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Education reform and the invisible ones

There is currently a battle for the sanctity of public education that seeks more transparency from the centralized school district, a more equitable funding formula, and the end of corporate influence. In Philadelphia, this battle is front and center. It continues to be a battle where the voices continue to rise and fight for their right to be heard regardless of a governing entity that can make decisions without any input from the masses, the School Reform Commission. The voice that continues to be missing from this battle are those that are most affected and usually end up in the poor traditional and/or charter schools, foster care and adjudicated youth. Because let’s face it, many parents who want the best for their children do not want their children to intermingle with those who have histories of trauma or violence. The last time I checked the ELECT office which is funded by Community in Schools and works with pregnant teens does not have services at the top middle schools or high schools in Philadelphia. And, yes there are pregnant teens in foster care and some have been adjudicated for violent behavior. Statistically, this population requires the most from public schools and support services in order for them to have any chance of breaking the generational cycle.

I had the opportunity to work at a charter school that specifically deals with this population and in the midst of bouts of chaos, I also noticed calm in a setting where students felt safe. Despite their previous violent behaviors there were no metal detectors and the class size did not surpass 15. They work closely with the Child Department of Welfare and many of the graduates are nearly 20. It provides a stark reality that this population is seldom represented in the conversation about education reform, corporate takeover, or the aggressive charter school movement. And the amount of money that is attributed to most charters is not very apparent at this location since they just relocated from a condemned building to a discarded former charter school building.

Research and data remind us that charter school performance is not much better than traditional schools. Many of them are able to raise large sums of money to support their mission while traditional schools are dependent on state funds. Some traditional schools are the exception to the rule and have raised funds from parents to bridge the budget shortfall. The problem with this image is that schools that specifically work with at risk youth (foster care, pregnant teens, and adjudicated youth) receive very meager funds. There are approximately 104,000 children in foster care in the United States, 15,000 in Pennsylvania and 3,000 in Philadelphia.

As we continue to develop more high performing schools, what happens to the students that no one wants? The counter argument is that the traditional schools, at full funding, can provide the best services for these students. But, we are all aware of the schools that exist in our district that continue to fail these same children, charter and traditional. And charter schools expel students and send them back to neighborhood schools or to lower performing charters. Just like traditional schools sending difficult students to alternative settings. Many of the students I have worked with from this population list a litany of schools in their educational journey.

I know that many parents and students believe that charter schools are better than traditional public schools. When you interview parents and students at charter schools, they honestly believe they have discovered the Holy Grail. The problem at the core of this belief is that many of them simply want to attend a better school. A safe school, one that encourages them to be their best, and not one where they will seep through the cracks, or continue to be a test score for the books. As a result, they can often be sold a sub-par experience and they will hold on to the promises as opposed to returning to a traditional public school.

The charter movement according to Diane Ravitch: “What the charter and choice movement has done is sell the line, ‘All you have to do is look out for your own child’”. The large question is how did we create a system of public schools that make choice so appealing? And how can we work towards the greater good and make sure that all of our children are accounted for in the equation? Because according to the numbers above not all of our youth have parents to advocate for them and many of their previous and ongoing trauma would make us cringe. It is vital that this battle continues to provide accurate and well researched information about those schools that work and those that simply do not (charter or traditional). Because every battle has collateral damage on the road to change and usually they are the youth that were invisible in the first place.