Charter Schools Are Complicated

There is a student at my school. We'll call her Joanna. She often doesn't come for an education. She often comes to recruit, for her gang.

Joanna doesn't go to class, at least not often. She goes to lunch. She roams the hallways. She makes friends with the newly arrived students (those just coming from Latin America), until she realizes they're not interested in being initiated.

I used to think that if we tried hard enough, we might be able to pull Joanna in a more positive direction. Then I found out her parents are the ones who taught her to recruit.

Joanna is a destructive force at our school. She can't be removed because she's very discreet, but she can't be helped either.

The argument in favor of charter schools, promoted by the same people who've purchased the language of civil rights in our contemporary education debate, have the effect, in many neighborhoods, of separating motivated students from unmotivated students, making it all the more difficult for public schools to succeed.

But if students like Joanna are in public schools and not in charters, where would you put your kid?


  1. California TeacherApril 30, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    This is also what I've been thinking. Charter schools are the state-sanctioned method of separating students who are (presumably) supported and motivated from those who are neither. As a parent, I can understand the allure.

    We can't remove the Joannas from public schools unless they commit an act that results in expulsion. Thus they continue to roam the halls, disrupt instruction, harass other students, and otherwise create a constant nuisance.

    I teach first grade, and when I hear the platitude that neglectful parenting is merely an excuse used by lazy teachers, I cringe. Nowhere is the quality of parenting more evident than in K-2. Young children are at the mercy of their parents, quite literally. The seeds of Joanna's behavior are obvious in kindergarten, and only worsen with time.

    My cash strapped public district (middle class & working poor, no charters) has gone into denial mode regarding at-risk children. We offer so little to children with emotional, social, and behavioral needs. This year, my administration expelled a 2nd grader for taking out his crown jewel and doing a bit of performance art with it in the classroom, in full view of his classmates who are much more sheltered and innocent. The parent response was overwhelming, and expulsion was the only option. He is being home-tutored, and will return to the classroom next year at another site in our district. This particular child has been a chronic behavior “problem” since kindergarten. He comes from a well known dysfunctional family; one of the rare few receiving some level of social services. His parents are, among other things, quite young (oldest child is 10, mom is 26, and there are 3 younger sibs). The label “out to lunch” is too kind for them.

    At my level, most kids are supported and cared for, regardless of the socio-economics of their families. But it only takes one or two "problem" kids to wreck havoc; their parents invariably missing in action. In a bad year, there might be 5 or 6 such kids in a class of 20 (which overwhelms the instructional efficacy of the teacher)… and then you can’t blame the conscientious parents for wanting a better alternative.

    I think this is one of the 800 lb gorillas that have lead to the popularity of charters and the demonizing of public schools. But I’ve always said that classrooms are microcosms of the greater society, and when you consider the problems some kids are having, it’s the saddest point of all.

  2. CA Teacher: Really well said. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I wonder what is going to happen next year in DCPS (Washington, DC) as they've closed down one Sped School and are trying to remove children from another, Rock Creek Academy. I doubt the quality of education at Rock Creek but also know that the severe students at my DCPS high school don't get much help either, on any given day they are seen roaming the halls, cursing, fighting, and getting up to mischief in or outside the school. How are mainstream schools going to cope with more Sped students that are in need of real help without increasing the ratio of special educaiton teachers? I mean qualified special education teachers, not straight out of school, non-qualified TFA. Nothing against you TFA but these are our most vulnerable students they need teachers trained in teaching + psychology + + behavioral intervention + whatever else is needed to help them succeed in school. It saddens me that they are treated so shabbily, as second-class citizens. No wonder they rebel, act out, are defiant as they are not receiving the services they need. I once taught at a very very expensive private sped. program, that parents fought to get their children into because of its success. The parents wanted their children to get labelled As SpEd. so that they could get the services they needed and for the most part the services they received were exemplary. As a result many children exceeded the expectations set for them; however, they did this by receiving one-on-one instruction tailored to meet their specific needs and revised on a weekly basis. It was interesting and humbling to see what kind be done with the right educational resources + money.

