Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Love & Hate: Charter Schools

Fall has officially arrived, and I am enjoying yet another wonderful class titled "Enhancing Youth Literacy." In this class, we discuss issues facing the public school system, trends in education, etc. I thoroughly enjoy discussing issues in education, but I especially perk up when discussing charter schools because I have had a very close and personal relationship with them. My two relationships have been pretty intense, leaving me with strong feelings of both love and hate for charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that do not have to necessarily follow the rules in place by existing school districts. There is a lot of room for charter schools to specialize in whatever area they choose and provide alternative education that is creative and innovative.

I love the idea of charter schools. With an average of approx. 50% drop-out rate in Oregon, it is clear that the regular public school system isn't working for everyone, so it makes sense that there are alternatives available that give an opportunity for students to try school from a different angle, in a different setting.

Charter schools begin for various reasons - from my experience there are those that are created to help struggling students and those made to help succeeding students exceed. I believe both are important and a charter school can address both needs (struggling and not challenged enough).

I am for experiential learning and teaching innovation. I believe school should be challenging and inspiring. Students need to feel like there is a purpose to their education - that what they are learning counts in the greater scheme of things.

I went to a charter school the second half of my high-school life, and I am thankful for it. The school I went to gave me an opportunity to get a glimpse of the professional world and figure out what strengths I have that can be used in the adult world. I was able to narrow down what I wanted to study, and because of the independence and freedom given to me, I was better prepared for college.

All of that to say, I have also seen charter schools that terribly fail their students. I have seen good ideas go to waste because there wasn't enough manpower on the side of the charter school. When staff are spread too thin, trying to implement creative teaching methods to struggling high risk students - disaster is imminent.

What I hate most about charter schools is the tension that exists when some people feel like their idea of education is better than the public school version, and when the goal to create the school is more about personal ideologies than a cooperative effort. When there isn't clear and open communication between the sponsoring school districts and the charter school, things can get ugly. I hate when charter schools are created to get students out of the school system before trying to address the issues as to why the kids are having problems in the public school to begin with.

My example would be a Russian charter school that ran in Portland for a couple years. The charter school was aimed at Slavic youth who were not doing well in the regular school. The goals and mission sounded great. The reality was that the issues the students faced were greater than what the school was able to address. Being spread too thin, without enough staff and without enough professionals on hand, students did not make progress. Eventually the school closed because the charter school was not able to deliver.

What could have been a great opportunity for students, failed because the district and the charter school were divided from the start. There was tension and not enough manpower to deliver quality education to students. Instead of collaborating with the school district to create additional support to struggling Slavic students at David Douglas, the charter school created a greater division which confused families and left students scrambling to find what to do when their school got closed.

My point is that charter schools are very powerful. They leave a lasting impact. They can be wonderful and they can be terrible. I love and hate them all in the same time - but ultimately if implemented correctly, I love em!

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