By Beverly George
As a former Naperville North High School teacher, I’m well aware I taught in a bubble within the larger bubble of Naperville, Illinois. For twenty years, I taught very bright students who, for the most part, were from economically stable homes. These students were very ethnically diverse, and they were richer for it. Their parents had stressed their “jobs” were to be good students, and other talents and passions were to take second place to their school work. So, the skids were well greased before I ever walked into my classroom. From day one, I had students fired up and ready to learn, and we got down to the business of really enjoying the study of inorganic chemistry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my teaching experience lately, particularly with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. And I’ve had occasion to compare teaching experiences with Allison Hitchcock, my former student at Naperville North High School, now herself a high school chemistry teacher at a charter high school in Memphis, Tennessee. Allison and I have brainstormed together, and in August she shared her experiences in the classroom with the ACE members.
To better understand what charter schools were all about, I read some articles and studies that made me realize my understanding and opinion of charter schools rested on a lot of misinformation. Here’s what I found out.
What exactly is a charter school?
This isn’t an easy question to answer, but an NPR article by Claudio Sanchez entitled “Just what IS a Charter School, Anyway?” was a good beginning.
“‘Most Americans misunderstand charter schools,’ was the finding of a 2014 PDK/Gallup poll on public attitudes toward education,” the Sanchez article states. “The survey found broad support for charters, but also revealed that 48 percent of Americans didn’t know charter schools were in fact public schools. Fifty-seven percent thought they charged tuition. And nearly half thought charters were allowed to teach religion.”
Sanchez went on to offer this definition of “charter” from Ted Kolderie, co-founder of Education/Evolving and a proponent of constantly innovating education systems to run
alongside traditional systems, a “split-screen” of education models. Kolderie states, “The term ‘charter’ really refers to the decision by states to turn public education into a two-sector system. One is a traditional school district, centrally managed. The other, charter schools, are independent, not owned by a central school board. Both are public, but they’re organized in radically different ways.” As a result, the organization, staff credentials, curriculum, teaching styles, and plans for general operation of the school can be varied and often experimental.
Chartering is a legislative process that allows people to create schools, open them to the public, and operate tuition-free, like public schools. The charters can be authorized by the state, a board of citizens, a university board, or even a local school board. However, the authorizer cannot be a for-profit entity.
Today in the U.S., forty-three states have charter schools, totaling 6,900 in all, and have 3.1 million students. Some charter schools are on-line schools, but I have omitted them from this discussion and review.
The NPR article further quotes Nina Rees, the President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the leading national organization committed to advancing the charter school movement. In the article, Ms. Rees explains clearly what local school districts can and cannot do relating to charter schools. “A local school district does not tell charters when to open or close their doors, what kind of curriculum to use, what company to contract for food or paper. Charters have the freedom to hire teachers without a union contract,” she states in the NPR piece.
According to Allison Hitchcock, the teachers in her school are hired year to year, with a contract that allows both the charter school administration and the teacher to end the contract at any time, even in mid-year.
Which students can attend charter schools?
Parents can choose these schools for their children over their geographically assigned public schools for a number of reasons. For example, one parent shared that she had chosen a particular charter school because its school day hours coincided best with her work hours.
Charter schools operate on contracts that are renewable based on performance. The students have to take the same assessments as their public school peers. Like traditional public schools, charters are evaluated on test scores, graduation rates, and finances. When an unsuccessful charter school is closed, it’s usually for financial reasons.
Many charter schools boast higher test scores and higher graduation rates than their local public schools, but some people would argue the deck is stacked in favor of the charter schools. Even in an economically depressed neighborhood, the parents who choose charter schools are trying to move their students to what they perceive as a more structured, cohesive, stable, focused, and academically challenging school, because they believe education is the key to a better future. Hence, the motivation of the parents carries over to the student population of the charter school. That’s a huge energizer for success from the very start. However, it leaves behind at the public school, the less motivated and less driven students to achieve the same learning outcomes. Thus, the stacked deck.
