First Person

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.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.