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Why I Want To See More Charter Schools

I have three children in school — a fifth-grader who attends a district school in Harlem, and second- and third-graders who are both currently enrolled in Harlem Link Charter School. I am equally motivated and involved in each of my kids’ education, attending teacher conferences and going to events regularly at both schools. I’m also always there to make sure my kids do their homework and help them when I can.

Yet despite my motivation — which some will have you believe is the reason charters succeed — the fact remains that my children get very different educations. A little background: Until last fall, my third-grader, who has attended a charter school for several years, was the only child in my household. But then I got custody of my siblings. My brother is in fifth-grade at a district school, and my sister is in second grade at Harlem Link. When I saw the difference in the charter schools from the district school I became concerned.

The difference isn’t about the resources one school doesn’t have (though after last week’s news that charters get hundreds to thousands less, we should talk about that inequity). It comes from something much bigger.

When I send my fifth-grader to school, I am often left wondering what type of day he will have. I have brought major issues to the attention of his school that have never been resolved such as:

Homework. My fifth-grader does not have a homework folder that lets me know what he has been working on during that week or the exact homework assignment that is due everyday. He can decide to come home one day and say he has no homework assignment for that night, as children sometime do, even if the teacher did in fact assign homework. When I brought this up with his school and asked if they could come up with some type of guideline so we can be on the same page, I was told they would try to send a note home every day or at the beginning of the week with the homework assignments, but that has yet to be done!

Discipline. My fifth-grader once came home very upset, stating that another child came up to him in the cafeteria and banged his head against the table. I immediately contacted his school to find out what happened. I was told the school would look into the matter, but that the incident was probably just kids “playing.” I do not condone that type of behavior nor do I call it playing. I asked the school if the child was going to be reprimanded or if the parents were going to be notified; I was told no since they found no evidence that anything serious happened.

I do not have to worry about these issues when taking my younger children to Harlem Link Charter School.

For one, both my second- and third-graders receive a homework folder at the beginning of the school year that they keep throughout the year. The parents get a quarterly update on what the teachers will be teaching throughout the semester so the parents can reinforce at home what the children have been learning at school. The children also receive a homework packet at the beginning of each week that requires a parent signature; this lets me know exactly what page, reading assignment, or math worksheet my child must do for each day, so there is no way my child can come home and say, “I don’t have any homework today.” All I have to do as a parent is look in their folder to verify. This folder is also used to send home notices to the parents about workshops, school closures, important meetings, etc. I do not get that privilege with my local district school.

I also do not have to worry about any discipline problems at a charter school since there is zero tolerance for such behavior. I know for a fact that if a similar incident had taken place at my younger children’s school, some type of action would have taken place immediately to rectify the situation and put me at ease again to assure my child is safe in school.

At the end of the day, these differences, and others, between the schools show up in a variety of ways in my three children, from the strength of their basic reading, writing and math skills, to their overall confidence and excitement about their education.

Both my third-grader and fifth-grader have struggled with reading for some time now. The difference is that at Harlem Link this was brought to my attention immediately, and with a solution already in place for my child. They offered him in house tutoring during the day, which means three times a week he is pulled from his class during their reading hour to work with a tutor one-on-one. They also have assigned him after-school tutoring twice a week. I then got him a tutor while in after school, so that he can get all the help he can. I am proud to say that all the extra help provided for my child has worked wonders. He was behind eight reading levels when I transferred him to Harlem Link, and now he only one reading level behind. They estimate he will be up to his grade level by the end of the semester.

Unfortunately, my brother’s district school did not go to the same great lengths as the charter school. There was no plan put in place to help me help him. I also hired him a tutor for after-school, but his teacher does not give him any additional tutoring that is needed. The only recommendation the teacher gave was to have him read a book at home, which is something that he already does at home, since it is required for my younger children at Harlem Link to read a book every night.

I’ve also noticed that my younger children are a little more advanced in math than my fifth-grader, who sometimes has a difficult time when the numbers are larger. Since math is my third-grader’s favorite subject he often helps my fifth-grader with the more difficult problems. He then proceeds to show my fifth-grader the number of different ways he can find the answer by using the many different strategies he has learned at Harlem Link.

I want to see all of my children succeed in school and go to college. However, I’m afraid if I do not get my fifth-grader in a better learning environment he will continue to dislike school and be discouraged in his later years. Despite my many efforts to explain how important school is, and how it can be a fun learning environment if given the chance to be, he just doesn’t see it for himself.

Frankly, I’m tired of seeing these discrepancies in the education of my children. I want them all to have the best public school education possible, and in my experience charters are providing that.

I want my fifth-grader to be in a charter school next year and have already enrolled in a number of lotteries for a seat this spring. But with long waiting lists at all the schools in Harlem, I don’t know if my luck will strike again. My child’s future shouldn’t be so dependent on a name being drawn out of a hat.

That’s why I have attended long meetings as a charter school supporter, such as the Panel for Educational Policy hearing last week where the panel decided to let several new charter schools open in city school buildings. In my experience, charter schools have offered a better education, plain and simple, and I believe we need more of them.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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