An Unfortunate Misunderstanding
Saga of a promising new charter
Illustrator: Spencer Walts
I was nervous as I started the conversation. I was talking to a mentor of mine—an experienced teacher and administrator who I look up to as a staunch defender of public education—and I needed some sort of absolution. You see, although I think of myself as firmly against attempts to fragment and privatize public education, I was going to work for a charter school.
I had a couple of ways of justifying that decision. The charter school, which was just starting up, had a wonderful educational philosophy and would be using first-rate curricula—workshop-based, experiential, project-oriented—a far cry from the scripted curricula I had been forced to work with in my previous school. It was located in a diverse urban neighborhood where many public schools had been shut down, presumably leaving families with few good options for where to send their children to elementary school. I was told this new school had ties to a successful community preschool that had been operating for many years. And the principal who had hired me was an open, welcoming person with a strong vision for the school as child-centered and project-based. Though not from the neighborhood herself, she was African American and had a profound level of respect for the historically African American community in which we were working. She made deep connections with families and I loved watching her talk to the students.
As I explained all of this to my mentor, a wistful look crossed her face. She didn’t particularly like the idea, but told me, “You have to do what you have to do. You have to see what it’s like.”
“I’m worried,” I said, “but it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’ll have the chance to help create this school from the ground up.”
Almost a year later I would find myself in a different room, talking to Carol, a board member and another powerful woman, and saying almost exactly the same words: “When I took this job, I imagined that we—teachers, parents, administrators—would be able to shape this school into the kind of school we all really wanted. I didn’t expect the structure to be so top-down. I thought we were all creating a school together.”
Her response, as she accepted my resignation, was succinct: “I’m sorry you misunderstood.”
If I began the year thinking that our school could be different—a small, innovative, independent charter school unaffiliated with the politics that make the charter school movement so problematic—I ended it with a profound understanding of how pervasive many of the issues that arise around charter schools really are. There were a lot of concerns floating around in my head that I shoved back when I signed my contract. I worried that I would suffer from the lack of job security and union protections. I worried that we would not be able to equitably serve students with special needs. I worried that the school would ultimately turn out to be less community-based than it appeared. As it played out, those fears were founded.
Underlying the beautiful language of the charter was a strong thread of deficit thinking about the students and their neighborhood—a sort of missionary attitude whereby a group of privileged professionals, most of whom were not educators, were swooping into a neighborhood they thought needed saving, to play saviors to children they assumed needed protection from the public school system.
When details about school operations had to be filled in, they drew on philosophies of the wider charter school movement—at-will contracts, extended hours, extended school years, merit-based pay, strong reliance on private philanthropy, and a host of other policies that they labeled best practices. Although in name we were not affiliated with other charter schools, the ideological connections ran deep.
I hope that the story of that first year can be useful to other educators, especially when it comes to understanding how what appears to be a community school can, in the hands of a few people, turn into something very different, ultimately disempowering the people—teachers, administrators, and parents—who are the key to its success.
Trying to be a union of three
The school year got off to a rocky start. Converted from a small office building, our school was not the right size or shape for two classes of kindergartners and one class of 1st graders. The classroom walls were glass, creating constant distraction through the windows; the tiny lunchroom had terrible acoustics, making lunchtime a riotous din; and the yard was a rectangle of bare, white cement with no play structure. The children, all in a completely new place, were a tangle of fear, anxiety, and anger. It quickly became apparent that we would have our hands full when it came to behavior. To add to the chaos, after that first week, one of the three teachers quit.
Right from the beginning, I started to notice things that felt wrong. Recruiting students had been a challenge and we were severely under-enrolled—the community we were supposed to be so connected to seemed distrustful of us, and something had happened at the board level to cut our ties to the preschool with which we theoretically worked so closely.
