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

  1. Also charters DO ask students to leave when they don’t do well. There’s a vast amount of research and reporting showing this, and it “absolutely” is “picking and choosing.” Even Geoffrey Canada, star of “Waiting for Superman” does this – his board fired an entire grade of students when they didn’t perform.

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  2. I can’t speak for all charters, but in my experience kids are not asked to leave schools. Generally, except for weapons or violence, I don’t think kids are ever forced to leave schools. Even city-wides are no longer allowed to reassign kids who are not maintaining academic standards. There are rules written in the handbook, but schools are no longer allowed to force a kid out. They may council a kid that they would be better served at a different school, but if you want to stay, you can.

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  3. Fair enough, I appreciate the info, I’m here to learn more about BCPS. Even in NYC the schools acceptance is based on lottery – but I really was under the impression that many of the charters (depending upon their by-laws) had more leeway to expel students than their public counterparts. This is based upon the description of a friend who teaches at one charter and describes a much more stringent school policy whereby the students – and the parents – are required to abide by certain rules for the student to remain enrolled. Of course I could have misunderstood this. I’m a worker justice activist by trade, not an educator, it’s a new world for me 🙂

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  4. This post resonates with me. While I am incredibly lucky to be zoned for what’s considered to be a good public school with a reportedly strong parents’ association, I am still sometimes filled with worries. What if my child’s curriculum consists of nothing but teaching to the test? What if she needs specialized attention? Then I pause and recall my own experiences in public school, a highly regarded public school in the Bronx in NYC. I was plagued by difficultes taking tests, and had methods of learning that were “unique” and discouraged by a number of my teachers. And man, I was certainly in classes with “negative social influences” and “teachers stifled by institutionalization.” But despite all of this I still came out ok in the end – REALLY! – with the support of my parents and a few great teachers. My parents were my advocates when difficulties arose (and it was no picnic for them).

    I think some charters certainly address the safety issues in schools (because they can ultimately pick and choose the students they want – not a national solution to poverty in my book, btw). And I can understand the belief that a parent’s role in a charter is more collaborative in charters. But at the end of the day, aren’t charter students still forced to participate in the testing regime? I don’t see them as an escape in a national education policy that VALUES testing. Honestly, I know many many teachers in traditional public schools who HATE sacrificing music, art, social studies. They WANT their kids to get the chance to run around in recess.

    I am pretty unhappy with the new testing regime for kids, frankly I’m terrified of what this will do to their ability to think critically. And unfortunately, with Arne Duncan at the helm of the Dept of Education, I don’t see things improving in the eyes of parents opposed to the elimination of social studies, arts and physical education.

    So I guess where I’m headed is here: I don’t think that the whole education process is an “us vs them” scenario (I know, I’m an optimist). So many schools in Baltimore are the product of a lack of community. Parents who are disengaged from their kids. Kids who literally being “held” for 8 hours a day. Teachers who are trying to teach kids who are literally starved of food, love and education when they’re home. I can’t condemn a parent who feels like a lonely island, who says, “I can’t fight this tide” and goes the charter route. But in neighborhoods where schools do have stronger communities (Hampden, Charles Village come to mind), I really do agree that it makes more sense to focus parental energy on an existing school. And individual parent fighting North Avenue sounds like a losing battle to many, I get that. But a strong parent association really could have an impact, and teachers NEED that, they WANT strong parents groups to back them up.

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    • Just to address one statement “they can ultimately pick and choose the students they want” – this is absolutely not true in Baltimore City and a totally accepted piece of urban mythology. Parents and/or students can pick to apply to a charter, but the charter can not pick who they want to attend. Every charter school that has more applicants than slots has a lottery that is witnessed to be “pulled from a hat”. There is a charter that only serves girls and one that only serves boys (that I know of), but after that criteria the girl or boy is selected randomly. They serve special needs students (another widely spread myth) and they deal with behavioral issues as well.

      It’s seldom as clear as neighborhood (accepting) vs. charter (exclusive). My son attends a charter school where he is beyond a racial minority (singularity I would guess). When his charter has no waiting list how can you classify it as elitist?

      I’m not arguing your main point – I have 3 kids and 2 have never attended a charter school and I never saw the need for them to do so. Our alternative to a failing neighborhood school was a magnet program. That can work well for some kids. Each kid and each neighborhood has specific issues and I have found being flexible (and pouring tons of time and support into whatever school they attend) can make a City School public education a great experience.

      And one more thought – to address Edit’s final question/statement. I think that the direction of fair school funding and principal impowerment that is the basis for school reform in Baltimore has a goal of making freedom, creativity and differentiation available at all City Schools, not just charters.

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      • “Absolutely not true” is a little bit strong, on the “pick and choose” note. Charters have enrollment policies that their founders and governing boards create. From City Neighbors, just as an example:

        Priority in the enrollment process is as follows, in the order listed:
        1. Current students
        2. Children of Founders
        3. Children of Staff
        4. Siblings of current students
        5. New applicants

        Charter schools are permitted to impose restrictions on enrollment that favor certain groups over others. The lottery pool becomes a smaller fraction of admitted students when you take these restrictions into consideration.

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