  4. Yes, student behavior is definitely the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It is socially unacceptable to say "I placed my child in Holy Angels School because the kids in PS 122 are too poorly behaved," but that is essentially what many people do, myself included.

    Many years ago my older son begged me to visit his classroom during the day. So I left work early and went over to his school. The teacher was constantly interrupted by very poorly behaved boys (mostly affluent population). When I described this to my husband, he said, "We can't keep our child in a school like that." And so we went looking for a new one. Did we look at the teachers? No, we looked at the kids and examined their work. We went during Open House and looked at the quality of the work displayed. We chose the school with the highest performing students. There were no behavior problems at this school because they were asked to leave.

    The UK is usually ahead of us in education. The last time I visited their schools, there were aides assigned to the behavior problems. So when they started to act up, the aide would take them out of the classroom and counsel them. If we are smart, we'll do something similar and we'll do it before things get even worse than they are now.

    Charter schools are offering parents a haven from the chaos of the neighborhood school. I can understand this, but if it's allowed to continue,regular public schools will eventually become depositories for the poorly behaved and the disabled. It would be so much easier to insist on order in all public schools. Very disruptive children need to be prevented from disrupting the education of others. Somewhere along the way "public school for all" became confused with "anything goes in public school." I'm not sure why this is but my guess is this is what happens when there are too many social problems represented in the school. Our penchant for lawsuits might be a factor also. In my son's case, all the low achievers were placed in one room (He later got a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford). Common sense should have told school administrators that this was not a good idea.

    In many countries, public schools are for the poor and the disabled. I hope we're not headed in that direction because it will change the character of our nation.

  5. Linda: You make very good points. I particularly agree with the following: "Charter schools are offering parents a haven from the chaos of the neighborhood school. I can understand this, but if it's allowed to continue,regular public schools will eventually become depositories for the poorly behaved and the disabled. It would be so much easier to insist on order in all public schools."

    When I worked as a teacher, I identified student misbehavior as the number one problem to student achievement in many schools (and as you noted, it's not limited solely to low-income schools, although the behavior is usually worse in lower income, minority schools than in their suburban counterparts). However, I haven't seen a single education reformer address student behavior in his or her policy recommendations (am I missing someone?).

    Instead of using reform efforts to evaluate/fire all the teachers who have trouble managing a class disrupted by continuously misbehaving students, reforms should address the issue of chronic disruptive behavior on a school-wide (or district-wide) basis.

  6. AttorneyDC:

    Thank you. Too bad we live on opposite coasts and are unknown to one another. Otherwise we could start a charter ourselves. I can tell your heart is still in education.

    I don't especially think charters are a good idea but I feel that it is a movement that can't be stopped. Teachers can either lead or get left behind. Also, it offers an opportunity for teachers to take charge and be fully professional.

  7. I would and do put my kids in private school. It has nothing to do with the teachers, just the other students. Too much riff raff at the public school in our area. That may not be the PC thing to admit, but I think you are asking for the truth and that is the truth. In fact, the public school offers more in terms of classes and activities. The private school can tell parents to leave, which is a huge advantage. The way funding is currently divided for public schools is unfair to kids in poor areas. If that doesn't change, I don't see an end to the downward spiral of public K-12 education. And then, of course, the parents....yikes. A kids future is almost completely dependent on where they grow up.

  8. I have taught at a SPED school in DC and have also taught in charter schools in DC. All I can say is that by limiting options for students by either closing down charter schools or SPED schools for students that have limited academic or behavioral functioning capabilities, we're not helping. The main problem I and many other urban teachers still face are students that come to school who are not prepared to learn - who have so many problems at home that they use the school to vent their frustration.
    Also we operates schools like they are businesses and don't always follow what might be best for the student. I'm for charter schools because I'm for experimentation in educational methods - barring that, why have charter schools? I'm for SPED schools because I know those are exactly the young people that are going to fall through the cracks if mixed with a larger population.
    As for Rock Creek, they can either use this situation to fix some internal problems or they might fall flat. I have sympathy because it's not an easy job - everyone's an expert and everyone's a critic until they try to teach a week in a similar setting. As a teacher from that background, I came from the point of view that I didn't create the mess that DC's youth is dealt, but I'm trying to alleviate it. That requires public support.


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