Charter Schools: A First Impression
For the first four years of his schooling, my son has been in a traditional public schools. At first, we had considered private schools. We visited several and even applied to one, but we also took the time to interview the principal and tour the school.
Initial Experience With Traditional Public Schools
The principal during his first 3 years really ran the place as a student-focused, parent-friendly facility. Her door was always open, the faculty turn-over wasn’t an issue and we always felt welcome to come see our kids in their learning environment any time we liked.
We volunteered to help, my wife became the class Mom for both of our kids and I helped with events and such when I could. This school was more like the private schools we had visited than the public schools I remembered -until the principal changed.
When our School Turned Into a Real Traditional Public School
This last year, the school has been the proto-typical traditional public school. Parents are almost discouraged from being in the classroom, the principal is available by appointment only, faculty turn-over is nightmarish and it seems like little – if any – learning is happening in the classroom.
In the current school year, our son has had FOUR different teachers. His first two years he had one. Each new teacher brings a new style, different expectations and introduces instability into the classroom. Won’t the kids detach from the teacher if they think he or she will be somebody else in a few weeks or months?
We had become used to being the reinforcement mechanism in his first few years at that school. He would come home knowing a basic math or reading concept, have homework to do, and we’d help him with the tougher examples. This last year, he flat out told us that the teachers really didn’t explain how to do whatever the basic technique was so we had to first figure out what the teacher wanted him to learn by looking through the homework, then we would create a lesson, teach him, then help him with the homework. My wife and I are not educators and we may not be doing this as well as someone with all the right tools in their bag, but right now, those persons are doing a disservice to the children.
Our son gets great grades. It is expected of him. We help him whenever the need arises, that is expected of us. His current school is not living up to either his, nor our expectations and it became time to leave it behind – and we soon found that many other parents from this school were doing the exact same thing.
Getting Into a Charter School
During the year, we filed an application to a science-focused charter school. Our son loves math and science so between this or the performing arts charter school, this academy made the best sense.
We knew that if he didn’t get selected in the lottery (1,500 kids didn’t) we would be putting him in private school and cutting back some things at home to pay for it.
Last week we got the call – he’s in. We were invited to an introductory event at the school and we both attended leaving the kids with a baby sitter.
The first 5 minutes of the principals opening speech told us that this was the kind of learning experience we wanted for our children.
What is a Charter School
According to The Center for Education Reform a charter school is different that traditional schools in several ways:
- Choice: Charter schools give families an opportunity to pick the school most suitable for their child’s educational well-being. Teachers choose to create and work at schools where they directly shape the best working and learning environment for their students and themselves. Likewise, charter sponsors choose to authorize schools that are likely to best serve the needs of the students in a particular community.
- Accountability: Charter schools are judged on how well they meet the student achievement goals established by their charter contract. Charter schools must also show that they can perform according to rigorous fiscal and managerial standards. If a charter school cannot perform up to the established standards, it will be closed.
Check out CER’s Accountability Report: Charter Schools for more.
- Freedom: While charter schools must adhere to the same major laws and regulations as all other public schools, they are freed from the red tape that often diverts a school’s energy and resources away from educational excellence. Instead of constantly jumping through procedural hoops, charter school leaders can focus on setting and reaching high academic standards for their students.
The first bullet point, “choice”, I believe is the key. Because parents can choose to go to the charter school and also choose to leave it, the school can’t take a local population for granted. A charter school must be superior to surrounding traditional public schools to attract students – which is the only basis for the school’s funding.
Why We Chose a Charter School
The first few minutes of the principals speech told us almost everything we wanted to know.
- Children are expected to exceed state requirements, not meet them
- Students will be taught critical thinking skills so that they understand how to learn, not just what to learn
- The curriculum is taught through projects. A goal-oriented approach to learning subject matter. A test is not the final objective of the learning experience.
- Parents are expected to help out in the class room
- as teacher’s assistant
- as lunch monitors
- on field trips
- during events
- The school does not take on costs that have nothing to do with learning
- No buses
- parents will have to work out their own transportation
- No cafeteria
- parents will have to make lunches for their kids (much different that those schools that won’t even allow homemade lunches)
- No buses
- The dress code reflects the real-world, professional work environment
- No denim, sweats or athletic wear in the classroom
- Shirts with collars are required
- No tight-fitting clothes
Then the teachers spoke. They genuinely seemed to love teaching in this atmosphere. They feel supported by the parents, respected by the kids, and free to teach instead of jumping through bureaucratic hoops. We were also surprised to learn that the school actually had competitive athletics – championship caliber competitive athletics. Why wouldn’t we put our kids into this school?
Charter schools may not be for everyone. Having no taxpayer-supported busing system helps the school contain non-classroom costs, but working parents will have to figure out how to drop-off and pick-up their children or pay for before and after-school care provided by the school or another facility. The lack of a cafeteria may be an issue for some families as lunches will have to come from home. These and other expenses are distractions from actual learning and expenses that all schools don’t need to take on. For some families it will be too much of a burden, for us, it’s a time cost that is well worth an education-focused learning facility. This also might explain why charter schools spend $4,000 per student less than traditional schools.
As we go through our first year, I’ll write from time-to-time to let you know how the experience has lived (or not) up to the expectations set by the staff.
We know why the NEA and teacher’s unions fight against these kinds of schools, now I hope to present the case for why we should each be fighting for them – by going into the system personally.