As I continue to meet dozens and dozens of charter school students from across Chicago, I am continually reminded how different the charter schools are from their nearby public neighborhood schools. Working in a psychiatric facility means all the students I meet have some sort of mental health problem. And yet, a vast majority of the children I meet from the charters have either mild, or inward-focused disabilities such as depression or anxiety. Their learning problems are minimal and they have overwhelmingly been strong students academically. Many have only just begun to attend charters so, for the most part, I do not credit the schools themselves with this difference. These kids are the ones who already are good students with minimal behavior issues.
And I wonder, instead of skimming away these high-performing students, what if charter schools had followed the original intention of their creation? What if these schools had targeted not the best test-takers, or kids who with just a little push could be great test-takers (since test-taking is the only metric anyone seems to care about these days), but instead focused on the ones who were about to dropout, the ones who had a history of behavior problems, the ones who disrupted the learning of all the other students and took up the time of the teachers, the ones who are over-represented in Special Education, the ones who were truly struggling in the public schools?
And I imagine the charters as using flexibility in curriculum, staffing, and the use of funds to create truly innovative places of learning. They would be schools with various extra-curriculars to keep kids engaged, extra staff support to reach this tougher group of kids, innovative use of technology, services to reach out to kids already involved with gangs or with substance abuse issues, special programs for kids in the juvenile justice system or even the foster care system, flexible start and end times to encourage students to actually attend school regularly, vocational training opportunities including partnerships with local businesses and industries, and more. Charters could become an alternative to oppressive alternative schools.
In the meantime, the neighborhood school would feel supported and be better able to do a job educating the students who could succeed under a more traditional version of school. There are plenty of children living in low-income neighborhoods who have supportive home lives and who are ready to be challenged academically. But thanks to the effects of poverty, there are MORE students who suffer from debilitating behavior and learning challenges. It matters that some children are not receiving proper nutrition. It matters that more children are being exposed to substances in utero. It matters that children are growing up watching extreme violence on their streets and experiencing post-traumatic stress as a result. It matters that families cannot find employment and children suffer from the daily stress of unstable living conditions. It matters that children are being thrust into bouts of homelessness and the chaotic lives that ensue. If charter schools stepped up to help THESE kids, they ones I meet every day at my work—the ones who are difficult even for a staff of highly-trained professionals-- they would be doing a huge service to communities and public schools. Charter schools would be SUPPORTING neighborhood schools by focusing attention and resources on the kids who truly needed it.
Somehow, the vast majority of charter schools (with some exceptions, no doubt) focus all their attention on kids who already can “cut it”. They claim they have solved the puzzle of low-income schools. I’m sorry, but just because your student population is made up of children from low-income backgrounds and students of color, does NOT mean they are the struggling students. Poverty does matter, but it impacts families and individuals differently.
I look at my students at the hospital. The neighborhood schools are truly working with a tougher bunch of kids. Some of them will eventually be transferred (after many meetings, a whole lot of paperwork, and a lot of pushing and advocating) to therapeutic day schools or alternative schools. But there are not nearly enough schools like this to accommodate all the children with significant problems in school. And unlike the successful charters, the neighborhood schools don’t get two teachers and an aide in a class of under 20 kids (See Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies.) In fact, as their stronger performers are siphoned away to the charters along with their funding, they will have even less to offer the students left behind.
Charters could’ve really helped my toughest kids. These kids deserve a fighting chance at a good education. Instead, somewhere in the twisted logic of current education reform, they are being given less than ever before. And it makes me ill.
I still don’t believe charters would be a panacea even if they took up their original mission. And I worry about segregating out students with greater needs and not addressing the funding inequalities and racial isolation of these schools and communities, but at least they would not be making things WORSE for the neighborhood schools. I truly believe many charter school teachers and even some leaders think they are doing something good. But I tell you, from where I stand, charter schools are taking part in denying the most fragile children quality education. If only charters could reclaim the mission of helping the kids that need it the most. If only charters weren't "in competition" for the strongest students and best test scores. If only charters weren't dividing communities and parents who now need to fight for ever dwindling resources. Perhaps then, in solidarity, all educators and parents—charter and neighborhood alike--could continue the fight together for true equity for ALL children.