Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My Child's Teacher is Talking About Retention. What Do We Do Now?

It's the time of the year when schools look at student progress and identify children who might need to repeat a grade.  Often they let parents know on the most recent report card or via a form letter.   If you are caught by surprise, it can throw you for a loop.  Here are some things that you can do to make sure you have a complete picture of your child's status, and also make sure that you know how to help.  It is incredibly important in this circumstance that you act positively and proactively.  Discussion about retention at this point in the year doesn't mean it's going to happen for sure, but it does mean there is a situation to be addressed and simultaneously monitored.  For the purposes of this article, I am mostly going to be talking to parents of children in grades K through 3.

1.  If you are caught by surprise, take some time to look at your child's report cards and test data from this year and last year.  Did the school indicate that there were concerns in the past?  Has your child missed many days of school, or often been late?  Has retention been discussed in prior years?  If so, what has the school done to improve your child's rate of success?  What have you done at home?  Gather everything together along with any relative emails or work examples from school, and go over it.  See if you can spot any trends or sudden changes in your child's performance.
2.  Schedule a conference with your child's teacher ASAP.  This is a conference for you to listen to what the teacher has to say, not to be defensive or to make demands.  You will want the answers to the following questions:
  • "Why do you think retention is going to be in the best interest of my child?  How do you think it will benefit them?"  You are listening for answers that talk about extra time to mature, extra time to build skills, create better relationships with peers, etc.  You do not want to hear that the decision is being made based on something vague like "school policy."
  • "What data is the school using to evaluate whether this is appropriate for my child?"  Make sure that the teacher has multiple data points.  Grades, work product, school screenings and test scores all fit together to paint a complete picture of your child.  One data point alone should never be used as a reason to retain a child.
  • "What programs or services will the school be offering my child to help them for the rest of the year?"  Whatever the school is offering, it should fit with the problem that the child is having.  For example, is reading a concern?  The school should be talking about strategies and interventions that specifically address reading. 
  • "Does my child need any evaluations from my pediatrician or the school psychologist?"  If the school suspects ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, a learning disability, or any other diagnosable issue, they should be willing to tell you now.  If you hear that they may suspect an issue, but they are vague about what it is or want to wait for an evaluation,  move onto step #3. 
3.  Make an appointment with your pediatrician.  Your pediatrician can look at the possibility of retention and help you rule out (or in) the following things that may be an issue in school:  hearing problems, vision problems, ADHD/ADD, developmental delays, and several other issues.  Bring the data that you have gathered as well as any other data that school has given you.  Request that your pediatrician make copies of all of their findings so that you can add them to your documents.  If your pediatrician feels that further evaluation needs to be done by a psychologist or psychiatrist to rule out specific issues, please follow their advice.  If the pediatrician feels that the school psychologist should do a psychoeducational evaluation, ask them to draft a letter to bring to school.
4.   Once you have gathered all of your data, go back to the school and ask for a specific, written plan covering what the school will do and what you will do between now and the end of the year.  Make sure that it's clear how often the plan will be monitored, and how that monitoring will occur.  Will you meet regularly?  Will you email?  Some schools have something called a Student Support Team (or something similar) that develops interventions based on solid research.  Those interventions are tried for a period of time and then the team meets to determine if they are effective or not.  Some schools write something called a Personal Education Plan (or PEP) for struggling students if they don't suspect they have a disability, but rather just need some intensive effort.  If the school suspects a disability, they will convene a team (which parents are a part of) to determine whether testing is necessary, and then to develop a plan based on the results.  Some schools refer to this as the "EC Process" some call it "Special Education", but both mean the same thing.
5.  Keep up your end of the bargain.  Make sure that your child is completing homework consistently.  Work on improving behavior if that is part of the equation.  Get help from additional providers if you need to.  School Counselors often have resources for extra help that they can give you.  Make sure your child is in school and on time every day.  School cannot be expected to improve your child to their potential if you don't help or ignore advice.
6.  Stay positive.  This is not about you.  It's not.  It's about your child.  For whatever reason, most of which is probably not the result of bad parenting, a poor school, (or any other excuse) your child is struggling right now.  And guess what else? They know it.  Even in Kindergarten.  They can see what other children in the class can do, and how much extra help they need.  More than anything, they need to know that the adults around them can give them the help they need to succeed.  You need to constantly communicate the idea that you are always proud of them for trying and that even though it's hard, you believe that their effort is going to be good enough.  Regardless of what happens.  And PLEASE......  Don't refer to retention as "failing the grade".  It's not failing.  Sometimes it's giving the gift of some extra time.  Something we all need every now and again.

