This has become the #1 issue I've been asked about so I'll get right to the point. We're at a point in our district where a lot of parents feel our district schools aren't performing well enough, so they've chosen to move their students to a charter school. We're also at a point in our district where charter schools are diverting too much funding from our district especially when the district is legally obligated to provide them with facilities. Some have said, the district's performance level is so low that charters make a great alternative for a parent who just wants what's best for their student. Other have said, charters are taking too much money from our district and this is adding to our deficit. Here's what I have to say: I want our district to perform so well that our parents don't feel the need to have charter schools.
Why do we have charter schools? Because our parents feel their local district schools aren't doing enough to educate their children. So if we want to be fiscally responsible and steer away from charters, we need to bring our district schools to a level where our parents won't want to leave. A lot of our charter schools are high performing and provide our students with a variety of services, how can we get our district schools to that level?
Incase it's not clear, I want our district to be free of charter schools because of the negative impact they have on our unions, the funding they take away from our district schools, and because they don't serve all students. However, I don't believe we should start closing them all down as many of our parents feel that charter schools are the only option for a great education. If we want to get rid of charter schools, we need to improve our district schools to the point where parents don't feel the need to have charter schools around. So here are some suggestions I have to make that happen:
The district is too humble, we need to publicize more of the great things that are going on. Visiting and working at different school sites, I've seen so many amazing things happening in our district whether it's the screen printing happening at Kennedy High, the theatre projects that happen at Richmond High, or the Play Works program that's happening across a multitude of our elementary schools. But a lot of these services go unnoticed to some of our parents and community members. One tactic that charter schools use is they make their programs known. They show parents all they have to offer and that's what makes them so inviting and full of opportunity. Perception is everything, and if the district started showcasing more of its amazing programs and projects, they'd be changing the narrative!
Have school recruiters give presentations to lower grade levels. I'm not talking about professional recruiters. I'm talking about having 12th graders talk to a group of 8th graders, having a middle school principal talk to a group of elementary school parents, etc. In a lot of instances, parents are moving to charter schools because of the "bad" image the next school has. If we can address those concerns early on, that fear is replaced with excitement. During these presentations, a 5th grader can learn about the many opportunities waiting for them at their next middle school, or an 8th grader can hear about what clubs they can join at their next high school. This is also a great way for parents of upper grade schools to answer any concerns lower grade parents may have that would otherwise turn them away. Charters recruit parents and students, why can't the district?
#StudentsofWCCUSD, #AlumnsofWCCUSD. One way the district can highlight the amazing talent and potential that's in our district is by using the power of social media. For those who aren't familiar, Humans of New York is a social media campaign that highlights and tells the stories of new yorkers. Students at Richmond High currently have their own version of this called Humans of Richmond where they share the stories of different Richmond community members. The district should follow their approach by sharing the stories and experiences of our amazing students (with parent permission of course) as well as what our alumni accomplish after graduating. This would be a fun and engaging way to showcase the many paths a student of WCCUSD can take during and after being a student of our opportune district!
One argument that's used in support of charter schools is that schools are like the free market. Having a charter school promotes competition and should encourage district schools to perform better as they compete over the same students. The problem with this argument is that our schools don't have enough local control to restructure themselves so they can compete. For example, Voices College- Bound Language Academy is a charter school that'll be opening up this school year. A lot of parents advocated for this school because it offers dual immersion classes which is arguably important for students who speak English as a second language or for parents who want their student to learn a new language. What if our district schools had the ability to start a dual immersion program, have certain dual immersion classes, or higher bilingual teachers to teach in two different languages? Then Voices wouldn't seem as relevant. By giving more power to our school sites, they can restructure to better compete with charters, thus making them irrelevant.
The Expanded School Based Management model. After surveying what different districts use for local control, I am very fond of the Los Angeles Unified School District's expanded school based management model (ESBMM). In this model, schools are given the usual Title I budget to be allocated by the school's school site council (SSC) to support its low-income, foster, and at-risk youth. However, the model goes further and establishes a shared leadership council (SLC) that is chaired by an administrator and the school's union representative. The SLC is also made up of teachers from each department, a few parents, and a few students. The SLC has full control of the school's general fund budget, all policies and rules for the school, staffing, and almost everything else. So with the ESBM model, a school could change its hours to 10am-5pm, put half their budget towards field trips, hire motivational speakers to come in once a month, or any other initiative they'd like to trade-off. The sky's the limit! There was one case where a school was under-enrolled so they had to layoff three of their teachers. Because they were an ESBMM school, they were able to re-arrange their budget to keep those teachers by reducing supplies. Budget cuts are tough, but they felt it was necessary to keep three of their team members and it was possible through ESBMM. This is one of the models the district can adopt to give our district schools the power to compete with charters.
