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Last week there was a wonderful forum at LA Trade Tech to discuss the contrast between charter and community schools (any confusion over terminology was quickly clarified). The presentations were translated from English to Spanish and Spanish to English, depending on the speaker. A coalition of education groups sponsored this event but what was particularly outstanding was the principal speaker, Mr. Kyle Serrette, Director of Education Justice Campaigns. If only we could have more people like him to explicate such matters with such facility. He was able to clarify any confusion over the terms as well as the objectives of both programs.

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As I have emphasized in previous columns, charter schools (by-and-large) have set out to privatize schools, to end public education as we know it, to become for-profit entities, to work with those young people who can raise scores and leave the more at-need children by the wayside. Applications for many charter schools are so draconian in their requirements (just to apply) that many children never have a chance of getting in compared to those whose families are better educated, represent a higher socio-economic level, and have greater ability to participate actively in volunteering for school programs.

Private independent charters drain generally quite scarce taxpayer funds from traditional public schools, creating a type of caste system for our children--exacerbating the distance between the haves and the have-nots.

The teachers at independent charter schools are generally not represented by unions and therefore work under the constant pressure of meeting curriculum and other requirements that do not necessarily meet the needs of the students nor prepare them for a successful future. Affiliated charter schools with union representation are certainly a step above the private ones because they must adhere more closely to school district requirements, but the structure of both types of charter schools can lead to the slippery slope of destroying our time-honored public education system. In truth, independent (private) charters drain taxpayer funds (generally quite scarce) from traditional public schools, creating a type of caste system for our children--exacerbating the distance between the haves and the have-nots.

So what about community schools? In general, they have the following goals (some schools are already instituting such policies whether or not they call themselves "community schools"):

  • Engaging, culturally relevant, and challenging curricula
  • An emphasis on high-quality teaching, not on high-stakes testing (it has long been a concern among many educators and parents that frequent testing is not that productive but is responsible for reducing instructional time, the result of which is detrimental to advancing the curriculum
  • Wrap-around supports and opportunities
  • Positive discipline practices, such as restorative justice
  • Authentic parent and community engagement (one school was referenced which claims to have at least 40 parents a day show up for some form of volunteerism on campus)
  • Inclusive school leadership

There are additional community school goals, all of which must be considered and hopefully included when creating new ones and developing those already in existence (about 5 million students nationwide currently attending such schools):

  • teacher-student ratio must be reduced to an effective number (the magnet programs offered such low numbers when they were first created)
  • parent centers with offerings provided in the morning, afternoon, and evening to accommodate schedules
  • the school should be the center of the community
  • community partnerships must be formed (places like Phoenix House or a shopping center which can provide services and material free-of-cost to the schools)
  • the school district board of education must fight for the needs of all children
  • there must be restorative justice programs
  • templates of successful programs must be made available to any and all who are attempting to form and develop community schools
  • there ought to be student unions (to help make students viable stakeholders)
  • community schools can enhance and promote a world vision, including the concept of bi-lingualism for both students and staff
  • ethnic studies classes must be included so that all involved will have a better understanding of those not only in their schools but in their communities and beyond
  • we need to get the print and visual media on our side to promote why community schools would have a positive impact on those where such schools exist
  • community schools must be created in a way that is sustainable (and outlast the tenure of appointed school district superintendents who may or may not want to continue the progress made prior to taking on the superintending assignment)
  • since the greatest need for community schools seems to be in low-income communities of color, coalitions must be created to make such schools possible, viable, and sustainable

Part of the coalition (referenced above) is AROS, the Alliance To Reclaim Our Schools. Its aims are four-fold:

  • We need to build a pro-active movement for community schools.
  • All public schools must play by the same rules (particularly regarding procedures while creating school boards at the school level (separate from district school boards) which would include all stakeholders: teachers; certified and administrative staff; parents; students; community members.
  • All school staff would deserve a voice and union to represent them.
  • Those "agents" of the corporate world, who are trying to privatize schools through creation of independent charters, must be openly rebuked and exposed to the general public for (what seems to me to be) nefarious goals.
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New schools (whether traditional public, affiliated charter, independent charter, or community) must be closely monitored during their formation and implementation. The essential goal must be to transform struggling students and struggling schools into thriving ones. The question is What is the most effective, viable, fair, and just way to accomplish this objective? We all benefit when these issues are tackled.

At the round-table, the Center for Popular Democracy also provided the following pertinent information:

Nationwide, there are 98,000 public schools within 14,000 school districts while so far there are 6,700 charter schools in operation. The problem is that the number of public schools is decreasing while the charter counterpart is increasing. Despite these disparate numbers, far more is being spent at the Federal, State, and local levels on charter schools than on traditional schools. In fact, recently our Federal government has set aside over $3 billion on charters and is planning on granting another $3 billion in the near future. This funding stream is so skewed that per pupil spending in charters far exceeds the expenditures for those young people in traditional schools. In fact, though almost twice as many community schools exist today, those schools receive a tenth of the funding of charter schools. We cannot continue to provide such disparate funding as we attempt to right the wrongs of the most needy. It ought not to be surprising that student success rates will vary considerably based upon the amount of funding and efforts put into the respective types of schools..

We must be alert to the fact that charter school leaders too often tout their successes while at the same time demeaning and discounting the results of traditional public schools which work under very difficult conditions. The constant bombardment by charter people have convinced a myriad of parents not to trust their public schools, not to have faith in them, not to be surprised if their children do poorly in the traditional school system. As a result, many parents and guardians who want the best for their charges (as we all do) apply to charters thinking that that is the only way for their students to do well.

The sad truth is that because of skewed scores and results from various (frequently unreliable) rating systems, parents are often misled into believing that the charters are doing better than they actually are. Not taken into consideration is how the needs of many segments of our student population are addressed. These are the at-risk children, those who have learning and/or physical disabilities, children who have mental disorders, those with language barriers, etc.

The Education-Industrial Complex is a driving force behind a goodly number of the questionable charters. This amorphous entity is made up of such individuals and groups as the Waltons, Gates, Dell, Eli Broad, Robertson, Robin Hood, and the infamous Koch brothers. Most of those names should automatically make us question their motives. Some may, in fact, be well-intended but most have the motives of greed and power behind their actions. Before we buy into any further charter programs or continue with the present ones, we need to do an abundance of research that can support our conclusions.

In the meantime, to supplement the efforts of any of our schools, it is my belief that all parents must push themselves to become bilingual so that they can easily communicate not only with their own children (who are learning English in schools) but with the teachers of their children. Furthermore, parents and guardians must provide a quiet study space and study time within the home each evening and supervise their charges to complete homework, turn it in, prepare for tests, go over grades, and so forth--even if the parents themselves are not fluent in the subject areas in question. Children must have the opportunity for tutoring and for extra-curricular activities (including sports, music, the arts), the latter of which will help make them well-rounded).

In the interim, it is imperative that we continue our support of traditional public schools while promoting a transition to community schools. Lest we overlook an additional point, community schools can be a focus for the extended community as it draws parents, students, and general community members to these schools where a number of activities can be provided: film night, library book festivals, extended learning for parents and older students, ESL classes, other educational programs including parenting classes.

For more information, please contact the following:

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  • Popular Democracy: populardemocracy.org—(Mr.) Kyle Serrette: kserrette@populardemocracy.org
  • AROS: reclaimourschools.org/keron@reclaimourschools.org—(Keron Blair, Executive Director)
  • Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE): acceaction.org; 510-269-4692
  • Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) (currently looking for a community organizer): laane.org

Rosemary Jenkins