Msg. me on FB at "Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC" or on twitter @pam327.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 200 Item Clothing Challenge.

As someone with ADHD,  I am always interested in ways to reduce unwanted distractions in my life.   A few years ago I started reading about people who had taken something called the "100 item challenge".  This is for folks who really want to live with the smallest possible amount of stuff.  They basically reduce everything they own down to 100 items.  Now, I knew that was not going to be for me, but it did get me thinking.

I ended up thinking about all of this the next time I decided to clean out my closet - which I do a couple times a year - and I piled everything on the bed.  There was a lot of stuff.  Then I decided to empty my dresser, the coat rack, and my shoe organizers.  Then I added purses, scarves, and belts.  It actually made me feel kind-of gross.  Most of the stuff I didn't even wear. 

I started thinking about the 100 item challenge, and wondered if I could get this pile down to that.  It occurred to me that not so long ago average people lived with much less to wear and survived without being arrested for indecency.  Maybe I could too.  So I thought about what would be in the average woman's wardrobe 100 years ago.  I needed a 5-6 outfits for work.  I needed something to wear for weddings and funerals.  I needed stuff to wear at home. and of course I needed sleepwear and underwear.

Well, I decided to do the 100 item challenge for that season and was able to get the pile down to 100 items.  Because I wasn't truly trusting of this new system yet, I put everything left into plastic tubs and stored it.  And yes, I counted the number of items.  It actually totalled in at 85.

Doing this turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done in my life.  Seriously. 

Suddenly I not only could get all of the laundry done in two reasonable sized loads, I had to do it each week so I would have enough to wear.  Choosing clothing in the morning was easy, because there wasn't that much of a decision to make.  Since I had my favorite clothes, and nothing worn out, ripped or stained, I was happy with what I had on every day.  My closet stayed neater.

The next time closet-cleaning time came around, I did three things.  First of all, I added in the rest of the clothes I wanted to have to complete a year-round cycle and stay under 200 items.  At this point I was confident that I could live with this amount of clothing, so secondly I bagged up everything else and took it to Goodwill.  Thirdly, I took anything that was worn and stained out of the current collection and worked on replacing it.  I have been using that routine every since.

Now because I have fewer clothes and therefore wear them out sooner, I do buy new stuff just about every season.  Because I'm not buying a lot, I do buy decent quality items.  I also tend to buy things I can wash, since I don't really have time for items to be at the dry cleaner.  Finally, I buy a lot of mix and match skirts, pants and tops and only have a few dresses.  Because I do a lot of mix and match, I tend to buy from just a few stores so that all of the colors go together.  This cuts down on my clothes shopping, which I do not generally like anyway.

If you like fashion and it's your hobby, this might not be something for you.  But if you like to look good with a minimum of fuss and bother, you might want to consider this challenge.  It's made a really difference in my ADHD life.  Maybe it can in yours.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Child Just Started Kindergarten and It's NOT Going Well!

You guys were all ready.  New clothes, supplies, snacks, were all set.  He knew all his numbers and letters, and was even starting to read a few words.  This was gonna be awesome.  A picture in front of the house on the first day and she got on the bus or your dropped him off in the first carpool.  All smiles and expectations.

Then you got the first email from the teacher.

She's not behaving.  He's not finishing his work.  She can't sit still during circle time.  His Kindergarten screening found some possible learning issues.  You aren't sure whom this teacher is writing about, because it's not YOUR kid!  There were no problems in preschool, you know she's smart, she's never hit another child before!  Why does he cry everyday when I drop him off?

First of all, I'm sorry things are not going well.  Like the bride caught outdoors in a cloudburst during the vows, this is a major event that has not lived up to expectations.  It stinks.  If this is your first child, it stinks even worse because this is probably the first time expectation has not matched reality.  Been there, done that.  So did my parents.  So has just about every parent on the planet.  It's not easy, but you will survive.

The issue at hand is trying to figure out what is going on, and taking steps to improve the situation.  Those steps may need to be taken at home, or at school.  Most likely they will need to be taken both places.  Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1.  "What previous experience has my child had with a large group of children?"
  How big were the preschool classes?  Did she even go to preschool?  Classrooms with upwards of 20+ children can be noisy places with a lot of activity that may be confusing.  That might be part of the issue.

