to coax a bit more earlier on. Perhaps we can make that next transition easier for them. But a large part of this involves personal accountability, and doing the right thing even when no one else is looking. It’s one reason why I don’t mind anyone else looking in. I always knew we were doing right by the kids.
  10. Everyone needs to be an advocate. It sure would be nice if there were not a need for advocates. But unfortunately there does seem to be a need as I see story after story of teachers abusing students, or of students not getting needed services. I honestly believe that a society will be judged mostly on how it treats its most vulnerable population. It has been my privilege to have been on the front lines of that effort and I would hope that I am on the same side as the family in regards to wanting what is best for that student. I understand the struggles of families who are doing the best they can with the limited resources that they have. I’ve been there and I still am. I am also aware of the realities of the modern school climate with the emphasis on test scores and budgetary constraints. We need to make sure we get the biggest bang for every dollar spent. This is one population where the “free market” currently has no model of service. We ARE the front line in the battle for justice and equality. The arena of disability advocacy is the last and greatest civil rights cause that we face in the U.S. The current economic climate is going to sorely test our society’s moral and ethical resolve to do what is right for those least able to advocate for themselves.

The End of NCLB..?

25 Sep

On Friday afternoon, my wife called out to me “Hey!  You have to see this!”

And there on the news was a story about the waivers offered by our beloved national education secretary that would allow states to escape many of the more ornerous NCLB provisions.  Which is to say, almost all of them.  And the headline read “No Child Left Behind Ends.”

Could it be true?  Could it REALLY be true?  To me, this would be the educational equivalent of the the falling of the Berlin Wall.  Perhaps…just perhaps..we might see some real reform in education.  Meaningful reform.  Something besides the test scores.

Georgia is a state that has already delivered its waiver application.  Oddly enough, it was delivered by one of the authors of the original NCLB law, Johnny Isakson.  Remember him?  Basically, congress has not done its job in doing anything to fix this law simply because it is unfix-able.  It never was and it never will be.

Isakson was one of the original authors of No Child Left Behind. But last week the Georgia Republican sponsored a bill with other GOP lawmakers to scrap the adequate yearly progress requirement. No Child Left Behind requires that all students be “proficient” in math and science by 2014. Those benchmarks are widely considered to be unrealistic.

Isakson said that after a decade of implementation the law “has served its purpose in raising expectations and standards.””We knew when we wrote No Child Left Behind that if it worked, we would reach this point where schools would not be able to continue to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) because the bar is set higher and higher each year for schools,” he said.

According to Isakson, they knew when they wrote the law, that schools would eventually all fail. The law was PROGRAMMED to fail!  These are the people we send to Washington and this is what drinking that water and breathing that air does to people.  And it illustrates perfectly why the congress has no business dictating federal education standards.  The law was destined for bankruptcy even while it was being written and the lawmakers who wrote it KNEW it!

But this is not the end of NCLB.  It is not the end of testing.  It is not the end of the alternate assessment that has plagued those teachers of students with multiple and severe disabilities.  There is still Race To The Top, which Georgia just received a year ago.  And those who are most saddled by a law that never had them in mind when it was written, will be the last to realize the benefits of this waiver.  That is because the waiver was also not written with these students in mind.  But hopefully what eventually trickles down will be no worse than what is already in place.

I am somewhat hopeful that the career and work-ready provisions might at least help those students who could be employable with enough and the right kind of training, when they would otherwise stand no chance of getting into a college. And yes, there are a large number of students where this is true; they will not be able to get into a college and they have no desire to do so.  But at least by fostering a culture of productivity and relevant skill-based training, it might prevent them from dropping out and actually give them an edge in life.  At the present time, the work skills of a college drop-out and a high school drop-out are almost exactly the same due to vocational funding and programs being cut and minimized in order to switch the focus to collage-ready.  And this focus has been particularly hard-felt for students with disabilities.

