Archive for May 18th, 2011

May 18, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

I fear fear. Sitting in a room with scared people scares me. It was that feeling – mainly – that made me think twice about starting a charter school. I was spending precious hours away from my baby in the living and dining rooms of women (and a couple of guys) I hardly knew, ready to sacrifice every weekend and holiday for the next two or three years, because I was scared. I’d found people to run with. And they were good people. But we were all running.

We needed an out because we were afraid. Why?

1) We might never have enough money to consider private school.
2) Odds are slim to nil of getting into a great charter school (e.g., The Green School, City Neighbors, The Montessori School).
3) We didn’t want to a) get a second mortgage or b) move to the County.

Then more worries rose to surface:

4) Our founding group isn’t diverse enough to please the school board.
5) Only 10% of founders’ children can attend a charter school at any one time. What if we have too many founders?

And so began the struggle – for a spot in a school that didn’t even exist – among parents who claimed to value, among other things, non-competitive learning environments.

When I realized how panicked I was beginning to feel I had to stop. I stepped back. I counted on two hands the number of parents in those rooms who lived in my neighborhood and I thought, hey, you know what would be really cool? If we all calmed down for a minute and put some energy into a school we can all get into. You know, the one down the street?

A big assumption we’d all brought with us into those meetings was that the neighborhood school was not an option. We’d all heard things. Not bad things, necessarily. But we hadn’t heard anything good. And we had a lot to be concerned about. I’ll start from most benign and work my way up:

  • administrative resistance to change and innovation
  • opposition of teachers and principals to input from “privileged” parents
  • lack of individual attention for students (squeaky wheels getting the grease, class sizes too large for differentiated instruction)
  • teachers stifled by years of institutionalization
  • “teaching to the test”
  • negative social influences (children who curse and act out)
  • disinterested and potentially abusive parents (parents who curse and act out)
  • class bias (theirs, not ours)
  • racial discrimination
  • discrimination against children of gay and lesbian parents
  • the bullying and exclusion that come with minority status
  • violence

The fact that charter schools might offer a different style or philosophy of education may well be part of their appeal to middle and upper-middle class families – families who might otherwise move to the County or send their children to private schools. But no amount of arts integration, project-based learning or Suzuki violin is going to get parents who are afraid of any of the above to consider sending their children to neighborhood public schools.

Charter schools are emerging as an option because they are perceived as flexible and safe. They are perceived as having malleable institutional cultures that leave lots of room for parent input and experimentation.

My question is, who says neighborhood public schools can’t be those things?

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