2.  "How are the expectations for behavior at school the same or different from those at home?"
  Does school expect your child to be more self-controlled without several reminders? Does the school have higher expectations for things like sitting still and being kind to others?  If so, and you want your child to meet those expectations at school, you will need to change them at home to match.  Are the expectations lower?  That can cause confusion.  In that case you may need to explain why standards are higher at home.

3.  "How much emphasis have I placed on my child excelling?" 
Be honest with yourself.  Are your expectations for behavior or academic achievement too high for your child right now?  Are they too high for any five-year-old?  No matter what you say to your child, they know what your expectations are.  They also know when they aren't meeting them.  Sadly, it's not unusual for a young child who is struggling to tell me that they aren't "doing good."  They will not be able to tell me what that means, but they know they have a problem.

4.  "Is my child ready for Kindergarten?"
  Some five-year-old aren't, either academically or socially.  This link can help answer that question: http://school.familyeducation.com/kindergarten/school-readiness/38491.html.  Like every other aspect of school, Kindergarten has changed dramatically in the last few decades.  Teachers expect children to come in the first day ready to learn.  School can be stressful for a child who is not ready, and their school career begins on a negative note.  It is OK to give them the gift of an extra year.

So now you have answered all of those questions, and there still doesn't seem to be any reason why your child is having difficulty.  Here is what you should now ask of the school:
  • If your child is having behavior issues you should request a meeting with the teacher and the principal as soon as possible.  At that meeting you should request an observation, and ask what will happen long term.  You should also request that the school provides some sort of brief daily behavior report via paper, text or email. That way you are hearing about good days and minor issues as well as serious ones.  Your school counselor should meet with your child to see if they can help. The counselor can also see if you need some extra professional help outside of school.
  • If your child seems anxious, you should ask to meet with the teacher to see if they have suggestions. They might have observed situations that seem to trigger the anxiety. When separation is an issue, the teacher might have suggestions on how to improve the transition. If the anxiety doesn't not start to ease off after the first few weeks of school, or seems to get worse, you should also consult the school counselor.
  • If your child is having trouble managing the academic material, your first step is to request a meeting with the teacher.  Even a child who can write numbers and words at home may still have a learning issue that a parent cannot see.  Most schools do some sort of screening for incoming Kindergarten students.  You should let the teacher know in advance that you would like to review that screening along with seeing examples of you child's work.  If the data provided seems to indicate that your child is having difficulty, you should ask if the school has a student support team or student assistance team.  This process usually provides a child with research-based strategies to improve learning.
    Often children are having difficulty in more than one of these areas.  For example, anxiety can contribute to poor academic performance.  Likewise, a child who feels frustrated with academics can act out.  It's important to make sure that your meetings with school personnel take all issues and factors into account.  School personnel need to collect the correct data in all areas. That data must present the most complete picture of what is happening with the child.

Now that we have spoken about what you should request from the school, here are some things that you need to do:

1. Take a breath.  I will guarantee you that your child is not the only one in a group of 25 that is having difficulty.  This bump in the road, as much as it stinks, does not mean you are a bad parent.  It does mean you have to adjust your expectations for this school year.  With your consistent effort, things will get better.

2.  Do not refer to the child as "bad".  The behavior is inappropriate, not the child.  Children who see themselves as "bad" have a very hard time finding incentive or the possibility to change.  Please do not do this.  Period.

3.  Listen to your child, then check with the teacher or principal.   Five-year-olds love attention.  They figure out pretty quickly how to tell a story that will give them just that - whether it's telling Mom that they are bullied, or telling the teacher that they didn't eat breakfast. (And they tell us all sorts of interesting things........)  Sometimes they are not lying deliberately.  They have a fuzzy idea of the difference between fantasy and reality.  They also have a fuzzy idea of time. They can combine something that happened in the morning with something that happened in the afternoon into one event.  This to say that as a parent you have to trust, but verify.  BTW, even if they have an 8th grade vocabulary, they still have a fuzzy sense of reality and time.  It's kind-of like even though they have an 8th grade vocabulary, they are still only 3 feet tall.  So please do not mistake advanced speech for advanced development.  They are two different things.