In her conversation with ACE, Hitchcock emphasized that charter school students also have responsibilities in the learning process to learn and progress successfully. At her Tennessee charter school, if students fail two classes and don’t go to summer school, they will have to leave and return to the public school or another school option.
So, when all the pencils come to rest, am I for charter schools or against them?
Our goal in the science department at Naperville North High School was to present students with an ever-challenging curriculum to prepare them for the next levels of learning. They not only scored well on major, independent exit assessments, but often returned post-graduation to report how comfortably they had transitioned to college coursework, often tutoring their freshman peers. I believe we enabled students to construct a mental scaffolding that gave them a deep understanding of how science works. The district provided me with the proper tools (lab facilities, materials, and technology) for implementing effective courses.
Hitchcock has no lab facilities in her charter school. Her classroom has no gas lines, fume hoods, chemicals, nor lab glassware. She does much of her teaching with demos or activities that are safe, but without experiential links to the principles of chemistry. Allison borrows electronic balances from the charter middle school nearby when she needs them. Her students do have tablet computers, and most of their curriculum is online through the tablets.
I also taught with unionized teachers, which charter schools do not have. Teachers unions are sometimes as poorly understood as charter schools. Most people think bargaining a new contract is only about salary schedules, but many times, we bargained for other important conditions in the new contracts.
For example, one contract year we bargained for smaller classes, so there would be a lower teacher-student ratio, which affords more time per student in the classroom, as well as greater assurance of student safety in lab courses. Another year, we prioritized bargaining for a different health care package when the teacher population was transitioning quickly from older to younger demographic, and the younger staff had different health care needs.
And, yes, we bargained for revised salary schedules, too, based on the belief that teachers are professionals who want the choice to live in the same community in which they teach, and want to be on a level playing field with teachers in neighboring towns and communities.
‘I do not believe charter schools are a viable choice to improve education outcomes when you start with a very strong public education system.’
One thing that Naperville had that was similar in concept to charter schools was the Naperville North Academy, a school within a school for students who didn’t acclimate well to large classes and who often needed more time to process ideas into their understanding. Running from August 2000 to May 2013, this voluntary program was offered as an educational choice, much like charter schools are touted today. It was highly effective, according to Jerry Kedziora, former lead teacher at the Academy during those years. It had many of the charter school hallmarks without removing tax dollars from the public school system.
I think the North Academy is a far better solution for students who need more structure and one-on-one care in the delivery of education. However, the national data suggests that some charter school systems have been successful for economically struggling communities.
Hitchcock’s charter school has a student population that is demographically black and economically challenged. Her teaching day is slightly longer than mine was, but she teaches more daily class sections, so her pile of papers to grade is higher than mine was. Allison recounted the strong, unwavering support she has received from her students’ parents and from her administration. My admiration for her energy, knowledge, and drive has grown exponentially from listening to her experiences. Her students are truly fortunate to have her in their classroom. We have brainstormed ideas on how to present ideas incrementally to students who are mathematically challenged (algebra is the skeleton for quantitative chemistry). I have shared my curriculum on a flash drive and passed on my pop-bottle launcher to use when she teaches gas laws. But I don’t believe I would have had the same mettle to meet the challenges of her job. I look forward to staying in touch with her and offering ideas anywhere she needs them.
Just like the parents of her charter students, I firmly believe education is the best way to prepare for a strong economic future, for individuals and for the country. But I am wary of charter schools if they erode the financial underpinning and weaken the student population pool of traditional public schools. For our community in Naperville, I don’t believe a charter school offers an educational advantage.
ACE Leader Beverly George also is a member of Indivisible, the Naperville League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. She also volunteers with her parish PADS group. A former chemist, George worked in clinical chemistry and hematology research at the Centers for Disease Control for six years and taught chemistry and freshman science at Naperville North High School for 20 years.