Why Charter Schools are Hurting Students and What About the Terrifying Teacher Turnover?
The Challenges of Teaching NYC Charter Schools
Charter Schools are one solution out of many in this country to give students from disadvantaged inner-city backgrounds a chance to have a decent education in their own neighborhoods. But in the five years I spent trying to teach in charter schools, I became miserable because of the corruption that pervades these environments, the business before education mentality and the fact that many of these institutions do not always use the money the way they are supposed to. I experienced, threats, accusations, had to buy my own school supplies for my classroom and was berated by administrators in front of others, and saw a lot of students being enabled because they were related to a board member or an employee and the nepotism made my life crazy.
I got my Masters degree in Secondary Education, Social Studies, grades 7-12. The program I attended did not at all prepare me for teaching--especially not in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, which, I believe, should be a major requirement in every educational program. No, the program I attended was all somebody's New England, hippie, dippie learning philosophy, which I did not agree with. Our Adolescent Learning class taught us about the multiple intelligences, but not how to communicate with kids from broken homes or who were here illegally and dealing with adult problems in this "great" country. Many kids are in gangs, or are abused, or a combination of things often difficult to comprehend. Many have parents who are unable to speak fluent English and are mistrustful of teachers who do not speak Spanish. At the University I attended, we had one lesson--on one day, dedicated to the study of Ebonics. This is ridiculous if you are moving to a place like New York City, with people from hundreds of countries, all living together in a city whose infrastructure I will never quite understand, and myriad languages and art, and food, and clothes, you name it.
New Urban Teachers ought to be given some kind of lexicon containing information on the many varieties of urban slang; being able to distinguish a gang tattoo from a random tattoo. It would have saved me some embarrassing incidents. Now I know to find out the music they like, the sports they play, the books they read the way they wear their hair and how they perceive the term "respect", because it has to flow both ways.
I never really wanted to be a teacher in the inner-city. I just wanted to work at a nice, easy school, with nice, easy kids. I had a hard time finding a good job, and after three years of being a secretary, a friend urged me to try working at this amazing charter school in Brooklyn, where all of my wildest dreams would come true. My life at the time was boring, so I decided to go.
My lucky, now retired high school teachers, were old-school and mostly talked about interesting historical topics, without assigning more than six papers a year. I rarely saw administrators invading their classrooms because for me it happened every week. Little did I know I would be teaching in a school in Bed Stuy a few years later, forced to educate a disadvantaged group of six graders I wasn't licensed to teach, with three teaching assistants all quitting before the end of the first quarter-not that I blamed them.
When I started teaching Social Studies, Grade 10 in a NYC Charter School, I had recently moved to Brooklyn from Vermont. Right from the beginning, the bullying administration sent their thug consultants to observe me, tell me what I was doing wrong, and how I was a disservice to teaching and students. Many charter schools claim to have a new teacher mentoring program in place--even this one. But it was all silly sugar coating that was never brought up much after the first few pep rallies at the start of the school year. And my "mentor teacher' was skeevy and inappropriate when interacting with teenage girls.
Someone should have given me a crash course in music (Lil' Wayne), Brooklyn slang and a heads up on hygiene, child abuse, and teenage pregnancy, but I guess that was a lot to ask for. I did not learn until much later in the year, that people had put a bet on me as one of the teachers that would not survive the first year in that crazy school. I survived, but at a price.
The Charter School where I gained employment was in many ways a 'model' Charter School in its earlier years. But it it was quickly fraught with scandal and corruption and has been slated for closure. It was the first Charter High School in New York City. In its heyday, it did great things for many students and served as a great way to give local kids a good education. It had a mission, uniforms, and a leader who had this great "vision". But like many things good in this world, a little glimmer of gold and glamour will corrupt anyone's vision and turn something that benefits many into a horrible trap and an attached stigma.
From what I now know of Charter Schools, these missions and visions are basically all the same--to somehow get more kids to graduate from high school and to receive higher scores on standardized tests. What really ends up happening is that some kids end up staying in high school until they age-out or drop out.
