Monday, June 4, 2012

Things Fall Apart

In the fall of 2005, the Academy for Citizenship and Empowerment (the school I teach at) was created out of Tyee (formerly a large comprehensive high school) along with two other small schools. I just arrived this year, and was not there when the school was born, but from what I can gather, the conversion process was intense, and many of the staff members uncommitted to working in a small school transferred to other large schools in the district.

Seven years later, staff members who were there when it happened tell stories of the immense effort and valuable payoffs that came out of the conversion. Advisory was the heart of the school, and getting students to a four-year university was paramount. Students created a constitution and met regularly to discuss how the community progressed. Schools from across the country visited to see a model for successful small school conversion. It feels a little nostalgic. But whatever happened in its beginning years, ACE in 2012 is decidedly different.

In 2007, the on-time graduation rate was 88.8%. In 2010 (the last year OSPI reports data), it was 52.1%. The current seniors (whose last week of school began today) will graduate having worked with four different administrators.

A member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, ACE initially practiced consensus as a decision-making model. (Consensus involves debating major issues until everyone on staff can live with a particular decision. Dissenters are encouraged to debate, and discussion is meant to be had). Students played an important role in providing input to decisions. And staff spent much of their meeting time focusing on instruction.  (All of this as reported to me by teachers who worked through the conversion process).

In 2012, we spend much of our meeting time thinking about district data, and students rarely attend staff meetings. Some teachers have the opportunity to focus on instruction with colleagues during school hours once a month during district-provided professional development targeted at math and literacy skills.

Year after year, the school loses talented and passionate teachers who hold strong opinions about how to serve our students and community. In their place, we've recently hired a number of first-year teachers who I don't think would be unfair to compare to deer in high beams.

There is much to be said for the importance of the sense of community and ownership staff and students feel in their school. When I began my work this year, I did what I could to keep my head above water, as have many of the other new teachers (many who are new new to teaching). I worry that as long as so many of our staff occupy this mental state, the decisions we make about how to best serve our students will be driven more by people far less familiar with our building than we. And, perhaps, if our numbers continue to drop, the small school that once showed so much promise will turn out to have been for not. (Some staff members fear that with a new superintendent, we may be converted back into a comprehensive high school.)

I've learned that commitment, constant communications, conviction, and shared vision/sacrifice are key ingredients in a phenomenal school. Unless we can wrest those things back, I fear we will move forward haphazardly, with neither purpose nor focus. Things may continue to fall apart.


  1. It seems to be the norm with charter schools. Big ideas...until the business model takes over. I compared teachers to lawyers in this sense:

    Hypothetically, a person gets arrested and charged with murder (a very serious crime). That day he consults the best schooled and prepared lawyer he can find throughout a series of multi-step interviews. The lawyer highers on and advises the client in a manner that appears to lend itself to success. The defendant decides to keep the lawyer around as advisory but wishes to represent himself at trial.

    As teachers, we are trained and put through strenuous interviews only to have the government, principals, and charter business models keep us around for looks while ignoring all the professional expertise we possess.

    I wonder if the policy makers would get away with the murder of the educational system if they stopped listening to their fancy lawyers?

  2. Just FYI: My school is not a charter school. Charter schools are still illegal in WA state.