4.  Reward positive behavior.
  Yep, deliberately kicking a classmate should have a negative consequence at home.  Those of us at school actually count on that.  I don't care whether the child was provoked or not.  On the other hand, disrupting circle time maybe doesn't have a consequence, but sitting still has a reward.  "You did your job well today, so you get to take a walk with Mom or Dad" or extra LEGO time, etc.  Research has demonstrated time and time again that rewarding positive behavior has more of an effect than punishing negative behavior.  This tends to be true when the negative behavior is not too serious.  Behaviors best managed through positive reinforcement include disrupting or distracting others, not obeying certain rules, or not finishing schoolwork.

So Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Grandpa), with your consistent help, things will gradually get better.  Please do not wait for the situation to go away with time.  It might, but an attitude toward school, one that is not positive, may be forged in the meantime.  I have a friend who still remembers being sent home from Kindergarten on the first day because he fell off the jungle gym.  That's probably not exactly what happened, but the memory is "I screwed up on the first day of school and had to come back the next year."  His folks probably felt the same way, which is why they never said anything to him about it.  This memory is now 45 years old.  Partner with your school and make some positive things happen.  Email/msg/tweet me if you need help.  FB - Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC, Twitter @pam327.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Stress and the Classroom Teacher

For about a year now I have been searching for research studies on teacher stress in American public schools.  I haven’t found any.  There have been some done in the UK, but I haven’t found any here.  I started looking because I want to give my colleagues some research-based ideas about why they might be stressed and how to cope.  No luck.  Looks like I have to just take a crack at it myself.

I think that the stressors teachers face is obvious to them, but not to the general public.  You have to experience being responsible for educating a group of children in a school to understand.  Substituting or volunteering will give you an idea. But truly understanding the load of stress comes from actually having to take responsibility for the classroom and what happens there.

As a teacher, it is your job to take a group of children from wherever you get them to point “X”.  That has to happen within ten months.   At this point I can go into the 25 reasons why this is at least a difficult task.  But we’ve heard them all before - low pay, the devastation poverty creates for children trying to learn, to the lack of resources, etc., etc.

I want to talk about some possible solutions for combating the unique combination of stressors on teachers.  These are just ideas from my own personal experience and observation – I would love to hear any others that people might have.

1.     Remember that your job is really, really, important……..
  I think teaching is as important and complicated as practicing some types of medicine.  You may not be saving a life, but you are definitely creating future doctors.  If you ask anyone to name four formative experiences from childhood, I'll bet at least two of them involve school.  You are instrumental in developing capable humans. Treat yourself as a professional with a brain.  Read new things.  Try new ideas.  Become active in the larger education community and your professional organizations.  You are a professional and you need to act like it.

2.    ………….but also remember that young humans are not created in a single school year.
  No matter how many standards are set by legislatures and departments of education, children are never all going to progress at the same rate in a given year.  It simply doesn’t happen.  One or two children in your class may not learn all of their multiplication facts this year.  And it’s OK.  Because if you are there in the moment with what they are ready to do instead, you will have provided what they need.  Which is success and confidence.  The rest will come along too.

3.     Leave some slush in the schedule.  A few years ago I worked for a Principal who used to tell faculty not to stress if they didn’t get to end of the textbook by June.  She advised instead to go as far as the children and the teacher were able with consistent effort.  If you have every day tightly planned, you are setting yourself up for a lot of stress.  If this is your first year teaching, you will get sick.  Probably in the spring.  If you have young children, they will get sick too.  Other stuff happens.  Stuff outside of school that you have to deal with.  Allow yourself and the children some days of review or autopilot. Then when the unexpected happens you are not spending the next three weeks frantically trying to catch up.  You will most likely end up in just about the same place at the end of the year anyway, with a lot less stress on you and the children.

4.     Let the children help you. 
I work in a Montessori school.  A central tenet to Montessori pedagogy is that children should be in control of their work within a carefully prepared and structured environment.  Children in the Montessori classroom engage in more activities than just academics.  They also take part in keeping the classroom organized and clean.  They help each other with school work and chores, and they take part in developing rules and routines.  It’s remarkable what children are capable of if the proper conditions are met.  Maybe that child is advanced in math and is somewhat bored.  She might like to spend some time helping another student who is struggling.  (Hopefully you are letting them find a way to do math at their level, too.)  Is that teacher closet a total mess?  Older elementary school students would love to spend time reorganizing it.  They might even stay after school to do it if it means extra time with you.  Look around your classroom at things that you would like to do.  How can the children help?  This is not about free labor.  It’s about freeing you up to do more of what is most pressing, while teaching children how to build a classroom community.

