Google+ Georgia On My Mind: Name Your Poison...The Magic Ingredient or Kool-Aid

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Name Your Poison...The Magic Ingredient or Kool-Aid

When I was pursuing my teaching degree I did some research on charter schools. At that time the idea was very new and very little research had been completed regarding their success or failure. While many charters exist today they are still treated as the step-child of education. and many educators remain ignorant of what a charter is or isn’t.

Atlanta City Schools has operated charter schools since 1999. They were authorized to operate on a performance based contract to serve students who reside within the city of Atlanta. Charles R. Drew Charter School is one of the oldest holding their charter for the last seven years.

Each charter school has its own non-profit governing board and recruits, selects, and hires staff for the day-to-day operations of the school. Charter school educational programs, curriculum, and instructional methods vary. Each charter school’s daily, weekly, or yearly schedule may be the same or different from Atlanta Public Schools. You can see the entire text at the Atlanta City Schools website.

Within the last few days WSB-TV ran a two part story regarding one particular Atlanta charter called Achievement Academy of Atlanta. The school has been in existence for the last four years. You can access the video for the news story here.

Yes, Achievement Academy has had problems in their short history with money mismanagement…..I don’t know all the details, however, their students consistently outscore their regular pubic school counterparts on standardized testing, and it would seem parents are supportive of the school even though there is currently a pending lawsuit between the charter and the school system.

As I watched the story I really zeroed in on the reporter’s (Richard Belcher) comments regarding the differences between Achievement Academy and the regular public schools students will be forced to return to if the school system has its way and shuts down the charter. Students will have to return to a more chaotic environment that consistently performs poorly with regards to academics and a higher number of discipline issues as well.

What is the magic ingredient these charters have over their counterparts?

Are the administrators and instructors at the charters better educated, more knowledgeable regarding instructional practices, or just simply better at keeping middle school temperaments in check? No, the faculty at these schools can be compared to any school across the city. A mixed group of individuals…some at the end of long careers, some in the middle, and some just beginning with varying degrees of license and credentials.

Do the charters have access to better facilities, newer educational materials, or use top-notch educational reform models? No, not necessarily. Many charters receive a set amount of money each year just like any other school and they must allocate it following the same formulas. Many times charters are housed in older schools that might not have been in use for awhile. The news report referred to the fact that Achievement Academy had been forced to move from a great location to one of poorer quality. Many times charters are housed in storefront locations or other non-traditional type buildings.

Ok…..then it must be the money. Charter schools receive generous amounts of money because we all know that throwing money at education solves all ills. Please don’t tell me you buy into this bunk…

Nope….it’s not a better prepared or educated faculty. It’s not better facilities, brand new textbooks, or a state of the art building.

The magic ingredient is very simple. It’s simple dedication and responsibility on the part of students and most importantly….the parents.

Unfortunately I could not access a website for Achievement Academy, however, I did access the website for another Atlanta City Schools charter……Atlanta Charter Middle School. I found the magic ingredient right there on their website and I bet you a Varsity slaw dog, an order of onion rings and a fried peach pie that Achievement Academy has the same magic ingredient.

Parents who apply to have their children attend most charter schools must abide by the rules of the school. They must sign an agreement. Many times as in the case of Atlanta Charter Middle School the student must sign an agreement as well. Here are some of the requirements parents agree to…..

*parents must donate 15 to 10 hours of volunteer service to the school
*parents must participate in one main fundraising event and one grade level event
*parents must respond to messages received from the school
*parents must have their child at school each day by 8:30 a.m. ready to learn
*parents must check homework assignments, assist with need service projects, and make sure students read 30 minutes each day
*parents must notify the school of any change of address, phone number, or family status

You can see the full text of the agreement here.

If parents don’t live up to the contract students can be removed from the school.
In a regular public educational environment that option isn’t there except in extreme circumstances and only after numerous situations have occurred over several years….not weeks or months.

Many school systems have parent contracts like the one I describe above including the school system where I teach. The difference is that these charters actually have the authority to enforce it, and the parents and students know it. Each year I am required to send home a parent/student/teacher compact and I am required to show to school administrators that I have had 100% compliance. The sad thing is I’ve never had 100% compliance. I receive nasty notes from parents who are appalled that we might ask them to do some of the things mentioned above. Many simply ignore my pleas to return it. I have never had an administrator refer to the compact when we are conferencing with a violent or truant student. The compact certainly is never brought up when discussing a student who refuses to complete an assignment.
I firmly believe holding parents and students accountable in the education process is the magic ingredient, however, most American schools keep drinking the same Kool-aid. They continue to chant schools fail, administrators fail, and teachers fail. Yes, there are problems and blame should be given where it is due, however, until we begin to encourage and invite parents to be accountable in the process the educational success we all hope for remain just out of reach.

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