Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When will we start talking to charter school parents?

by M.A.B.

Through my work with GEM and our efforts to counter the movement to privatize education in New York City, I have come across a common theme when my fellow activists talk about parents who choose charter schools for their children. While we challenge the existence and necessity of these schools, we often say that we understand why parents send their children to charter schools. While I of course respect charter schools parents and I do not want to draw a line in the sand—I think some revision of this position is necessary. The argument often made by charter school supporters is that parents choose charter schools because they are dissatisfied with their neighborhood public schools. They allege that our public schools are failing and that charter schools provide a better alternative to families.

I worry that by simply saying we understand why these parents choose charter schools that we are also, in a way, condemning our public schools. By saying we understand, I fear we stop ourselves from actually dialoguing with these families. When we say we understand, I believe we are sending the wrong message.

I argue that we need to change our position to this: “We understand why parents think they need to send their children to charter schools.” Let me explain…

Since September, five of my Kindergarten parents have approached me asking if they should send their children to charter schools. They showed me numerous mailings they received in the mail and appeared quite confused. Many thought they were required to fill out the paperwork, but didn’t have a true interest in sending their child elsewhere. One parent actually had a letter that claimed her child had been accepted to a charter school, yet she had never heard of it, much less applied for admission.

Parents across the city are being bombarded with similar advertisements, while the media continues to condemn and criticize our under-resourced public schools. The message many parents receive is oversimplified—“public schools are failing and you should get out while you can!” The reality is that many of our public schools—particularly those that serve low-income and high-poverty communities—are not receiving the support or resources they need to be successful. It isn’t that they are failing—it’s that they serve the most difficult populations and are expected to deal with the challenges of poverty all on their own. Rather than actually addressing the causes of poverty, our mayor and other corporate education reformers are creating a system that encourages people to ignore and avoid societal realities. They have vilified the schools that serve the highest needs students and are encouraging parents to enroll in privately managed charter schools.

When parents opt for charter schools, I often wonder what has actually transpired to lead them to that point. There are those who have actively sought out charters schools, but I wonder how many others are enrolling their children simply because they have been overwhelmed by the million dollar advertising and messaging machines at work.  

While I know that many of our public schools need more support, resources and attention, and that the system needs a serious overhaul, most of the charter schools in New York City are not actually providing children with an education they deserve. Instead, they have been able to market the perception that they are doing what is best for children. 

I recently discovered that Success Academies (Eva Moskowitz’s charter chain that currently operates five charters in Manhattan and two in the Bronx) was going to try to edge its way into District 14 where I live. A few months ago a woman approached me on the subway platform. She asked if I would sign a petition to help a new public school open in district 14. I was curious, so asked to see the petition.

The Success Academy logo was right at the top. I handed her back the clipboard and attempted to explain why I could not sign. I crossed my fingers that their plan to invade my neighborhood would fail. A public hearing was recently held in an attempt to co-locate an 8th Success Academy here. Within days of the hearing announcement, bus stops lining Graham Avenue (one of the neighborhood's busiest streets) were outfitted with large, colorful Success Academies’ advertisements. A beaming child’s face was surrounded with the words, “Next Stop, College.” Next, the subway station was home to these ads and finally Success Academy flyers hung on every doorknob in District 14. Many of these ads began with the phrase, “Better schools are coming to your community.”

As a resident of District 14, I know of a great number of high-performing public schools and I would be proud to send a child of mine to one of the public schools near my house. Moskowitz’s declaration that our district is in need of her schools in order to improve is misleading at best. A large part of her marketing campaign is selling the message that the schools we already have are not good enough. While Success Academies likely spends the most on its advertising (sending out 15,000 applications for only 400 seats), other charter operators use the same deceptive and divisive tactics.

When exploring the Success Academies website I came across a section titled, “Why choose Success Academies?” It listed many of the claims I have seen on their advertisements:

• We hire only the best teachers.
• Our public elementary schools have proven track record of success.
• Our schools are joyful and promote a love of learning.

 When we look closely at what actually goes on inside the doors of Success Academies, it is quite apparent that they are not, in fact, providing their students with the kind of education they claim.

The best teachers?

Success Academy schools hire mostly young, novice teachers and show a high rate of teacher turnover. My partner works at a public school that has the misfortune of co-locating with a Harlem Success Academy. HSA’s teaching staff struggles no differently than any other teaching staff that is predominately made up of rookies. They struggle to maintain focused connections with so many children simultaneously and find it challenging to keep order in their classrooms and hallway. Like many new teachers grappling with how to lead a group of children, some HSA teachers rely on threats and give out checks (their version of demerits) when dealing with discipline. Parents are routinely called in to either supervise their own children or take them home early from school. It is not easy or simple work guiding a group of young children during a long school day. It requires great skill—skill that is not a taught in school, learned over the summer or developed in just a year. Mastering the art of teaching takes commitment, dedication, humility and most of all, experience. Success Academy teachers are much more ordinary than Eva Moskowitz wants us to believe.

 A track record of success?