5.    Understand the real reason that parent might be acting like a total jerk.  Oh, I know that email was ugly and upsetting.  The child is having a lot of trouble right now, and the parent is making it clear that it’s all your fault.  Except that might not be the case.  If you have done your best, owned up if you messed up, this may no longer be about you.  Parents have a lot of guilt when their children have problems in school.  (BTW – It might not be their fault either.  Sometimes children just need to work through a difficult time with help from several different adults.)  Guilt can make parents crazy.  So don’t take it personally and/or assume you are a rotten teacher.  It may just be “guilt overflow.”

6.    Stay away from negative colleagues.  I don’t care what school I’ve been in, according to at least one faculty member at each place it was going to hell in a hand basket.  Like I don’t have time for that anymore.  The job is difficult enough as it is.  Every school has problems.  No Principal is perfect.  Look for people in your school who are problem solvers and hang with them.  They will still complain, but if they are trying to improve things, their positive attitude will rub off on you.  Believe me, you will feel less tired and defeated.

7.    Walk out of the classroom when you can.  Alone.  Without the entire class in tow.  (Hopefully they allow you to do this in your school.) I’m not talking about every 30 minutes, but if they leave for a special or you can grab someone to stand in the door for a few.  How many of us spend virtually the entire day in the classroom?  Even at lunch time?  It’s not healthy.  Go to the bathroom and freshen up if you feel like it.  Get coffee.  Stare out the window for a minute.  Take a walk outside, or visit the library.  Look at the latest projects outside of the art room.  You get the idea.  I doubt anything disastrous will happen while you are gone.

8.    Remember your oxygen mask.  When you fly, the stewardess always tells you to put your own mask on before assisting a child.  This is a good metaphor.  If you pass out from your own lack of oxygen, you cannot possibly help the child.  Likewise, if you “pass out” because of stress at work, you can’t be an effective teacher.  So take time for yourself.  Try the things here and other stress relieving things as well.  Take a day when you need it.  Find someone you trust to talk to if you need to.

You are definitely worth it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How to Get to School On Time

For those who are now grumbling at me after the last post, here is a follow-up.  Remember that I am a chronically late person, and I live with three other people who have some form of ADHD.  We are all recovering “late-a-holics”.  Here are some things that I have used to get places on time – particularly in the morning before school.  Hopefully they will help you.

1.    Find a reason for being on time.  If not being late is not important to you, nothing below will make a difference.  People have different reasons for wanting to be certain places on time.  When my children were in high school and had to drive 40 minutes one way, getting up and out the door with plenty of commute time was a trade-off to Saturday School.  Maybe you just want your child to have time to transition in the morning.   Maybe you want them to learn that being on time is important.  Whatever the reason, you need to find it so that you will want to be prompt.
2.    Look at what you are doing right before you leave.  This is especially important in the mornings.  Can anything on the “to do” list be done the night before?  How about on Sunday?  I know one family that puts lunch components in plastic bags and containers on Sunday for the entire week.  Then they pull the lunch together the night before.  How about showers at night instead of in the morning?  I even know some families that give baths and put the younger children to sleep in the shirt they will wear to school the next day.  Can anything be eliminated?  Can the garbage go out in the afternoon instead of in the morning? 
3.    Resist the urge to get sidetracked.  Your routine should be your routine.  In other words, don’t load the dishwasher or clean the cat box one morning if it’s not something you normally do, or try a new hairdo that takes extra time.
4.    Have a bathroom schedule.  Not only does this streamline everyone’s routine, but it will also cut down on those folks who like to spend 25 minutes in the shower.  If you need to, put a timer in the bathroom and set it. 
5.    Cut down on electronic distractions.  No TV, phones, iPads, or other electronics before leaving.  Period.  This includes the grown-ups.  If your job means early morning email, it should be finished before your children wake up so that they have your full attention. 
6.    Speaking of being ready before the kids………This will probably be the least favorite suggestion, but do you get up before the kids?  How about getting up early enough so that you are dressed, fed, and ready to go out the door?  You can then spend your time getting everyone else ready.  If you are not distracted with your own activities, it’s harder for the little people to wander instead of putting on shoes, etc.
7.    Skip the drive-thru.   It’s actually not a guaranteed time saver.  You know that rule that says when you are cutting your time close, the guy in front of you will have four separate orders or the credit card machine will not be working.  While you are putting together lunches on Sunday, put together grab and go breakfasts as well.  They will probably be cheaper and have less fat.
8.    Allow for traffic.  Assume there will be an accident.  Better to arrive 20 minutes early than 10 minutes late.  A lot of smart phones will now estimate the time it takes to get to where you are going quite accurately at any given time.  If you have that feature, you can check on things 15 minutes before you would normally leave and possibly get out the door a few minutes sooner.