What Is A Charter School?
As you may surmise, I am definitely not someone who promotes Charter Schools, but I guess, in order for my story to go on, I should explain what a Charter School is.
A Charter School is a public school funded by private and public funds. They serve as their own self-contained school districts. Charter Schools are schools that are created by people with or without experience in education who want to create an educational institution with a certain goal or mission. Some specialize in math or science. Some specialize in the arts. What they have in common is that the person that creates them is essentially a business person who convinces a city and moneylenders that their idea will be THE solution to the educational crisis in America.
Students who wish to attend charter schools enter a school lottery system. There are a certain number of seats in the school, and they supposedly do not discriminate who is let in. Every spring there is a mad dash to attend these lotteries in the hopes that students get into charter schools, which are supposedly better than inner-city public schools.
Some of these schools go out of their way to impregnate their teachers and students with a prescribed dogma. One of the schools I worked at told us what to say to our students and when. We all had to robotically be on the same page. We were to be 'hypnotized' into using certain jargon, which served various behavior modification plans.
Although each charter school has its own philosophy and 'brand', with special uniforms and all, they all have the same basic formula. The idea is that if kids start the day earlier, and their day ends longer, then they will be immersed in their studies all day and then pass their tests because they spent all of their days in school.
Most charter schools start around 8am and end somewhere after 4pm. Many city schools do not have an outdoor area during breaktimes, and kids often spend their recess in a gym-if they are lucky.
Another brilliant idea contained in most charters, is that every teacher will serve as advisor to a small core group of students. Advisory is often part of every school day and although it may be a shortened period, there still has to be a lesson plan in place. Advisory is a time that is meant for character education activities, and advisors are often required to create their own lesson plans. It is usually built into the charter that schools will provide lesson plans for the teachers, so as not to take away from planning their actual classes, but many charter schools do not follow their charters as written. That is why many charter schools get closed down and why they end up with a bad reputation. Most teachers who are teaching at least two preps and four classes a day don't have time to plan advisory lessons. But someone out there thought advisory was a great idea.
Ideally it is a good idea. The advisor is supposed to stay in constant contact with parents about grades, discipline, and anything else that is important. But in many cases, city parents have a language barrier or are unresponsive. The phone may be turned off, or there may be a family crisis. It's not like in more suburban areas where parents pester you about their children's grades.
Another thing about Charter Schools is that because they are funded in various ways and not part of the public school system, they have to spend more time justifying their existence. And in this regard, standardized test scores are even more vital to charter schools and charter school teachers than in your everyday public schools. Many charter schools offer incentive pay programs and reward teachers if a certain percentage of their students receive above a certain score. In reality, these incentive programs are often too little, too late, and by the time a whole year comes around, the extra $2,000 a teacher may receive as a nice paycheck near the holidays, isn't enough to make it worth it.
Charter Schools are so obsessed with their test scores and school quality grades, that they often bully and threaten teachers to reach their goals. I have worked in three charter schools, and in each of them I have repeatedly heard, "Yes, you have to work harder in charter schools. That is the way it is. And if you can't handle it, there will always be someone else who is willing to take your job". And so I guess what I am trying to say is that many charter schools operate in a threatening bullyish way that makes puts teachers in a permanent state of anxiety and fear. And with good reason. Since most charter schools have no union, they offer teachers non-union, at-will contracts, meaning that they can fire you for any reason whenever they want, and you can quit for no reason, whenever you want.
I won't say that all Charter Schools are bad. I have been affiliated with good Charter Schools. These schools were well-funded, with stable boards and amazing principals. However, in my personal experience, this is the exception to the rule.
Anyway, now that you know what a Charter School is from a jaded teachers' perspective, we can go back to the original narrative.
Brooklyn Charter School Madness-Semester 1
When I started my first semester I was excited to be teaching Sophomores because I liked the Global Studies Regents curriculum. But the first sign that things would be rough was when my classroom mate and I were given a disorganized classroom full of unwanted textbooks and no technology. We had a blackboard and it took us several weeks to get a projector and a computer to do powerpoints. Also during the first few weeks, my classes changed three times. First I had four sections of Sophomores to teach, then the rosters were changed around, and finally it ended up that I would teach three sections of the Sophomore class and a ninth grade section for all of the students who had failed the year before and didn't want to be there.