It was not terribly surprising that the community viewed us as outsiders, especially once the preschool connection was lost. In a school that was predominantly African American, none of our teachers was African American, and all were from outside of the area. Our board was overwhelmingly composed of white, well-to-do professionals with very little connection to the community in which we were working.
In this context, it seemed the board was relying on our principal to assuage any feelings that the community was not being represented. Yet the relationship between our principal and the board rapidly began to fray around the edges. Our principal’s strong vision for the school did not appear to be respected at the board level, and she was thrown an endless supply of tasks to complete that ultimately took her away from her role as an instructional leader and a much-needed support for the students.
In addition, the president of the board of directors, who was not an educator herself, had no qualms about encouraging some families to enroll and discouraging others. When a child with borderline autism came to enroll in my 1st-grade class, my class list was suddenly artificially capped at 19. I was horrified by the implications, but also too scared to ask about it. I was uncomfortably aware that, with no full-time support staff and poor communication with the district, we were not going to be able to provide adequate services for students with special needs.
We were so short-staffed that we were required to cover our own recesses and to come in before school twice a week to cover the before-school program. During the morning recess, the three teachers would try to rotate out so we could each get five minutes to run to the bathroom and back. If someone got stopped on their way by a phone call, a parent, or a child, the whole schedule would be thrown off and we would either have to stay out at recess longer or someone would miss their bathroom break. We had a 30-minute lunch break, but even that we were sometimes asked to forgo in cases of emergency. If we wanted to take our kids out for an afternoon recess, we were on our own. Thus, during a 7.5-hour school day (8.5 hours if it was a morning when we had to come in at 7 a.m. to monitor the yard before school), we had only one guaranteed 30-minute break. Taking a sick day was even harder than making it to the bathroom during recess, and personal days were out of the question.
We were run ragged. Our students were as well. The extended days were too long for both teachers and children. The charter happily cited inspiration from Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone to explain the extended day and extended school year, but the result of these policies was that at 2 p.m., our office was full of kindergartners who had fallen asleep in class, some of whom would still be at school for another four hours if they participated in the after-school program. As a staff, we were frustrated and scared and so were our students. It was hard to sleep or eat right. We all started getting sick. When I came down with an infection, our principal asked me not to take the day off; when I protested, I was asked to tell her exactly what my medical condition was and to bring in a doctor’s note.
I loved my principal and was shocked that she would violate my privacy in that way. This was the same woman who had won me over with her obvious love for children and respect for teachers. She came into my classroom daily with words of encouragement and offered a hug when I was at my wit’s end. She took us out to coffee after school to make sure we were OK. But when I asked her about the sick-day incident, it became clear that she was not acting of her own accord. The board needed evidence that we were not overusing our sub days, she explained. And the board had not approved personal days. And the board wanted us to make do with the staff we had to cover our recesses. And the board wanted us to expand the services we were offering, using the current staff. I could see the pressure building as our principal was asked to do more and more with very limited resources and then shoulder the blame for our working conditions. I started to wonder what other pressures she might be shielding us from.
In October, we finally got a permanent replacement for the teacher who had left. She came, looked around with fresh eyes, and asked if we could make some changes. We had been too overwhelmed to even think about how we could make things better for ourselves, but now, inspired, we decided to create our own union of three. We drew up a list of demands and went to our principal. She appreciated that we were advocating for ourselves. But if we wanted recess coverage, we would have to ask the board for more staffing. If we wanted personal days, we would have to ask the board to amend the school policy.
So we did; we called a meeting with the board and made our demands. They gave us a lot of what we were asking for, and they gave it to us right away. Amazed by our success, it took us awhile to realize that, far from winning a workers’ victory, we had been placated because the board wanted to keep us happy and out of the way. They had a bigger fish to fry.
Smoke and mirrors
In January, a strange item began appearing on the board agendas that were posted on the front gate: discussion of dismissal, non-rehire, discipline, or resignation of a staff member. The whispered conversations started—outside the front gate, in the break room with the doors closed, in our classrooms. We asked board members what was going on, and they told us apologetically that they were not legally at liberty to discuss it. However, we put two and two together and realized that the only person who the board had the power to hire or fire was the principal herself.