If you have other ways that you get places (especially to school) on time, I would love to hear about them.  Different things work for different people.  Feel free to comment below.  Find me on FB at Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC or on Twitter @Pam327.

Why getting to school on time is really important.

This morning I spent some time in a classroom while their teacher was finishing a meeting.  The majority of children were there right on time and ready to begin.  The teacher assistant greeted the children at the door and gave them a warm-up work to do until it was time for morning meeting.  It was a 5-10 minute activity.

Three children arrived late and did not have time to start the activity before being called to the rug.  One child was visibly anxious about this and came to me saying, “I haven’t started tracing my numbers yet!”  I assured her that it would be all right and that she would have time to finish the activity later. But as she watched the other children putting their work in the completion basket, the look on her face told me she remained unconvinced.  I wondered how well the child was able to hear what the adult was saying in morning meeting. She did not raise her hand at all.  I wondered if she was still thinking about that worksheet. 

We all know how hard it is to “catchup” during the day when we start behind.  I hope the rest of her day is better.

Until I spent time in classrooms early in the morning, I did not appreciate how late arrival can mess up a child’s day. It can also mess up the classroom.  This particular morning there were no children that came in and interrupted morning meeting, but I know that often happens in other rooms.  Coming in late puts the “late arrivee” on the spot for anything they might have missed.  Moreover, everyone's attention diverts to the person putting up their water bottle, lunch, etc.  Children are missing what the teacher is saying.  And what she is saying first thing in the morning is pretty important.  If it’s just one child, the teacher can check in with the group and make sure everyone got everything.  But if it happens four times over 10-15 minutes, it becomes difficult to regroup.  Everyone ends up getting pretty frustrated.

I’m not talking to the parent that is late to school once a quarter.  I’m talking to the folks that are late more than once a week.  Now before you get all irritated with me,  I will tell you that I used to be chronically late.  I misjudge the time and try to stuff too much activity into the period right before I have to leave to go places.  The only reason my kids were at school on time was because I worked in the front office and had to be in the building early in the day.  Most important, I didn’t think it was a big deal to be 15-20 minutes late all the time.  Finally, a good friend of mine left me behind one day when I didn't meet her to carpool because I was 15 minutes late yet again.  She was fed-up.  The day after that, another good friend and psychologist told me that chronic lateness is just passive aggressive behavior towards the person you are holding up.  I guess that’s why it feels so rude.

I can’t tell you that I was never late after that, but I decided that being on time was going to be important.  I just realized I wanted to give people more respect, and I wanted to stop arriving at places feeling rushed and scattered. 

Isn’t that something you want to teach your child?

Monday, June 9, 2014

"Who does this charter school belong to, anyway?"

I am fortunate to have worked at two different charter schools in several different capacities.  I am also the parent of children who attended a charter school where I worked as an assistant director.  I was one of a group of people that helped start a second one - a dual language Montessori school.  I currently work at the school as their school counselor.  Starting that school and my involvement with it over 15 years has been a defining work in my life.

In North Carolina, where my charter school operates, charter schools are independent public schools.  Even though North Carolina has had charter schools since 1997, many people are still confused about this.  In North Carolina, charter schools must abide by many groups of regulations that govern traditional public schools.  These include enrolling children without charging them any tuition or fees, abiding by the NC Open Meetings Law, fiscal compliance including yearly audits, attendance laws, federal special education laws, federal student privacy laws, teacher licensure, and state accountability (testing) standards.  Charters have freedom that traditional public schools do not in how they spend state and local resources (federal money is still subject to restrictions on how it is used), the type of faculty members they employ (not everyone has to be licensed), and class size.