NCLB has been little more than an expensive and nightmarish public awareness campaign.  According to Isakson, they wanted to put a spotlight on poor performing schools and poor performing groups of students by raising expectations and raising standards.  But the law was outdated the day it was signed, as the world economy has been globalized.    We need innovation, creativity, enthusiasm for learning, entrepreneurship and exploration.  And these were exactly the things that NCLB has succeeded in killing with the standardized test-taking culture that saw the diminishing or elimination of the arts in education.  While the rest of the world has been learning how to solve problems and create, our kids have been learning how to fill in bubbles.

The Future of Education?

1 Sep

Once again, I am back in my old room as a substitute and meeting a new teacher for my old students and a few new ones. It’s just like riding a bike…it just becomes a natural extension of you as you know what to do instinctively. And so it is with this population of students. I kind of amazed myself with how quickly I was able to bond with the new students. A bit more about my status later.

But first I want to talk about a podcast that aired recently on the Future of Education website. You can listen to it too!

I bought Bob Compton’s 2 Million Minutes documentary, and he made a lot of astute observations about the education systems in India, China and the U.S. In his latest documentary, he teams up with Dr. Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) whose book I have read and even gave a few copies away to administrators. The Finland Phenomenon explores the education system in Finland, often regarded as the top system in the world. Compton and Wagner wanted to find out more about the Finnish educational system and why it is as good as it is.

I have not yet seen this film but do plan on seeing it and reviewing it. But I wanted to talk a bit about some things Compton said in this podcast. He talked a bit about barriers to true and genuine innovation and I was struck by his description of how large organizations try to kill or squash innovation. Basically, if there is someone who starts to excel, it makes the rest of the organization look bad or at the very least exposes mediocrity. And since no one wants to feel bad, the out-lier is attacked and either put in their place or ostracized almost out of existence. This is just the organization striving for self-preservation. People don’t like change and innovation has a habit of forcing change upon people. This is also discussed in the book about educational disruption in education that I read a couple years ago about the time I was also reading Tony Wagner’s book.

So…could that be the answer to the question I am too embarrassed to ask or talk much about? During my tenure teaching individuals with severe disabilities I was innovating and shaping things way beyond what anyone else was doing at the time.

  • I had an active Moodle site that was a repository of knowledge to help other teachers who teach students with severe disabilities.
  • I had an active blog, informing other teachers, future teachers, policiy makers and parents the effects of certain government policies on the classroom
  • I recorded and posted scores of videos on Teachertube, sharing best practices in how to use different types of technology in the classroom
  • I experimented with many different types of technology including mp4 players, open source programs and various switches and AAC devices
  • I encouraged the faculty to use the collaboration software that the county had purchased in order to collaborate and share their ideas and thoughts rather than burdening the email system.
  • We experimented with research-based interventions such as electronic social stories and video modeling to teach new behaviors.
  • I tried to get school leaders to use technology to reach or teach the staff asynchronously in order to afford greater flexibility with staff development and to leverage the technology to build capacity for more staff development options and offerings.
  • Participated and attended staff development activities such as Future of Education webinars, and subscribed to various educational podcasts, even experimenting with my own podcasting site.

These efforts were not always greeted with open arms. Sometimes there was active opposition to some of the ideas but most of the time efforts to reform practice was met with a polite smile and then people continued to do what they were used to doing. I was clearly out in front of most of my colleagues when it came to technology and ideas for building capacity especially in regards to staff development using multimedia and social collaboration.

And these activities are STILL regarded with a great deal of resistance and suspicion from many people who make decisions about education. Being an innovator is often very politically risky and I have to admit to being often very naive when it comes to politics. My thought is that the needs of the students should be greater than the need for any particular political vendetta. We might disagree about certain policies, but in the end we are charged with the trust of caring and educating all students.

I’m a bit lost as to what to do about whatever it is that keeps me from getting back into the classroom full-time and need to look at all other options. Surely some of these skills must translate into something else that is useful to someone.

OH…by the way, look at some of the other blogs who made the list!  What an honor and a treat to be listed alongside so many other excellent special education bloggers.

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