Last Thursday we enjoyed our first set of project presentations in class. I have to say that I was quite impressed — especially since Robert nailed his interpretation of me in the video for Revolution Charter. Very strong, indeed.
What we saw, from my perspective, were really two sets of presentations interestingly arranged. One set came in the middle — these were the two charter school programs, “Stake Academy” and “Revolution Charter” — and were bookended by analyses of actual charter schools in existence already, the Vida School here in Gettysburg and the SEED School in Baltimore. First, let me say this: both of the invented charters had great names (“What’s at Stake for you?” is an outstanding tag line, and I also liked the idea of being so upfront about a school’s goals and aspirations by reflecting it in the name “Revolution Charter”), and both programs were creative and interesting. Given the right circumstances, these could very easily be translated into actual functioning schools. I’m eager to see how these plans lay out more formally in the projects that your groups actually turn in, especially with regard to some of the key innovations that each group put forward. Maggie and Victoria’s Stake Academy promised us a year-round calendar, personalized attention, and a focus on projects rather than tests. In fact, “one of the biggest problems in today’s public school system,” says the Stake Academy brochure, “is the focus on test scores.” That’s a sentiment I can agree with, albeit one that’s not easy to undermine. It’s easy to forget that the driving forces behind the use of standardized test scores can be equality and efficiency — one rationale for using standardized tests is that they can provide us with the information we need to ensure that “no child is left behind,” after all — even if that isn’t always how we use their results (or even if it becomes the only way we interpret and use results). It can certainly be the case, conversely, that a project-centered approach introduces an element of subjectivity to the evaluation process that gives some kids a built-advantage over others, especially if competition is not removed from the equation. The Stake Academy brochure promises implementation of the Common Core state standards so students can “be on par with their peers,” which at least suggests that competition is part of the school experience. This is something I’d like to see you two address in the final project.
On the other hand, the budding edu-preneurs (yes, I think that’s a real word these days) Cabel, Robert, and Jason behind Revolution Charter also promised a flexible academic program built around student interests and tastes. I like this plan a lot as well — it’s very creative and I saw nods in the direction of things that aren’t often explicitly addressed by school reformers (for instance, the slide referring to “what we’re looking for in teachers” provided some valuable, explicit, and revealing insight into what kind of school you actually want to create). I also liked the implicit link between leadership as a core value of the school on one hand and creativity on the other: the suggestion here seems to be that creativity is a key component of effective leadership, and I think there’s a compelling case to be made for that. One inadvertently funny point that I think your video made was that it helps — and it helps a lot — to have the support of a philanthropist when starting a school of any kind. That you drew your funding from the esteemed “Dave Powell Organization” (which itself was apparently built on lottery winnings) drives this point home in a humorous, if unintended, way. It’s true now that anybody with a lot of money to spend (even if it’s just lottery money) can start a school and attract attention to it, a fact that highlights our reduced commitment to education as a public good. What does that tell us about where we are in terms of creating an equitable, fair, and open system of education for people that will really prepare them to think creatively about the problems we face as a society? Put a little differently: at what point do we all have to pay the piper when he’s footing the bill, and how does that affect the way we think about educating our youth? It’s a good thing your charter is being bankrolled by such a magnanimous individual with so much knowledge of education — let’s just put it like that.
The other two presentations we saw on Thursday focused, of course, on real schools already in existence. The first of these, brought to us by Corinne, Yaou, and Jhanvi, gave us a glimpse of the politics of education as they are playing out right here in our community. I can’t say enough about how excited I am to see the full project for both of these. Both groups did an excellent job of laying out the purposes and goals of your respective projects, and the Vida group, in particular, framed the research very nicely. I do think some key information was left out, probably making it difficult for people in the room who don’t know much about Vida or its history in Gettysburg to follow along, but I was really impressed by the way this presentation focused on the contentious relationship that exists between Vida and the local school district. It was especially revealing to see that the school’s charter was initially rejected by the local school board on the grounds that Vida would not “provide a comprehensive learning experience” or serve as a “model for other public schools.” In the first place, parents seem to have voted with their feet: the school is growing rapidly, and putting a lot of pressure (financial and otherwise) on the district to keep it up. On the second point, the school district’s decision to try to implement a bilingual education program of its own belies the district’s claim that Vida would not provide a model for the local schools. Clearly, an attempt is being made to create a program that competes directly with Vida using the idea of multilingual education as a starting point (though of course the district would argue that its bilingual program is not the same as the dual immersion program being offered at Vida). I really wish this group had given itself more time to talk about the issue that it found laying at the core of the dispute between Vida and the Gettysburg Area School District: the tension between competition and innovation, and how they two do (and don’t) work together. Too often it seems the kids get caught in the middle as adults fight over the political problems engendered by trying to work together with people who have different motives and commitments. All the more reason we need social studies and the teaching of political skills to be an integral part of the school experience!
Finally, we had a presentation from Liz, Amada, and Andrea about the SEED School and its unique approach to urban education. Again, we were provided with some very insightful analysis that raised a number of interesting questions about this approach. In particular, I liked how the group alighted on SEED’s “public boarding school” routine, which does not extend to weekends, and on the emphasis on competition that is engendered by the school’s insistence that students be admitted by lottery after accounting for certain personal characteristics. This seems to me to do little more than add to the “mystique” of the school, and comes across as something designed to drum up “momentum for the brand,” especially in light of the claims made toward the end of the presentation that students at the SEED School don’t seem to be accomplishing the goals the school claims will be met. I was also drawn to Andrea’s discussion of the disconnect between the largely unstructured home lives experienced by the students recruited to SEED and the super-structured life of going to school there. I can imagine it being profoundly disorienting to attend school like this and to be constantly pulled between two worlds, neither of which most of these students probably chose to be part of. I was also taken aback by the photo of the school that was part of the PPT presentation, which showed a fence around it an a big red “NO TRESPASSING” sign on it. This presented a sharp contrast to the obsession with putting up college banners all over the place — college tends to be a place where students experience unfettered freedom for the first time, whether they are read for it or not, and the group rightly pointed out that maybe a highly structured pre-college environment isn’t the best preparation for the loose structure that generally comes with college.
Beyond that, it seems to me that schools should be inviting places, places that are open to all — not just to a select few who had the good fortune to win the lottery. Charter school operators have been known to complain that they have to use lotteries to apportion limited seats but they often have financial resources most public schools could only dream of. The most revealing slide of all the ones we saw in this presentation was the one detailing the funding the SEED school has received from public sources. Again, the group hit the nail on the head by asking if this is a scalable model; if it isn’t, what’s the point of investing so much money in it? While we wrestle with that question, we seem to have an answer to another one that came up also in the Vida presentation and always seems to come up where charter schools are discussed: do charters divert money from public schools? Clearly SEED benefits from public largesse that can’t be spent at public schools if it’s being spent there. Likewise, we know that Vida is being opposed by the Gettysburg school district partly because Pennsylvania’s charter law places a heavy financial burden on local districts to support charter start-ups. The jury is still out, of course, on whether these two charters are capable of providing something to kids that they would otherwise not be able to receive in their local public schools.
And so that brings us full circle. At the end of these four presentations I found myself asking: how do the two proposed charters (Stake Academy and Revolution) compare to the actual charters we learned about (Vida and SEED)? What are the obstacles — financial, political, and otherwise — to creating effective charter schools, and how are those addressed by both the existing schools you studied and the ones invented by Victoria, Maggie, Jason, Robert, and Cabel? These are not easy questions to answer, but I hope you’ll all address them in your final projects. The course has been designed to provide you with the base of knowledge you need to answer them — here’s hoping that you feel well positioned to do that.