Saving our Schools?
With the California public school system in turmoil, parents and teachers are turning to charter schools to try to improve education for their kids. It’s a contentious battle—and it’s coming to a neighborhood near you.
Illustration by Jon Krause
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Pat Middendorf, a teacher at Clayton Valley High, couldn’t bear to sit on the sidelines and watch her school’s continued downward slide.
Budgets were being slashed, student test scores were dismal, and behavior problems were rampant. The worst example of the problems went viral in 2009, when a student posted a shocking YouTube video of the chaotic scene in a math class. In the video, out-of-control students throw paper balls and shout while the cowed teacher hides in the back of the room.
Calls for help met a lack of response from officials of the well-meaning but overwhelmed Mt. Diablo Unified School District.
“We were at a very low level,” says Middendorf. “It just seemed like we were spinning our wheels. We just really felt defeated all the time.”
Rather than give up on the school and look for a new job, as other teachers had done, Middendorf, who is known for her never-say-die attitude, invited teachers, parents, and city officials to her home last March to discuss the problems.
The group eventually decided the best solution for saving Clayton Valley High was to petition to become a charter school. That way, a board of parents and teachers would take over and run the high school in the hopes of improving the culture and education at the 1,800-student institution. Eighty percent of teachers welcomed the idea of being able to respond directly and immediately to issues and signed the charter petition.
“People aren’t satisfied anymore with this top-down management,” says Middendorf. “[At] companies like Apple and Genentech, it’s all shared decision making. And that’s what the schools have to adjust to.”
By petitioning for a charter, the proponents set themselves up for a battle royal with Mt. Diablo Unified School District. They also joined the growing number of California charter schools. Of the 7,000 schools in the Golden State, 982 are charters, 100 of which opened in the past year.
Charter schools are public schools funded by the state—so they are free of charge to students. But they are run independently from their school districts. As a result, supporters argue, innovation and flexibility to meet a community’s needs can be the rule rather than the exception.
Some, like Livermore Valley Charter Preparatory, are general education schools just like traditional public schools. Others specialize in arts, like Oakland Arts School, or in immersion language programs, such as the Chinese language Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland. At others, like the San Francisco Flex Academy, students sit together in a room but learn individually in virtual classes via computers while teachers roam with an eye for those in need of help. A Flex school for grades six to twelve is still looking for space but plans to open in Walnut Creek in September.
Initially, the charter movement began as a way to fix troubled urban schools, but the movement is expanding into the burbs. Charter schools have recently opened in Napa, Saratoga, and Sausalito, to name a few cities. Proponents in Dublin and Livermore are petitioning for additional charter schools.
“There is this upmarket drift of schools,” says Margaret Raymond, Ph.D., director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. “The message of choice is starting to infiltrate into some of the more advantaged communities.”
Raymond believes that the charter movement can help students, both at charter schools and at district-run institutions. “You want to think that by introducing choice you might be stimulating a bit of competitive response from the local traditional provider,” she says, adding that charters, like regular public schools, must be policed, and ones that aren’t working must be fixed.
“If you do those things, I think the opportunity for choice actually sets you on a long-term path of improving education outcomes for all kids.”
Not everyone is as excited about charters, however. Charters aren’t always successful, and they don’t always improve test scores. While several education think tanks are studying charters, the results so far appear to be mixed.