The Connecticut legislature is about to fund additional charter schools. As a retired principal of a non-charter public school, I am concerned about the negative impact the charter school movement has imposed on our urban school districts.
It may surprise people to know that Albert Shankar, Past President of the American Federation of Teachers, was a proponent of charter schools. In a 1988 address, he outlined an idea for a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students. These schools could serve as “educational laboratories” from which traditional public schools could learn. Unfortunately, the promise did not become reality.
My own experience supports that premise. I became principal of a low performing elementary school in one of Connecticut’s smaller urban centers in 1993. I liked to say that we were “relentless in the pursuit of literacy” (Sorry, Lexus!) Our efforts paid off in terms of student achievement, as measured by test scores. For example, over five years we decreased the percentage of students below the Intervention Standard from 42% to 28%. We increased the percentage of students achieving above the Excellence Standard from 33% to 50%.
Our efforts were validated as we received the 1998-99 Exemplary Reading Program Award for the State of Connecticut from the International Reading Association. In order to achieve these results for our students, we developed a team of three highly trained reading teachers with supporting paraprofessionals to provide individualized instruction for our lowest performing students in coordination with classroom instruction. We relied on federal Title 1 funds and state Early Reading Success Funds to support these efforts
Fast forward five more years. Our test scores had continued to improve. I retired in June of 2004. The following year the supports for our past literacy efforts were reduced or eleiminated. Federal Title 1 funds were redirected. Those funds could be used to provide transportation for students in a “failing” school to go to a school of choice, including charters. State Early Reading Success Funds also ended. Rather than helping our traditional public schools, the desire to support charter schools was hollowing out the resources our traditional public schools relied on to help our neediest students.
Our previous team of seven or more that provided reading intervention to our lowest performing students was reduced to two teachers who were assigned additional duties. Anyone who read the recent Courant articles on the Hartford Schools knows the damage this hollowing out has done to that school district and its students.
Much like trickle-down economics, the benefits of trickle-down “innovations” promised never materialized. Furthermore, much like voodoo-economics, they depend on voodoo data. The data compares the data from Black and brown children with schools that serve “the same student population.” It is a presumption that the populations are the same just because the students are Black and brown. Good research takes into account “intervening variables” or the differences in populations that might influence comparisons. Parental support, attendance, level of English language ability, identified special needs are a few examples. Each student is an individual.
In a recent opinion piece in the Courant, charter advocates were asking for funding to support four additional charter schools in four school districts. Three have been included in the current budget proposal. The proposed charters have leaders ready to step into the leadership of these schools. These schools will have African American leadership and “will allow Black and brown children to walk into school every single day and see teachers and school leaders who look just like them.” That is a worthy goal!
In light of that I would like to propose a different “pathway” for those leaders and teachers. I ask the State Board of Education in cooperation with the legislature to identify an existing school with a significant population of Black and brown students in each of the proposed districts. Designate that school as a charter, so that 35 years after Albert Shankar’s address, we can make his experiment a reality.
We can bring these leaders and the “fresh and innovative ways” of reaching students into our existing traditional public schools. We can get better data, since we will be able to compare growth of an existing population over time. AND – Instead of the hollowing out of our traditional urban public schools, we can finally find a way to use the experience of the charter schools to inform practices in the traditional public school. We can make the promise a reality!
Margaret Rick is a retired elementary school principal from West Hartford.