Then there was the fact that I was a new teacher and the kids knew it. I also looked and acted like I was from suburbia and clueless about city kids, which was true. I knew my material and studied it well. My classroom mate and more or less planned our lessons together and used the same handouts. But I wasn't prepared for the abuse I would receive from the kids and how I really had to hang on for dear life.
I had a hard time right off the bat coming up with an authoritative persona, which the kids picked up on. I soon learned from teachers and staff that the kids I was teaching were one of the worst Freshman classes they had had thus far.
Soon, my seventh period class, full of wild ones, turned out to be the thing I dreaded every day. They didn't stay in their seats, didn't let me teach, threw things at me when I walked around the room, and put me through the wringer. They did this to a few other teachers too. Luckily, by the time the second semester was almost over, I had a much better handle on things. But in the meantime, I had kids who were in gangs who did not respect me because I was clueless.
The wall in the adjacent classroom was a thin wooden door, and the teachers on the other side heard me yelling all of the time. Needless to say, security often came to my class. This was often because one girl would go into raving fits if I so much as looked at her and because the noise was so loud that it drifted into the halls.
There was very little support from the administration. They had a 'figure it out' mentality.
When the holidays came, I had a long vacation to reflect, feeling like "OK you survived the first semester-the rest won't be so bad".
The Dreaded Teacher Improvement Plan
Second semester came, and my rosters changed. Now the person I shared the classroom with was doing all of the yelling. I was teaching about world wars and this was my speciality, and a lot more learning was taking place. I was getting the hang of it.
However, around March, I was hauled into the office unexpectedly by my department head and the principal. They clearly outlined areas which needed improvement, such as discipline, aligning my lessons more to the Regents, how to be more engaging and positive and then promised to observe me and give me feedback and the whole nine yards. I did everything they asked for and more.
I managed to get through it, keep the job and was asked back the following year.Other teachers on the plan were given the boot. One kid had thrown a sink at one of the failing teachers.
I wasn't going to let them get me.
Brooklyn Charter School Madness-Year 2 Corruption
The second year, things were good for me, personally, but the school started to get crazy.I was promoted to Teacher Leader of the ninth grade because I was a team player and good at the curriculum and because ultimately, I was the only one available for the job. The person who previously held the position became the Dean of the ninth grade. In fact, each grade got a Dean, and each were considered good classroom managers who would be in charge of detention and keeping in touch with parents, etc. The ninth grade dean was superb. He really kept the students in line. Since our school had no space, I shared the classroom with him for some of my classes, and when he was there, things were pretty chill. However, there were some pretty untamed ninth graders and within that year, he had gotten about ten of them expelled.
The sophomore dean let the position go to his head. He would try to pick up women at bars, telling them he was the "Dean", and walked around school arrogantly and seemed to enjoy being condescending and the kids hated him. He was fired.
At the same time, the school was trying to brand itself even more, and started two more charter schools under the same roof. It was chaotic, but I was able to teach some credit recovery classes for those schools and made extra money and in some cases was able to help kids pass.
The teacher incentive program was still in place at this time, and around the holidays I got an nice check based on the Regents scores from the following year. Not enough to erase the pain from the first year, but enough to buy people nice Christmas presents.
However, things started deteriorating very rapidly because important people were being laid off.
The first two deserved it. One for groping a girl. And the Sophomore Dean I talked about. Next was the principal. And suddenly the new Assistant Principal was shoved into the role of principal. Next, anyone who disagreed with the CEO was getting laid off.
In March, about 80% of the teachers were given the Dreaded Teacher Improvement Plan. Me included. A week later, he rescinded the improvement plan. By then everyone was looking for new jobs. Amidst the crazy and constant layoffs, the CEO kept talking about the wonderful brand-new building we were moving into the next year. It was cause for excitement, but many were wary.