While Success Academy students do often score well on standardized tests, this is not a true measure of success. Success Academies have a track record of counseling out students who have behavioral or academic difficulty. When examining their enrollment data one sees stark drops as students get older. Large groups start in kindergarten (usually around 80 to 100 students), but by 3rd, 4th and 5th grade these numbers are between 30 and 60 students. My public school experiences some degree of attrition, but we never see enrollment fluctuate to this degree. Public schools that share space with the Success Academies schools frequently report former Success Academy students enrolling in their schools. Often these students were asked to leave or the parents withdrew them out of frustration with the school's punitive practices. In The test scores gains that the schools tout are less significant when one considers how many students the schools failed to educate along the way.

Success Academy schools also seem to equate success with a test score. Instead of teaching their students to be thoughtful, self-motivated learners, they are teaching their students how to recall information at the most basic level. Instead of teaching their students to be independent learners, their students are completely dependent upon their teachers. Both the New York Times and New York Magazine have published articles about the structure of the day at Harlem Success Academies. The routines are so regimented that students are actually timed while using the bathroom and putting away their coats and bags. What will happen to these children when someone isn’t threatening them with a check or holding a timer in front of their heads? Children need to be taught to control, manage and be in charge of themselves.

A successful school would also be a place with a low turnover rate for teachers. Low turnover rates are a good indication of a stable school environment. Success Academies schools have higher turnover rates than all of the public schools with whom they share space. At Harlem Success Academy 1, 50% of the teachers left after the 2008-2009 school year. Not only do teachers turnover quickly, but principals do as well.  Moskowitz routinely removes and replaces her schools’ administrators, often in the midst of the school year.

Joyful schools?

Success Academies teachers tend use very controlling and authoritarian measures with students. “Checks” are dolled out by the minute as punishment.  When students are not meeting expectations, the teachers yell out “that’s a check!” What does this empty attempt at discipline teach students? It certainly doesn’t seem to send the message that school is a joyful place.  

Students seem to be kept in check with fear and intimidation. And it doesn’t stop there. Parents of Success Academies’ students are required to sign very detailed contracts. Moskowitz has a harsh approach when it comes to working with families, “Our school is like a marriage, and if you don’t come through with your promises, we will have to divorce.” What about marriage vows that say, "Through sickness and health, for richer and poorer ‘til death do us part?" Do we want schools that can “divorce” our children and parents, or ones that are faithful and do their best to educate and provide for our children and families, no matter what?

When students are late or come to a Success Academy school unprepared, Saturday detention is often the consequence—for both parent and child. Parents are also required to attend various functions to promote the school. Recently, I attended a Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting where a motion regarding Success Academies was on the agenda. Moskowitz bused in hundreds of parents and students to testify and cheer at the hearing. Instead of asking her parents to speak about their experiences, they were given detailed scripts and told what to think and what to say.

The motion on the PEP agenda proposed co-locating yet another Success Academy school in an existing and fully functioning public school building. Moskowitz has never opened one of her charter schools in her own building. Rather, she works her way into public school buildings and little by little takes space away from the school that is there. She overtly recruits their public school students and takes their classroom space—all the while claiming that her schools are revolutionizing education. But what message is she sending to her students? Isn’t she teaching them to take what they want without regard to the feelings or rights of others?

Success Academies is just one of many charter school networks operating in New York City. While charter schools currently serve fewer than 5% of our city's children, they garner substantially more support than our deserving public schools. These schools are not the reform our city and our country so desperately need. Rather, they are a distraction. Instead of investing in the reforms proven to impact student learning (class size reduction and maintaining an experienced teaching force), our mayor and President are promoting charter schools as the cure-all.  Until parents begin to understand the realities of what is going on in these schools and the inaccuracies of their advertising, this ineffective model of education reform will continue.

Starting the dialogue?

At the PEP meeting I attended, I was sitting near some Harlem Success Academy families. One parent seemed quite annoyed by our comments and began to question our position asking us, “Why are you so angry?!” Two of my fellow GEM activists responded and were able to start a dialogue. They explained the reality of co-location and the devastation it has had on our public schools that have been forced to share space with a Success Academy school. The parent was quite shocked. Our perspective was completely new to him and by the end, he seemed to appreciate our struggle. While he certainly did not storm over to Eva Moskowitz and demand change or threaten to remove his child, I could tell that when we left him, the wheels were churning in his head. He had more questions.

When I had been standing in line to get into the meeting, I was next to a group of Harlem Success Academy parents/teachers. I desperately wanted to engage with them, but I hesitated. What if they got upset? What if they thought I was disrespectful and wrote me off? Instead of asking these “what ifs,” I should have just tried to start a conversation.

This past week I attended an informational session for Brooklyn Success Academy and attempted to dialogue with the parents there. I found that the majority of the parents in attendance were there simply because they had received multiple mailings advertising the event--they were not necessarily interested in leaving their public schools, nor did they have a true understanding of what a charter school was. The Success Academy spokesperson called their charter school a "public school," and presented a compelling (albeit inaccurate) case for why parents should enter their lottery. While I know many of the parents there will likely enter the lottery for this school, I did have some promising and fruitful conversations. If we do not begin to engage with parents in this way, then they will be left with only the destructive and disingenuous messages they receive through advertisements and the media.  We need to bring people the truth, even if it is done one conversation at a time.

M.A.B. has been a New York City public school Kindergarten teacher for 5 years. Previous to this she worked in a charter school and a Montessori Preschool. She has been involved with the Grassroots Education Movement for the past 2 years.  

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