Monday, April 22, 2013

Our Charter School Experience: Five Years On

Five years ago we embarked on a new adventure in our children's education by sending our three younger children to a new charter school (see 12/07 post). We have only one child remaining in the charter as we approach the completion of our fifth season with the school. The other two have returned to traditional public schools.

Over the years I have learned much about how schools work, what is good, and what is not. I now believe that the choice between sending a child to a charter or a standard school depends on a complex package of factors whose makeup is individual to each family and even to each child.

I hasten to add that more education choices are available, including home schooling and unschooling. But to be honest, my wife and I aren't willing to commit the necessary energy to these pursuits. I commend those that do. We are similarly unwilling to commit sufficient resources to private schooling, and we haven't felt that online schooling is the right fit for our younger children at present; although, we know families that employ this option.

So we are sticking with charter and traditional public schools for now. While not wishing to give short shrift to other valid options, I will limit my comments to the systems with which I have real experience.

I have occasionally written about our experiences at the charter school:
The charter school seems to work much like a regular public school in many respects. This is to be expected, since charter schools are public schools. Everything the near monopolistic school districts do affects charters as surely as everything a dog does affects its tail.

Charter schools (as well as home schooling and online schooling) move the traditional Prussian education model to a different venue and staff. Some rightfully question the validity of this antiquated model in meeting the needs of the modern employment economy.

Our charter is different from standard schools in some respects. The parents elect parents to the all volunteer board. The longest term of service is three years. No professional educrats here. Since the teachers are not union members, the board has much greater flexibility in dealing with staff problems. But the board still makes unpopular decisions and is sometimes subject to groupthink.

Another significant difference is the level of parental involvement. Our charter actively solicits and uses parents as subject experts, safety monitors, and field work chaperons. The expeditionary learning model upon which our charter is based uses a lot of out-of-classroom learning. This would be cost prohibitive if buses were the main mode of transportation. As it is, parents that volunteer to provide transportation bear the costs themselves. This is a significant, but willingly accepted cost transfer.

Sometimes this system doesn't work out. Our daughter recently went on field work to several sites as part of her study of the Transcontinental Railroad. The neighboring class was unable to go along because the teacher was unsuccessful in recruiting enough parents to drive.

Many parents at the charter enjoy being actively involved in their child's education. They not only get to see what is happening at the school; they get to influence it. More than a few have explained that they felt marginalized and treated like lower life forms when volunteering at traditional schools. Some are downright angry about it, saying that the standard school system is happy with slaves, but that the last thing it wants is parents that actually effect changes in programs and curriculum.

Volunteerism has its dark side as well. One friend has been so responsive to volunteer demands this year that he is burned out. He looks forward to the end of the school year more than his kids do. My wife was roped into filling a volunteer administrative role she had not sought. This has often overwhelmed her due to several family demands that have arisen over this past year. She has gotten to the point that she despises this extra burden.

Our charter splits students into pods of mixed grades. This allows students to be more effectively grouped with those at their same learning level, advance according to their individual capacities and initiative, mentor younger students, and be mentored by older students. I see this feature as generally positive.

Perhaps the main reason that the oldest of our three charter students (child #3) returned to the standard school was the lack of a parental feedback loop. The learning model employed treats children as self responsible and accountable students. We would all love our children to rise to this goal. But in reality, Mom and Dad were often left out of the loop. We frequently discovered deficiencies only when it was too late in the term to take any corrective action.

This year the charter added an online system to keep parents informed and to track volunteer work. Its usage has improved throughout the school year. But for our son this system came three years too late. The standard schools have had such systems for years. Still, I must admit that his school's online system doesn't consistently prevent our son, who is bright enough to do chemistry and advanced math, from failing to turn in work.

We moved the second of our charter students (child #4) back into the standard system this school year because he had come to hate his school by the end of last year. He basically shut down for the last few weeks of the year and accomplished nothing.

Moving child #4 to the standard school did not resolve his problems. Early this school year he ended up spending three months in an outpatient program that addressed mental and behavioral problems. After much close observation he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS). The school has been very accommodating since his return. He is getting the help he needs and is doing much better.

I can't really say whether our son would have had this kind of outcome at the charter. But the charter had come to represent something very negative to him, mainly due to his own issues. Moving him was the right symbolic step for mental health reasons. Our son, however, still maintains friendships from his charter days.

The commute is the main drawback to the charter for our family. The half-hour round trip made more sense when we had three children at the school. Carpooling allows us to make the trip only once on most days. My wife has not-so-secretly hoped to move our daughter (child #5) to the local elementary school that is within walking distance from our home, where many of our daughter's neighborhood friends attend.

Our daughter seems quite disinterested in this prospect. "Why would I want to do that?" she asks. Although she struggles in some classes (while being capable of better work), she very much likes the charter school. She envisions herself graduating from the high school that is being built on campus. She would be in the first class to have attended all K-12 grades at our charter.

Since our charter draws from a broad area, our kids have developed friendships with children that live many miles away. This necessitates lengthy commutes for play dates and birthday parties. Our son with AS philosophically opines that the types of relationships developed in the magnate charter and in the local public schools are different, but that each model has its benefits.

When we decided to take our children to the charter, some friends expressed concerns that charters would drain the high quality students and volunteer parents away from traditional schools, leaving these schools with only the dregs. This always struck me as a strange fear rooted in the backward idea that the child was created for the benefit of the institution. The feared demise hasn't happened. In fact, a recent study found that the presence of charters actually improves performance at standard schools (see DNews 3/14/2013 article).

If anything, our charter has a greater percentage of students with challenges than do our local standard schools. Many parents with kids at the charter fled traditional schools because their kids were failing in those systems. That's why we moved child #3 to the charter in the first place. Our charter does amazing work with these students, but it's no panacea. It takes its toll on teachers and fellow students.

Our charter lacks many extras that are found in our local standard schools. While it has superior band and elementary music programs, no foreign languages, choir, competitive academics, or niche interests such as ballroom dancing, sculpting, and jewelry making are offered.

Our family is not much into sports. Besides, these athletic programs spend much money on few students. So the lack of sports programs seems like a plus to us. Besides, plenty of competition leagues exist to satisfy this demand. But the lack of foreign languages pains us, since we believe pursuit of such to be of great educational value, and finding useful freelance classes for children is tough.

So the charter is working acceptably for our youngest child, although, we would prefer to avoid the commute and we wish foreign languages were offered. The traditional high school seems to best meet the needs of child #3 at present. The charter might still work fine for child #4, but the traditional junior high is functioning acceptably for him right now.

With only one child left at the charter, I'm not sure how much longer our charter adventure will last. Maybe until our youngest graduates, which is still many years away. Our charter journey could end sooner if my wife gets her wish.

Would a charter be the best option for your child? That's difficult to say. Charter schools differ dramatically from each other. You need to gather a lot of information about the charters you might want to use and then compare with your local traditional schools to see which situation is most likely to best meet your child's and your family's needs. I certainly wouldn't trust anyone that offers a blanket statement suggesting that one way is always better than the other.

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