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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.