I've read a lot of diaries on DKos of late that slam charter schools. Specifically, they intend to slam for profit charter schools but tend to paint with a broad brush.
I've decided it's time to share our experience with a small charter school in Northern California.
And, I'm going to tell you the end before you even read the diary - not all charter schools should be judged alike. Charter schools, like public schools, come in all shapes and sizes, some successful and some not. I think if more charters followed the model of the one we had joined, public education could be in a better place. Of course, I wouldn't want a whole bunch of schools just like this one. That would defeat the purpose, but charter schools that are pliable to the needs of the community are a great asset to possess.
First, it's only fair to share a little background. I homeschooled my kids during their elementary school years. As a military family, we found that homeschooling provided a level of stability that public schools could not. My kids always knew who their teacher would be and were never concerned that they wouldn't know enough to keep up with their peers or know too much and be pushed ahead to the next level of older kids. As a parent, I wouldn't have to struggle with the inability to make a difference in a school district - quick moves and the lack of time to build connections in a community make it very hard to make a difference, especially in the world of elementary school education where change occurs at a glacial pace.
That said, when we arrived in North California at Beale AFB, I learned about a new type of school, a charter school for homeschoolers. The State of California has few rules for governing homeschooling, but they do exist. By joining a charter school, I could avoid the hassles of filing paperwork and reporting to the State. Furthermore, the charter school would provide a certain amount of money to help me purchase school supplies. Add enrichment classes one day a week, a library of resources to be checked out, and a trained teacher to translate our eclectic mix of curriculum into state standards and file necessary paperwork and I was convinced to give it a try. After a couple of months, I was hooked. This system worked well for both my kids and for myself. Ironically, it worked for some unschooling families we knew as well. The teachers at this school could work paperwork magic.
I did have to give up some of the freedom I had enjoyed as a homeschooler. I had to meet with the teacher once a month and she had to meet with my kids. However, she did not expect me to follow the state standards nor did she require us to complete assignments, etc. She told me which boxes she had to fill in for the state and I would supply work in some form to prove we were doing our job. Often the proof would come in the form of pictures from a field trip rather than worksheets from a book. This fit our style of homeschooling just fine. And it didn't hurt that we liked our teacher and that she liked us. I would mention that my youngest son was interested in x, y, and z and she would bring me books and resources the next month about x, y, and z.
But I gained new freedoms as well. On Thursdays, my kids went to enrichment classes with other homeschool kids. I was given a day off. I could do what I wanted, including volunteering in my local community, catching up with the housework, writing a blog, researching better homeschooling options, or just reading a book. It was great, especially for a homeschool mom with two young children and a deployed husband.
A year into our time with this Charter School and I was invited to serve on the Charter School Council. Charter schools in California have to be started by people within the community or, at least, that's the way it used to be. By design, the Charter Council was comprised of parents. Meetings were led by the school director and one teacher would come to the meetings as a representative for all the teachers. The parents elected a lead parent who was the actual President of the Council. We basically made all of the decisions for the school. We decided how the money would be spent and, if money was tight, where we would have to cut the budget. Granted, we did this with advice from the staff, but the relationship was one of goodwill.
The Charter Council also did the hiring and firing... I got to be a part of that process as well. We fired and hired a new director while I was there. The school was what the parents wanted it to be... a home-study charter with enrichment classes. The school also fit a niche for this community. Without the home-study charter, these students would not have been a part of any school district. The charter brought in kids that would not have been on the rolls... this was a benefit for the local school district as it brought in more federal and state dollar that they otherwise would not have seen.
The Charter Council found new property. The old school building we were using was being reclaimed by the local school district and we had to find solutions. We did so. And we did it within our budget.
Now, this Charter School wasn't perfect. We had issues. We participated in annual testing, much to my chagrin. I would have loved to forgo the federal dollars supplied to us for providing test scores, but I was among the minority. Also, I would have loved to give our teachers raises and pay them a higher salary. However, our teachers belonged to two different teachers' unions and the unions required that we pay our teachers the going rate. If we paid more, it could cause issues for other teachers in other schools.
But, overall, this Charter School helped improve the level of education in the entire district. It provided a good model with which to build other charter schools. A new school opened nearby that provided schooling four days a week of school in the classroom with Fridays off so that families could have more family time. High school homestudy schools developed using combinations of enrichment classes, apprenticeships, and agreements with local community colleges to educate kids. And some charter schools developed curriculums much like those of your average elementary school - they just had more parent involvement at the administrative levels because they worked with the charter council model and had parents making important decisions.
Charter schools aren't the enemy.
Charter schools for profit might be.
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