When I took a job at a charter school at the age of 25, I had no idea I was choosing sides in a battle over public education. In fact, I found myself on the “wrong” side, since I’m a huge supporter of public schools and have a real problem with the privatization of education. Still, I ended up at a charter school, and have since learned that this makes me consummately evil in some political circles.
I get it. Some charter schools are abusive. That Success Academy stuff was bananas. Some charter schools cherry pick their students through illegal practices, or through unfair discipline policies. Some require extensive parent involvement, siphoning off supportive parents and their fundraising abilities from public schools. Some use shady enrollment policies to weed out ELLs or students with disabilities. Some are a money-making scheme for their leadership, with little incentive to actually improve the services they offer the children in their care.
All of that is enough to make me pretty uncomfortable being part of the charter system. Even when charter schools are excellent, they serve only a small percentage of students. All kids have the right to a quality education, not just those whose names are picked in the lottery. But regardless of my hesitation, I’ve spent the last eight years teaching in a charter school. Here are a few reasons why.
1. I have autonomy in my classroom. Charter schools are supposed to be innovative; they were originally intended as labs to test out new education techniques. Some charter schools have way more structure than the average public school classroom, requiring lesson plans blocked out in three-minute increments. I would not do well there.
My school believes in teaching the kids what they need to know by any means necessary. That means that if I want to spend a couple of weeks working with my English class on the fundamentals of power tools, I can do it. If another teacher decides to replace all her desks with exercise equipment, great! There’s an awareness that the teacher and the students form a unique community in the classroom, and that what works for one class won’t work for everybody. Our kids experience a huge variety of teaching styles and activities every day, and I think that works to their benefit. I know it makes me happier as a teacher.
2. The charter acts as a shield from district insanity. We have to follow some district policies; the standardized testing, the pay scale, and a few other things, but we’re also free to ignore some of the stupider ones. (I work in a nonunion state, so all the rules about hiring union employees don’t apply.) I teach in a big urban district…there’s a great deal of incompetence and mismanagement at the county level.
For example, it was decided a few years back that, despite all the talk about differentiation, every middle school English class should read the same book at the same time across the entire county. Of course, no extra funding was provided to actually buy the books. So teachers all over the county had to slap Old Yeller on a document camera in front of classes of close to forty seventh graders and hope they’d read along. Meanwhile, my kids read To Kill a Mockingbird.
3. We have local control of finances. Contrary to popular belief, charter schools generally receive less funding than traditional public schools. Where I live, we get 70% of the funding allocated per student, and the rest goes to their home school. Still, we’re able to operate much more efficiently because we can use that money in ways that meet our needs. While the county caps classes at 38 students, I never have more than 24. We make sacrifices to preserve that; I have fewer chairs than kids in a couple of my classes, and the heating and air conditioning aren’t terribly reliable. But it’s worth it to us, and the teachers’ views are actually considered when it comes to money.
4. Smaller schools = closer relationships. I know almost every kid at my school, and most of the parents. Teachers at my school take kids grocery shopping occasionally, if we know that money is tight. We know where they live (not in a creepy way) and who their guardians are. If a kid’s mom loses her job, the school often helps find her a new one. Relationships with students are the most rewarding part of teaching, and they’re so much easier to develop in a school of 400 than a school ten times that size.
5. I feel like I’m accomplishing something.Many of the public schools in my county, especially those in poor areas, are just about crowd control and treading water. It’s not the teachers’ fault; how do you effectively teach 150 kids a day with little to no support or resources? By contrast, we graduated about 90 kids this year from our eighth grade. Half of them went on to private high schools. Many of them are in selective programs that will help them apply to college in a few years. And these kids are all people of color, and 99% of them receive free lunch. We’re giving these kids opportunities they wouldn’t have in a traditional public school, and I can’t bring myself to apologize for that.
Charter schools are still problematic for me. It’s not fair that, because my bureaucratic burden is a little lighter, I’m able to provide my kids with help and support that other teachers can’t. Your Title I kids are as smart and deserving as mine, and the system needs to offer them the same opportunities.
But I’m not a policy maker, and I have the sense not to try to become one. I’m a teacher. And the only way I know to make the world better is to teach to the best of my abilities in an environment that will allow me to do so. My school won’t fix the system, and that’s not okay. But with the number of kids we send to selective schools and then to outstanding colleges (always on full scholarships), maybe one of my students will. It’s the best contribution I know how to make.