Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

Alternative Charter School

February 24th, 2010 at 16:43

Progressive Education Philosopher John Dewey

Progressive Education Philosopher John Dewey

For her graduate school thesis, our friend Brenda opened an alternative charter school in the fall of 2000 which our daughter Emma attended for her three middle school years.   Emma’s mom worked as the school counselor for four years, the first two as an unpaid intern, the last two as a paid staff member, and also served for a time on the school’s Board of Directors.  The school was launched with about 120 students, offering kindergarten through sixth grade, which grew to include seventh and eighth by the third year.

As a person who believes that our education system is way too “One size fits all”, from the beginning I applauded this experiment to create a school on a different model than the conventional instructional school.  In fact, many people can’t even conceive that there could be any other sort of school than ones that focus on…

1. Delivering a pre-set, state-mandated standardized curriculum, compartmentalized into separate, siloed language arts, social studies, math, and science “subjects”.

2. Using standardized textbooks and lesson plans featuring teacher-led instruction rather than student-led exploration.

3. Delivering the curriculum almost exclusively (except for occasional field trips) in a “classroom” arranged with desks or tables and chairs.

4. Segregating students into “grade levels” exclusively with kids their own age.

5. Having every student in a class learning the same thing at the same time.

6. Evaluating and ranking students based on published letter grades rather than a list of skills and knowledge content mastered.

7. Setting school rules and managing student behavior with rewards and punishments meted out by the teachers and other adult school staff with little or no input from the students.

That is the only kind of school most people have had experience with, but in a number of the above points, this school dared to be different.  That all said, some kids do thrive in a conventional school environment, but many do not, and an educational program designed to be more experiential (like real life) has great appeal to a number of students and their families.

Brenda already had considerable experience running a school, since she continued to own and operate two preschools, one including some early elementary grades as well, that both our kids had attended.  I always saw her forte as being sensitive to the individual talents and interests of her students, the needs of their families, and delivering a humanistic and developmentally appropriate program in a non-bureaucratic way.  She also had a flair for managing the operational side of an educational enterprise, particularly working within a tight budget.

Brenda supplemented her own expertise by hiring a very talented program director, Scott, who brought in an integrated social studies core curriculum based on the educational ideas of John Dewey.  Part of the Dewey approach was to make the classroom more student-led and experiential; where the teacher functioned more as a facilitator than an instructor, and was skilled enough to drive the curriculum based on the students’ interests rather than preset lesson plans.

Scott and Brenda both were strong believers in internal motivation rather than external rewards, so there was no “token economy” of stickers or other chits accumulated for “good behavior” and cashed in later for pizza parties or homework passes.  Scott also implemented an extensive program of conflict resolution, teaching both the teachers and students conflict resolution techniques, which were employed wherever possible instead of using the more typical punishments of conventional schools.

Student evaluation was done by indicating which of a list of skills and content they had mastered rather than by letter grades. Homework was given to help teachers assess students’ skill and content knowledge acquisition, but was not “graded”, so parents were actually encouraged not to help students with their homework so the teachers could get a more accurate assessment.  In a particularly interesting innovation, the conventional “parent-teacher” conferences were replaced by “parent-student” conferences where the students themselves presented their portfolios to their parents (with the assistance of their teacher) and evaluated their own strengths and weaknesses.

Scott and Brenda hired teachers as best as they could find and opened in fall 2000 with eight classes and over 100 students (including our eleven-year-old daughter) with a mix of white and minority families and a number of special-needs kids as well.  Based on what I’ve read most charter schools are less diverse and with a smaller percentage of special needs kids.  Again, Brenda’s operational skills helped her find extra funding (including one-on-one aides) for the special needs kids.

From the beginning there were significant challenges.  A few of the initial teachers took naturally to the Dewey-style integrated curriculum designed to be more learner-driven than in conventional schools, but others continued to struggle and never mastered it, and half the original teachers did not last the year or were not rehired for the second year.  It quickly became clear that, despite Scott’s considerable passion and expertise as the program director, it took a very special sort of person to teach the Dewey method.