In 2001 the North Carolina State Board of Education approved our Charter plan.  That plan became a contract between our Board of Directors and the State of North Carolina. The Department of Public Instruction oversees our school and out charter plan.  In summary, our charter (contract) boils down to the operation of a K-8th grade school that uses the Montessori method of instruction (pedagogy) that provides dual-language education in English and Spanish.  This contract, or charter, is the essence of our school.

Recently, we have had some "troubles" at school.  Our current difficulties are not unusual in any school community, but has been a source of sadness for me, and for many other people who love our little community and who work hard to grow and develop it.  One particular email that was sent to the entire school community encouraged other angry parents to "take back our school."  That got me thinking about the "our" in that sentence.  Who is the "our," anyway?  I think it's important to look at each constituent group, starting with the Board of Directors.

Charter schools don't belong to the Board of Directors.  The Board of Directors is the governing body and the ultimate authority within the school community, but they have restrictions.  In North Carolina, the Board of Directors of a charter school must oversee policy and procedure that serve to implement the contract between the school and the state Department of Public Instruction.  They must also oversee policies and procedures that meet federal, state and local laws and regulations.  They answer to the Department of Public Instruction and through that agency, all other applicable agencies.  They cannot decide to change the mission of the school, limit the types of students that can enroll beyond what is already in the charter, or anything else that fundamentally changes the school from the description that is outlined in the charter.

Charter schools don't belong to administration, staff and faculty.  I think a lot of charter school employees will tell you that they give up some tangible benefits for intangible ones in a charter school.  Often they are asked to do more with less, and may be asked to take on added responsibilities.  They might tell you that the trade-off is taking part in a community where they feel a bit closer to the people that make decisions that affect their daily work lives and the success they have with children.  Charter school employees are often the difference between an effective school and one that is struggling.  But the school does not "belong" to them.  They would be the first to tell you that they cannot function effectively without strong governance from the Board of Directors and a lot of help from parents.  Employees who feel differently are not going to be helpful to the community as a whole.

Speaking of parents, doesn't the school belong to them?  After all, they are the school's "customers."  Charter schools have a lot of parent involvement - of time, talent and treasure.  One of the indicators of the success of any school is its amount of parent involvement.  So shouldn't we do what the majority of parents want?  Well, I would agree that parents have a voice and that they should use it.  Constructively.  The Board of Directors must listen to parents and answer their concerns with as much speed and transparency as possible.  To do otherwise is to condemn a school to limp along.  The front door will be very active with people coming and then going.  On the other hand, parents have to realize that their decision to enroll their child at a charter school is a choice.  Part of the choice you made is to trust that a group of people can operate the organization effectively.  It is not the job of the Board of Directors to change the school just because a majority of parents want it.  Nor is it the job of the Board of Directors to allocate funds/hire and fire/create policy according to parent wishes.  The job of the Board of Directors is to allocate funds and operate the school in the manner that they believe will best fulfill the requirements of the charter.  If that is not happening, parents should complain within the school grievance structure.  If that doesn't work, they should complain to the agency that oversees the Board of Directors.

What about the people that started the place?  The founders?  Shouldn't we defer to them?  Well, no.  Anyone who has studied organizational theory knows that schools go through stages.  Often the people that were excellent at getting the place running are not so effective when things settle into a routine.  Especially if the original operation of the charter isn't working and needs to be changed or renewed.  New ideas and new people need to mix with the school history and "the way we've always done things" to create a vibrant school that is constantly moving forward.  Making those necessary changes can be met with resistance from folks who have been around for awhile.  So even though their input is valuable to keep from reinventing the wheel, the community should not be left solely in their hands.

So who is left?  That would be the entire community.  Charter schools also "belong" to the conditions of the contract between the school and the state that oversees its operation.  The Board of Directors has the responsibility to make sure that the school abides by that contract.  Faculty have the responsibility to implement the policies and procedures created by the Board and to contribute positively to their development.  Parents who choose the school for their children have a responsibility to make sure their child is safe and thriving, and that the Board of Directors are doing what they can to support the implementation of the charter.  Founders have the responsibility to be the keepers of experience and promoters of positive change. Although a charter school operates for the immediate benefit of the children enrolled each school year, it ultimately benefits the entire school community and indeed the larger local community.  That benefit to the larger community is why most societies provide free appropriate public education to their children; something that has been a strong tradition in the United States since the country began.  In essence, when everyone works together, the school becomes a strong independent entity that can accomplish marvelous things for the children it serves -  because nothing else is more important than that.