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A personal look at a charter school

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Today, there is an ongoing and necessary debate surrounding charter schools and traditional public schools. Corporate owners with corporate intentions are an integral part of the conversation. In fact, many of these entities are present at both charter schools and school district schools in Philadelphia and other urban centers around the country. The School Reform Commission and lawmakers continue to determine the best way to monitor charter schools and how many years should be given at renewal. Even more importantly, the funding formula does not provide equitable monies for all schools in Pennsylvania. I believe that my previous work at two local charter schools may shed some necessary light on those that are not owned by corporate, but still are in desperate need of oversight in order to avoid ethical and legal improprieties.

In the midst of budget cuts and elections, this is a great opportunity to provide some inside perspective and observations.

First, let me state that the only reason I even sought employment at a charter school was a direct result of the arduous and confusing hiring process at the School District of Philadelphia. When I relocated from Chicago to New York City, the process to get employment with the New York Board of Education was much easier and within a week of moving to NYC, I had a job and my Illinois teaching certificate received reciprocity. Instructions on how to procure a permanent New York State teaching certificate was given to me upon hiring. After being informed that substitute teachers were paid $40 per day for the first 30 days if they did not hold a PA teaching certificate, I went about looking for a teaching job that would help me pay for the PRAXIS I and II, and for an additional math credit that I needed for my certification. At first, I freelanced for an agency that provided substitutes for charter schools while working as a teaching artist in other charter schools.

The environment in those schools was very interesting because there always appeared to be substitutes, which is no different from traditional public schools where no one wants to teach. Some had more support staff while others had bare bones staff and overworked teachers who were barely making ends meet. At this time, I was still simply an observer since I only worked 2-3 days per week and with different classrooms. It was not until I got hired as a full time teacher at two different charter schools that my eyes were forced wide open.

This particular school had a project based curriculum centered on cultural studies. The advantages to working there was the fact that I could pretty much fashion the curriculum anyway that I wanted and could make connections between student interest and academics. I also planned walking trips to talk about Philadelphia history and architecture; we developed an online newspaper, and much more. I also got to collaborate with wonderful teachers. They even paid for a teacher training out of the state geared towards project based, student centered instruction. These advantages were very similar to my experiences at regular public schools in Chicago and New York.

The disadvantages were this overwhelming feeling that the school walked a fine line between legal and illegal decisions. The students barely had a consistent lunch program. My pay was penalized for lateness despite being on an annual salary. And once I left, the school did not contribute to PSERs and eventually the original founders were asked to hand over the charter to new operators and they were found guilty of several counts of fraud and a misuse of approximately $800,000.

Actual names are omitted.

Next, I arrived at Charter School R Us also located in Philadelphia County. By this time I had graduated from my emergency certification to an actual one after paying nearly $600 for a math course, and two exams, and yes, I passed the first time. Definitely could not have made this happen on $40 per day.

No teacher at this location knew what the other was being paid. As you dug deeper, you soon realized that everyone was getting a different salary based on whatever (education, relationships, or all the above). And once a year, during the birthday month of the Chief Academic Officer, monies are collected from the staff. I actually walked in as the accountant was placing a large stack of bills in a card addressed to said person. This is when I realized that the money did not go towards an actual gift. In fact, the list that was sitting on the desk included the names and amounts that were collected. It read like a bribe list. Those who had been there the longest or were not certified had the highest amounts next to their names. In order to put this in perspective, I paid $5 and the next year I paid nothing.

When nothing was paid all of my trips were canceled and book orders were circumvented so I simply paid out of pocket. One advantage is that I got a raise once it was discovered that I had finally received my teacher certification. Another advantage is that the students were amazing! But the fear of teaching what you were told and not what helped the students was prevalent. Oh and I forgot, the most important part. None of the student received a grade lower than a C-. Not because they passed a class, but because no one was allowed to give anything lower. This resulted in inflated grades and GPA’s. And this directly impacted their persistence in college. Many would start, but not many graduated with degrees.

The annual salary for the CAO at the time (this was several years ago) was approximately $165,000.

There are several different charter models. Some are corporate and some are community based. All of them are simply handed a specific amount of money with little to no oversight. Some that I have not even described here are viewed as the holy grail of change, but no one looks at the students after high school graduation. And no one really looks closely at the quality of the education being provided; the decision makers simply review the scores. If Johnny attends Charter School R Us and his state scores and benchmarks increase, but his ability to critically think and evaluate is still stagnated, then he is not receiving a stellar education. And you are selling the parents a bad bill of sale.

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