Also for many of the students, particularly the older ones who were used to external behavior controls in school, the lack of punishments led them to feel that there was no reason to follow any rules that they did not want to.  The school followed a progressive philosophy, but was not explicitly democratic.  The students did not participate with the adults in developing school rules, so tended not to have as much “ownership” in the place as they could have.  Also the focus on conflict resolution took a lot more staff time than simply meting out the conventional detentions and revoking privileges for bad behavior.

For many of the families, it was later discovered, that their motivation to put their kids in the school was not because they liked the alternative program, but because they liked that the school was small. Many families turned out to not be supportive of many of the innovative alternative features of the program. So many parents helped their kids with their homework, though asked not to by the staff, to the extent that some of the teachers could not tell if it was the student (or the parent) who had mastered the skills. When told that their child had broken a rule and gone through conflict resolution rather than punishment, the parents took on punishing their kid anyway. Some parents even actively lobbied Brenda, Scott and the teachers to make the program more traditional.

Into this truly experimental mix, we enrolled our daughter Emma in the sixth grade class for the initial year of this school that was launched with kindergarten through sixth grade, and planning to add seventh grade in year two and eighth in year three.  Also Emma’s mom (graduated from her Marriage and Family Therapy Masters program but still needing to do internship hours before applying for her license) joined the staff as the school counselor.  Both Sally and I were excited to participate in this program to try and bring a progressive vision to a city where the Los Angeles Unified School District with its 700,000 plus students and thousands of schools was known for its stultifying bureaucracy and one-size-fits-all approach.

For the first four years under the five-year charter, the school had mixed results.  It continued to be difficult to find and keep good teachers, particularly those who could really implement the more student-driven Dewey curriculum.  The school’s standardized test scores did not make the grade, in no small part because the program was not designed to teach to the test.  Scott, rather than being able to focus on continuing to develop program and teachers, was instead more often than not in firefighting mode, including having to spend the last quarter of the first year replacing a fired teacher in our daughter’s troubled sixth-grade class.  (More on that in another post!)

After the mandatory school district review in the fourth year, the LAUSD district decided not to renew the school’s charter. With the support of many of the parents, Brenda, Scott and company were able to work out a deal with the district to re-charter the school under a different charter with a more conventional educational approach. Sally decided that she did not want to continue in her role and Emma had already matriculated on to ninth grade at another school. But the school lived on, as far as I could see now cleaving more closely to the conventional instructional model to have a better chance to pass muster at the next review.

For Scott, Brenda, Sally and the rest of the staff, it was an object lesson in do’s and don’ts, and how difficult it is to try to bring a different educational path to a school district fixated on a singular one-size-fits-all approach to schools and a state with voluminous educational content standards that make innovation that much more difficult.  Initially radicalized as educational iconoclasts by our son Eric’s school experience leading to pulling him out and homeschooling, the difficulties this alternative charter school encountered pushed us farther over the edge to now advocating a complete transformation of our country’s education system.

For what happened next, at least with our daughter, see my follow-up piece “Sweathogs, Heathers & Mean Girls”.

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3 Responses to “Alternative Charter School”

  1. Sweathogs, Heathers & Mean Girls | Lefty Parent Says:

    [...] the fall of 2000, Emma attended a small school for her three middle school years (see my piece on “Alternative Charter School”). Emma was one of some twenty kids that were part of the inaugural sixth grade class, the biggest [...]

  2. Steven Says:

    Throughout this awesome pattern of things you get an A+ for hard work. Where you confused everybody ended up being on your facts. As they say, the devil is in the details… And it could not be much more correct at this point. Having said that, permit me say to you what exactly did do the job. Your text is definitely pretty persuasive and this is possibly why I am making the effort to comment. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. Next, while I can certainly notice the leaps in logic you make, I am not really confident of just how you seem to unite your ideas which make your final result. For the moment I shall subscribe to your position but trust in the near future you link your facts better.

  3. Cooper Zale Says:

    Steven… I’m always interested in being challenged on my facts and what I do to synthesize them. I would appreciate to hear more from you on your thoughts on this and other pieces I have written.

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