Students began asking lots of questions about the number of kids being expelled and the amount of teachers and counselors, not the mention the principal getting laid off. It was hard to give them a good answer.
Around April, I developed a severe herniated disc in my neck. I was out for a least a week at its worst and the school was concerned about that even though I tried to keep it as private as possible.
In the last weeks of school, several more people were let go, including the most popular teacher in the school. He had made the dreadful 'mistake' of saying he was not coming back the following year. He was let go immediately, and suddenly the morale was gone.
Brooklyn Charter School Year 3: Corruption Reigns
Over the summer I had successful surgery to fix my neck. I had to come back with a neck brace three weeks before school started and that is when I knew they put me on the chopping block for some time in the future. The CEO clearly was not happy, and instead of giving me the teaching load I was familiar with, they suddenly had me slated for government and economics with 12th graders-the same kids I had taught Sophomore year, with whom I had a shaky relationship with not-so-fond rememberances. And these were topics I did not want to teach.
We started the year in the new school. Each grade was on its own floor. We all kind of hated it, even though the place was supposedly "state of the art". The cafeteria was not in service, so the kids had to eat cold lunches.
The school became managed by a 'Network', that was to oversee all three schools it had created. In actuality, it was a scheme to funnel money to the CEO and others. The school went into serious debt due to mismanagement.
At some point I interviewed at another school and secured a job for the following year. By this time we were all miserable and I for one, sort of had a low spirit and was starting to give up because there was no support. They started doing formal evaluations with no notice. I got a bad evaluation one day and at that point I knew they were looking at any and every excuse to get rid of me. It was instinct.
The CEO was a raging tyrant. The school had gotten a D on its school report card. He ranted and raved at us, telling us we weren't doing our jobs. Blame, blame, blame.
He also decided to pull out of the teacher incentive program, citing the fact that we teachers were not doing a good enough job and did not deserve our incentive. This was not true. Many teachers worked tirelessly to make things better. We still got a check, but it was a tiny percentage of what we had gotten the previous year.
One day he called us into a staff meeting. I knew it would be bad. And it was. He said, that due to financial problems and not realizing the school would be so expensive, they were laying off about 20 people.
So in January, they sent a former student who was now working at the school to show up to a teacher's classroom and escort them up to an office where an assistant and another official gave teachers their walking papers.
On the day it was to happen we were all on edge, waiting, thinking that it would all be done in one day. Those of us who did not get the visit, felt okay, but not happy that this was happening to our friends, because we were a close-knit bunch.
I thought I was fine, until I got one of those 'visits' the next day. I was escorted to the office and laid of. Albeit, very politely. I almost hugged them out of joy and spent the next two weeks using my sick days.
After I was gone, lots of people quit. Some even stuck it to them by doing it without warning.
Soon, the school could not afford janitors and made teachers do some cleaning. The ship was really sinking.
Brooklyn Charter School Madness Year 3-This is The End
Meanwhile, the school was being investigated for its many charter violations. And it turned out that the massive layoff had caused ripples around the city, angering many people in the charter school world, because our school gave charter schools such a bad reputation.
Long story short, the CEO was found to be funnelling lots of money to himself, not paying taxes and host of other felonies. He ended up getting indicted, had to pay back money and a host of other things, but not jail.
The school was slated for closure, but saved at the last minute, because it would have been so difficult for the students to find other schools. I do no know the status as of now, but believe it is still slated for closure.
I found work at another school, and the following year tried another. By then I was sick of the charter school way of making teachers insecure and the way that people were bullied when things weren't going right. There was no union protection and that was a problem.
At any rate, I felt it important to continue my teaching experience story, but this time with an emphasis on how easily charter schools succomb to corruption and how they are unstable institutions that do not always take the interests of students to heart.
Not all charter schools are like this. There are ones that try. But bottom line, they have a very low teacher and principal retention rate and students that are graduating and not having the necessary skills to attend college.
Stay tuned for another installment at a later date.
Would you consider sending your child to a charter school
Charter School Experiences
The Future of Schooling
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