How parental powerlessness distinguishes urban charter schools from suburban public schools…
By Emily Kaplan
This is how you get your child into a public school in an affluent suburb:
1. Make a lot of money.
2. Buy a house in an affluent suburb.
Congratulations! Your child will now receive a top-tier education!*
*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is entitled, exercise your right to go directly to the administration and complain. (Your tax dollars pay their salaries, after all.) Work with teachers and administrators, many of whom have decades of experience, to create an individualized education plan for your child. Do not fear retribution: your child cannot legally be driven from the district in which you have chosen to live.**
**If you still feel that your child is not receiving the best education property taxes can buy, you may choose among several courses of action, including: going to the school committee (an elected board on which sits one or more parent representatives like yourself); running for a seat on said committee; sending your child to a private school; or moving to another suburb, where you may repeat the steps above until you are satisfied.
This is how you get your child into a Boston charter school:
- Possess the social capital to be informed about the existence of— and application procedures of— charter schools. (Good luck to recent immigrants, particularly those who do not speak English!)
- Make the harrowing decision that the education your child would receive in the local district school is so under-resourced and/or deficient, academically or otherwise, that you are potentially willing to tolerate one or more of the following characteristics of many charter schools:draconian discipline; an obsession with testing; a developmentally inappropriate curriculum; a curriculum which is not culturally representative of your family; an inexperienced team of teachers and administrators, many of whom have never taught in any other environment; treatment as a pawn in a drawn-out political ruckus about charter schools’ right to exist and/or expand (or not.)
- Attend lottery night, at which you will be informed by a charter school administrator that if— and only if— your child “wins the lottery,” he or she can have the chance to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and succeed there. (According to her, if you “lose,” of course, the chances of your child having a fair shot in life are slim to none.)
- Look around the room of parents and their children, all of whom are just as desperate for quality education as you are.
- Realize that, statistically speaking, 90% of them will “lose.”
If you “win,” congratulations! Your child has a chance of receiving a decent education!*
*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is extraordinarily lucky to have “won,” well… she can always go back to the district you fled, right?
* * *
Charter schools in Boston compare themselves to public schools in the city’s most affluent suburbs. If their students’ scores can match those of wealthy suburban children, they reason, they will face similarly abundant opportunities in life.
Even if scores are comparable, however, the schools themselves are not. While the best suburban schools provide students with a balanced school day and curriculum, enriched by a well-resourced environment led by experienced educators, the common charter school model is vastly different. Here, the school day is far longer (at many, children are in school for over nine hours), and even the youngest children have recess for only up to twenty-five minutes. (Where I taught last year, my second graders did not have recess until three in the afternoon, after they had already been in school for eight hours.) Suburban parents would never stand for the very things which make these schools distinctive: a rigid, punitive discipline system which suspends students as young as five; a pedagogical philosophy which prizes quantifiable outcomes above all else, thus elevating testing to the forefront of the curriculum; and an ultimately counterproductive ignorance of children’s developmental need for exploratory play.
These urban charters tend to be run by white women in their twenties whose lived experiences differ sharply from those of their students, who largely come from low-income families of color. Their charter schools feel like reflections of them, of armchair philosophies about what poor kids need, and not the kids themselves. (These schools’ ideas and “best practices” reverberate in the echo chamber of the no-excuses universe, made up of charter networks which seem less distinguishable from each other with each passing year.)
That is, while suburban schools feel like the neighborhoods in which they are situated, these charter schools certainly do not: in the words of one educator I know, they feel like “schools for black kids run by white people,” imposed upon the communities they supposedly serve. And they feel like this, I think, due to all of the reasons listed above, but also in no small part to the parent recruitment process: while parents with means move to the suburbs because they want their children to attend “good schools,” urban parents who can’t afford to move out of the city must choose among a set of dismal options.
In a nutshell, then: suburban parents run toward; urban parents run away. Running toward is empowering; escaping never is.
Politically and financially, affluent suburban parents own their children’s schools. Parents of students at urban charters, however, better not push their luck. (They “won the lottery,” after all.) Suburban parents can question the system all they like; ultimately, they are the system.
Politically and financially, affluent suburban parents own their children’s schools. Parents of students at urban charters, however, better not push their luck. (They “won the lottery,” after all.) Suburban parents can question the system all they like; ultimately, they are the system. Charter parents are certainly not— and by questioning it, they have everything to lose. (The racial undertones of this environment—black parents should be grateful for the education these white educators so generously provide— are significant.) Unlike suburban students who attend district schools, students at urban charter schools can be expelled or pushed out— and no parent wants to be forced back to the district which drove them to enter the charter lottery in the first place.
Urban charters wield this power to ensure compliance from students and parents alike. The strict discipline for which charters are infamous is applied to parents as well as their children. Unlike at suburban schools—where parents are welcomed to join the PTA, to volunteer, to lead projects, and to meet with an administration that must earn their support—parental involvement at many urban charters is as unidirectional as it is punitive. If a student accumulates enough behavioral infractions, for instance, he or she must serve an in-school suspension until the parent is able—on one day’s notice—to take time off of work in the middle of the school day to observe the child in class for an hour and a half. Teachers and administrators threaten students who break the rigid rules of the school with parental involvement: “If your behavior doesn’t get better,” they tell these five- and six- and seven-year-olds, many of whom come from families struggling to make ends meet, “your dad will have to keep missing work to come here. You don’t want him to be fired, do you?” Parents who do not comply are told that the school may not be for them.
Take it or leave it, be grateful, kowtow: we know what’s best for your child.
Ultimately, this serves no one.
Last year, I had a student whose family and pediatrician believed she had a learning disability; I suspected the same. The parent was desperate for a way to help her child; she requested a school evaluation so that the girl could qualify for special education services. Before the meeting, for reasons I still do not fully comprehend, the school determined that the child did not qualify for services. When I expressed discomfort with this decision, I was informed that the staff members who had performed the evaluation— not me, not the pediatrician who had known the child from birth, and certainly not the child’s mother— were somehow the incontrovertible experts on this child and her learning needs. (Furthermore, I was icily informed, because I had questioned the school’s decision, I was no longer welcome at the meeting where this news would be broken to the parent.)
At a suburban school, a parent would have the power to challenge this determination; here, the parent’s only recourse was to remember— as administrators sighed at the end of almost every internal evaluation meeting— that “at least she’s not in public school.”
Perhaps, but that misses the point: charter schools should strive to provide the best education possible, not just one some deem the lesser among evils. Without parental involvement at all levels, however, charters will continue to stagnate in the ways that matter most. The steps for success, then, seem abundantly clear.
This is how wealthy suburban schools succeed:
1). Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.
This is how urban charter schools would succeed:
1). Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.
Emily Kaplan is an elementary school teacher living in Boston. She has taught in urban public, urban charter, and suburban public schools. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.