A few weeks later our suspicions were confirmed when our principal sent out a letter explaining her “voluntary resignation,” effective at the end of the school year. The letter explained nothing. Here was a woman who was passionate about the school she was helping create, deeply committed to the community, and the textbook definition of a hard worker. She didn’t have another job lined up or a better opportunity somewhere else. There wasn’t an issue of fit, because she embraced the school philosophy and connected well with the families. She had been asked to resign, and presumably also asked not to speak about the circumstances—a distressing reminder that we were not the only ones suffering from a lack of union protection.
As intelligent people who could read between the lines, though, the staff developed some ideas about what had happened. Our principal was pushing back when the board was demanding too much, too fast. At a time when our day-to-day operations were shaky at best and we lacked basic materials, the board wanted full implementation of the plans laid out in the charter, including five student evaluation cycles a year, training and use of a complex online system for formal evaluations of teachers, and staff focus groups around future implementation of a merit pay system. Our principal was trying to shield us and our students from the stress of these demands, asking questions, and pushing back. And because of that, she would have to go.
Worried about the repercussions of a much-loved principal’s resignation in the middle of the year, the board had her stay on until the end, but with limited responsibilities. She would deal with the day-to-day operations of the school—calling subs, planning events, recruitment for the following year—but she would no longer have anything to do with curriculum, teaching, or assessment. Instead, we would report directly to Carol, who already had a full-time job working with local and state charter school networks, was rarely onsite, and literally never visited our classrooms.
Although this was disturbing, what happened next was perhaps most disturbing of all. A new head of school had to be selected. The board told staff and parents that the process would be fair and inclusive, and a committee was formed with teacher and parent representatives. Candidates were screened by the board president and interviews began. Sometime during this rapid process, Carol announced that she was stepping down from the board to interview for the position of head of school.
This was when the parents began to play their part. They hadn’t been fooled by our principal’s resignation letter or by Carol’s adept political language. The parent representative on the committee stood up and said that he did not believe the screening and interview process had been fair, and that he thought it was inappropriate for an ex-board member to apply to be the head of school.
But he was just one member of the committee, pitted directly against the president of the board. Carol was hired.
“You think I’m an idiot, but I’m not.”
The parents, who had also been talking outside the front gate and reading between the lines of the board agendas, decided it was time to make a stand. Meetings were scheduled to introduce Carol to the parent community. Those meetings were taken over by parents who didn’t mince words when it came to telling the board they had made a big mistake and lost the community’s trust. In a predominantly African American community, pushing out an African American principal partway through the year and hiring one of the people responsible for her forced resignation—a white woman who didn’t know the community, the families, or the kids—did not go over well. Blatantly disregarding the opinion of the only parent on the hiring committee didn’t go over well, either.
Furthermore, the deficit thinking embedded in the charter’s philosophy was offending at least some of the parents. The school had an extended day, an extended school year, and intersessions during winter, spring, and summer break. The implication was that the children would do better if they were at school and protected from the potentially harmful influences of their own community. The long before- and after-school hours, instead of giving the school a “community feel,” put distance between parents and teachers, who were rarely able to interact, and meant that some children were with their family for only an hour or so in the evening before they went to bed. Parents were pressured to enroll their children in the intersessions; I had parents come to me in a state of agitation to ask if there was going to be a problem if they took their kids to visit family during winter or spring break instead of bringing them to school.
By this point in the school year, some parents were starting to resent the implication that school was a happier, healthier place than home, and to wonder about a school that made such negative assumptions about the quality of time they could offer their own children. Some parents felt they were being talked down to and deliberately misinformed by the board.
