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?