In terms of evaluating the progressive nature of any school, perhaps the most important questions to ask are: who does the school serve and what type of education is taking place?
We teach at Jingletown, a charter junior high school in Oakland, Calif. When the school was created, there were several priorities expressed in its charter, including: smaller classroom size; two-hour blocks for core subject periods; bilingual and multicultural instruction; cooperative learning; and a diverse and representative teaching staff. The majority of teachers have been Latino and bilingual, and many have come from progressive educational or activist backgrounds. Although we have been short on resources, we have stood firm in our commitment to classes no larger than 24. We have been able to do this by sacrificing a janitor, alarm system, and other such “luxuries.” Students, teachers, and parents are responsible for keeping the school clean. Although we receive the same per pupil funding as do Oakland public schools, we have expenditures which regular schools don’t have, such as paying rent for our school site.
Jingletown grew out of the organizational efforts of Latino parents and a committed principal to create a safe and positive learning environment for their children. We went to teach at the school because of this, and because we were excited about doing bilingual education in a school which valued Chicano culture and academic instruction in Spanish. In spite of state-mandated bilingual education programs for limited English proficient students in California, most Californian schools have few bilingual teachers and are not ideologically committed to promoting academic excellence and proficiency in students’ native language as well as in English. Far too often, bilingual educational programs actually have fewer resources, less qualified teachers, segregated classrooms and a watereddown curriculum. In spite of Lau v Nichols, only one-third of language minority students in California are in an educational program which attempts to address their language needs. We saw teaching at Jingletown as an opportunity to teach in a public school and respond to the needs of working-class Latino students traditionally underserved by the public school system.
Clementina Duron, the principal of Jingletown, said the impetus behind organizing for Jingletown came from parents at Lazear Elementary School who were satisfied with the bilingual education at Lazear and with the school’s environment that respected their culture. However, the parents became alarmed when looking at the neighborhood junior highs, which were seen as large impersonal schools with violence, gangs, and the prospect of academic failure of their children. The parents, with the support of Lazear teachers, took advantage of California’s charter legislation and formed Jingletown. (Jingletown gets its name from the East Oakland neighborhood where most of the families are from. There are various theories about the name’s origin, such as the belief that the name recalls the sound of knife sharpeners in the neighborhood who would go door to door, jingling to let people know they were there.
Jingletown is a public school and has been organized as a non-profit organization with its own board of directors. The Oakland School Board granted the charter; it holds the power to continue or revoke the charter. We are now in our third year of operation, and have 190 students in the seventh through ninth grade. The majority are Latino while the other 10% are a mixture of Native American and African American students.
Parent involvement, another fundamental component of the charter, is seen in their majority representation on the school board, where all meetings are conducted in Spanish or bilingually. Parents also agree to do four volunteer hours a month. Some parents are extremely dedicated to the school and log over 100 hours of service a month. In reality, many parents have not complied with this part of the school contract. There have been no real consequences yet, but parents on the board have formed a committee to deal with this issue. There have been many hardships that parents and students have had to endure in creating the school — such as the fact that we had no electricity for the first two months of this school year
because of our move to a new location. Nonetheless, families vigorously defend the school and say that it fulfills educational needs not being met by other public schools. Most often, students and parents differentiate Jingletown because they say it is safer, there is less conflict and that it is more demanding, both academically and in terms of discipline. As one student wrote in a journal last week, “Yo creo y es cierto que estoy aprendiendo mucho en esta escuela aunque sea pobre pero es honrada y no hay tantos problemas.” (Ana Martinez, 8th grader)
Much of the politics of the school end up being negotiated issue by issue rather than following some predetermined position. For example, the Oakland teachers strike in November presented us with a real dilemma. On the one hand, there were many long-time teacher union members on our staff, and we wanted to support the legitimate issues concerning striking teachers. (The strike centered on demands for lower class size and salary increases.) On the other hand, we reasoned that we were teaching under conditions that were quite different than those of other Oakland School District teachers: we have in fact achieved smaller classroom size and there is real teacher participation in school decision-making. Some teachers expressed mixed feelings about the teachers union itself, especially when bread and butter issues of teachers take priority over interests of the broader community and the students themselves.
We also weighed the fact that we had already disadvantaged our families by starting the school year two weeks late. Finally, we feared that striking would seriously injure our very limited resource base: a strike might mean closing the school for good. Our move this year to a new location had cost the school three times what we had predicted. Ultimately, we decided not to strike ourselves but to write a letter of support to striking teachers, explaining the reasoning behind our decision. However, it is clear that our position on the teachers union is an unsettled issue, both in terms of our theory and our practice. If we support the teachers’ union in theory and as a “concept,” but never do anything about it in real practice, what will that mean for the relationship between the union and charter schools in the long run?
WHEN TO TAKE MONEY?
The discussion over our relationship with the teachers’ union mirrors discussions over who to take money from and under what conditions. There are no easy answers. In general, we feel extremely deprived of resources. We have no computers, no sinks for biology projects, little physical education equipment, small portable toilets — and the list goes on. However, despite talk of business interest in reforming education, there has been no rush by business to take us over or to shower us with resources. On a theoretical level, many of us agree that the best thing that businesses and corporations could do for public schools would be to pay more taxes to public education so that educators and the school community could then decide what to do with the money.
However, there have been real concerns over whether accepting donations from certain institutions and private enterprises will jeopardize our school’s autonomy. For example, we received a small grant from a research institute which we later discovered was against bilingual education and supported a back-to-basics emphasis for educational reform. This issue was discussed among educators and board members, and we accepted the money; refusing “tainted” monies is much easier when you don’t have 190 kids whose education is suffering because they don’t have access to basic resources. We did decide, however, not to accept further contributions from this foundation if they did not support our bilingual/ multicultural educational priorities.
Although we are excited about creating a school which provides an outstanding education for our students, we are concerned about the role charter schools will play in the strengthening or weakening of public education in general. There is a real need for those with the information and the resources to help communities with the least resources to demand terrific public schools which respond to their needs and interests. Creating public charter schools can be one way of doing this. However, although many charter schools may ascribe to “progressive” pedagogies, most in California are not in urban areas serving economically poor students. In fact, it appears that many of the neighborhoods that already have decent schools also have the most resources to put into the school. If this trend continues, then charter school reform will not end up better serving those most in need but will simply provide alternative schools for “rich” kids. It is yet to be seen whether serving those most in need of good schools is the charter school rule, or rather the exception.