One way for district schools to compete with district charter schools is to learn what they're doing that works so well. Directly from their website, Leadership Public Schools Richmond "has received many awards and recognitions, including Top Bay Area Schools for Underserved Students by Innovate Public Schools, Gold Medals in 2014, 2015, and 2016 as Top High Schools by U.S. News & World Report, 35 High Schools Worth Visiting by Tom Vander Ark’s “Getting Smart” blog". If you look at Aspire Richmond Technology Academy, "For the last five years, 100% of Aspire graduates have been accepted to 4 year universities". The data doesn't lie. Putting politics aside, district and charter schools should be collaborating and learning from each other. Maybe our charters have a special program for professional development. Maybe they invest more in coaching for first year teachers. Maybe they fundraise to ensure students have more classroom materials. Whatever it may be, collaboration is a necessary step to ensuring both our district and charter students are receiving a high quality education. Here are a few ideas on how we can make that happen:
District and charter schools that enroll from the same areas should meet bi-annually. By having school leadership and a delegation of teachers from each party meet twice a year, they district can provide a space to for the two groups to directly hear from each other.
Having district school sites host collaborative study sessions. By hosting collaborative study sessions, teachers from both charter and district schools can share what they feel works for them and what can be improved at their sites. Here, teachers can also share different solutions their sites have come up with to address their areas of need.
Providing a webpage to share resources. What if there's a specific consultant a charter school uses for PD? What if there's a certain organization they partner with for student services? By providing a space on the district's website for charters and district schools to share some of their resource recommendations, they can take advantage of programs they might not have tapped into yet.
Listening to Parents And Following Through on Promises
I saved the best for last. The most valuable step the district can take in competing with charters is listening to parents and ensuring they follow through on all their promises. How does any charter school start? Parent Petitions. If parents demand a charter school, it'll happen. If parents don't feel the need for a charter school, it's gone. So if you're someone who's committed to getting rid of charters, why ask the school board to vote no on them? Why ask me to commit to never approving one? You should be ensuring parents never want one because they're the ones with the power. So how do you ensure that a parent doesn't feel the need to transfer their student to a charter school? You have to listen to their needs and address their concerns. If the district made more of an effort to listen to parents and follow through on promises, I guarantee the district wouldn't be in the financial situation it's in right now. I knew a mother who left a district school because they weren't accommodating to her daughter's special needs. If the district would've listened, her daughter wouldn't be at a charter right now. I knew a father who saw his gifted son wasn't being challenged at a district school so he moved to a charter. If the district would've listened when he spoke up, they wouldn't have left. But listening isn't enough. What's the point of public comment if your concern won't be taken care of? What's the point of having parents fill out a survey if their opinion won't be used. I've been to too many district sponsored town halls and forums to know they district doesn't follow through on enough of its promises. So how does the district effectively listen to parents and follow through on its promises? Here are some of my suggestions:
Improving community engagement. I spoke in length on this here.
Have district employs sit down with parents who've signed charter petitions. Charter schools are required to submit a petition with parent signatures when they submit their requests. The district should ask if any of those parents would be willing to sit down with a district employ and discuss 1) why they feel the need to make the switch 2) what the district needs to do before they'd consider coming back 3) what the charter is offering that the district is not. This would be completely voluntary, and it would be a great way for the district to get feedback on how it can improve.
Have bi-annual forums with parents who've switched or are considering switching. The district can host these events and reach out to different charters schools to see if any of their parents would want to attend the event. Many parents have students in both district and charter schools, this would be an opportunity for them to voice some of the differences they've noticed. Here, the district can hear from a larger crowd on what it can do to improve and how it can better compete with charters. It's also an opportunity for the district to address any misconceptions that may be keeping parents away.
Have an online scoreboard of concerns that have been raised. To address the issue with follow through and keeping promises, the district should keep a log, that's made public online, of all the concerns that have been raised at these meetings and forums. When a concern is raised, it would be reported online. You can see if it's still in the process of being addressed and when it's finally been taking care of. This would be an easy system for parents to visibly see that their concerns have been heard and are being taken care. This would also be a way the district can show off all the work it's done to improve as you can visibly see all the issues that have been resolved.