As one parent put it to me, “I don’t need anyone to save my son from me.” He was relating a conversation he had with the president of the board. “I told her: ‘You think I’m an idiot, you think I’m some dumb n——, but I’m not. I don’t need a white knight in shining armor to save my son. That’s my job. I do that. I give my son what he needs. And if you don’t know that, you don’t know anything about me.’”
Who Runs the School?
How did a supposed community school end up so estranged from members of the community? The charter claimed strong ties to the neighborhood and the community preschool, but our tepid reception, estrangement from the preschool, and under-enrollment told a different story. I began to realize that, when it came down to it, this school was the product of one woman’s vision. The president of the board had decided that the neighborhood needed a better elementary school and decided to found one. She was not from the neighborhood and she didn’t know much about it. She was a well-to-do woman with connections in the worlds of education and business, so she drew on her own network to make it happen. She put together a board of directors composed of friends and colleagues—businesspeople, judges, college professors, a few people with experience in education, although mostly in the private school world. But, frankly, the board consisted of two key players: the president and Carol.
Ultimately, the school was a project. The board president founded it, painted it the colors that she liked, cut the ribbon, and expected everything to go as planned. When the principal didn’t fall into line, she brought in someone who would. When the children, families, and teachers didn’t respond the way they were supposed to, she was frustrated and angry, and did not hesitate to show it in ways that both parents and teachers found disrespectful and insulting.
Carol was different. She was a competent politician and a woman with well-established ties to the charter school movement. Her goal was to create a successful school that would serve as an example. Under her direction, the school had a chance at “success” in terms of publicity and test scores. But it would not be a community school. I learned that when I tendered my resignation and was informed that I had misunderstood when I thought that teachers and parents would be involved in shaping the school. In the same meeting, I was accused of “insubordination” for writing a letter about my resignation to the PTA, urging parents to continue fighting for the sort of school they wanted. “In a functional school,” Carol told me, “there are things parents should not have to know about and be involved in.” A school where parents and teachers were not free to advocate for themselves or for each other was not the kind of school I wanted to work in, I told her.
Reaping the Sour Rewards
The school year ended nearly as chaotically as it had begun. With constant confusion about which principal made which decisions, multiple small power struggles broke out among staff members, and our previously functional team was reduced to rubble in a matter of days. Frustration among parents remained at a low simmer, with one mother collecting information for a possible district inquiry and other parents evaluating their options for the following year.
The numbers were telling. The previous August, five full-time staff members had been hired: one principal, three teachers, and an office manager. By July, only one of these original five was still working at the school. Of the three part-time staff members, only two remained. Several positions actually turned over twice during the school year.
What is the impact of such an unstable school, run by outsiders, in a community where the need for solid supports and consistency runs deep? One wonders how children can get what they need out of a school environment that chews up and spits out adults.
There is a lot that can be said about the problems inherent in the charter school model. We ran up against many of those problems in that first year: overworked teachers, inadequate services for students with special needs, confusing financial practices, questionable hiring and firing procedures, and corporate-style practices like merit pay, bonuses, and at-will contracts. What stays with me is the realization that our students were not receiving the education they deserved in the stable environment they needed to flourish. Every minute we spent whispering behind closed doors, afraid for our jobs, angry at our work conditions, was time and energy taken away from teaching. It makes me wonder why, as a nation, we think that starting over again and again will solve our educational problems—especially when new charter schools can be such unstable places, and when we all know that both teachers and schools take years to grow into their full potential.
The big lesson here is applicable not only to charter schools, but to any school where the people who end up calling the shots are not those on the ground working with and caring for the children. No school should be the project of one person or one small group of people, whether those people are politicians, philanthropists, board members, or high-level administrators sitting in far-off offices. Schools must be built by people who know and love the students and who understand the messy, day-to-day realities that are so hard to grasp from a comfortable desk chair in a distant room. Schools must be built from the ground up, by teachers, parents, administrators, and students. No school is “functional” without that fundamental partnership.