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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Should We Return to the Same School in the Fall?

When I was a child, the concept of school choice did not exist.  There were private schools nearby, but to change public schools, you had to move to another local district.  Now we have much more choice, even in many rural areas.  Even in districts where there is not a lot of choice, parents have the option of home schooling.  My children have attended schools of choice.  They also attended the neighborhood school.  I have to admit that it was often a difficult decision for us to decide what we were going to do from year to year. 

Many parents face this decision when their child develops problems in school. It also becomes and issue when the school itself is experiencing difficulty.  I think this is a question you need to begin to think about mid-year every year.  That gives you time to apply for magnet, charter and private schools so that if you come to the end of the year and need to make a change, you are not stuck.  But even in June you may not be able to make a clear decision.

This post will help you cut through the clutter a bit to boil your decision down to a few important questions.  Whether to change schools is a decision that you need to make rationally, but with a contribution of your gut feeling.  Remember that it’s impossible to completely predict what the future will bring for your child and your school.  But you can make reasonable assumptions.

It’s important to answer these questions according to what “is," not what the school aspires to be. 
Even the best schools have a gap between the mission statement and how things actually operate on the ground.

These are the five main questions I would ask myself if I were evaluating whether to leave my child at their current school.  This list is in my particular order of importance with the most important consideration at the top.  Your order might be different.

1.    Is the school safe?
I believe that this is your most important consideration, no matter the order of the rest of the questions.  If the answer to this question is not a solid “yes," nothing else matters.  When I ask if the school is safe, I am referring to physical and emotional safety.  Does the school have a written safety plan?  Is the building secure?  What type of program or philosophy does the school have about bullying or harassment?  Is it a written policy?  Is the playground well maintained and well supervised?  Schools have different types of safety considerations. Thos considerations depend on their location, the age of the children in the building, what types of businesses or activities are nearby, etc.  School/district plans, policies and procedures should reflect their individual need.   My children went to middle school on the edge of a higher crime neighborhood.  The school drew students from that same area.  Early in their second year, a child brought an unloaded gun to school.  When I arrived in carpool that afternoon, the Assistant Principal handed be a letter from the Principal.  It described the incident and the school’s response.  My children had not even heard about what happened – the school handled it without interrupting their day.  I never before felt uncomfortable about sending my children to that school, but even that incident did not change my mind.  The school had plans and contingencies that they followed. 
2.    Is my child making academic progress?
When I talk about academic progress, I am not talking about high grades across the board.  Just like us, children have years with a lot of growth, and years where the growth is a little bit slower.  On the whole, is your child moving forward?  Are they on or above grade level?  (If your child has special needs, read below…..)  Is progress frequently monitored by the school and communicated to you?  Is extra help available and offered if progress begins to slow?  Does the school use a variety of methods to track and communicate progress?  You need to make sure that any issues are spotted early and addressed in an appropriate and timely manner.  Help might not mean individual help or testing.  It might mean a different type of homework for your child.  It might mean your child is part of a small group that is getting extra help.  If your child is academically advanced, it might mean different work or time in a different classroom to keep them interested and moving ahead.
3.    Is my child learning good work habits?
Qualities such as resilience, perseverance and the ability to overcome frustration are the best predictors of school success.  How does your school address these qualities?  Is it something that is active as part of the school day and the school curriculum?  Does the school provide extra help for your child if they struggle with work completion? How about organization or working most of the time with an appropriate level of effort?  Schools develop work habits in children in different ways.  Some schools try to develop intrinsic (internal) motivation.  Some use reward – recognition for good grades, awards, etc.  Some use a combination of the two.  Does the motivational method your school employs match well with your child’s personality?
4.    Does the structure of the school match my child and our family?
All schools have a structure.  At one extreme is the school that allows children to do what they want with a the lowest level of rules, reward, and punishment.  At the other extreme is the school that controls everything that children do.  Most schools are somewhere in the middle.  Some children feel more comfortable and thrive in an environment with the type of structure that actively tells children what they need to be doing and how to do it.  Other children need lots of rules and consequences.  Still others need freedom.  If the level of discipline and control at school matches home, children will be comfortable.  That same structure should match your values as parents.  Is the administration and governance of the school at the level of formality you like?  Maybe it’s informal, and everyone calls the principal by her first name, including the children.  Her door is always open, but regular written communication is non-existent.  Maybe making a complaint requires a formal process, and there are no “drop in” meetings.  What type of an administrative structure makes you the most comfortable?
5.    Is my child happy?
Does your child love their school?  They should.  They should have at least 2-3 positive relationships with other children. They should also have at least one positive relationship with an adult in the building other than an adult in their classroom.  They should feel as though they are part of a community; that they “belong”.  If the answer to this question is “no," you need to find out why.  Maybe the school community values conformity and your child is outside whatever the norm is.  We want to think of schools as welcoming, peaceful places where all children can get along, but that’s not always reality.  Can you imagine a different type of school where your child would be happy?  If you can, perhaps it’s time for a move.  If not, there may be other issues such as undiagnosed learning issues, anxiety, depression, or an issue at home.  A move in that case may not help; indeed the stress of learning a new routine and making new friends at a new place might be detrimental.

Beside these five considerations, there are some others that might apply to you:

Special Education Services – If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan, or qualifies for one, does the school meet their needs?  Are they getting enough help and the right help to keep making progress at a level appropriate for them?  Private schools often have remedial help.  But will they modify a child’s work or testing to accommodate a disability?  Does your child need those modifications?  Perhaps a traditional public school, public magnet school or public charter school will be able to do more.  Maybe your charter school uses inclusion EC services and your child needs to go to a different setting.  Maybe you would rather have your child in a regular classroom and pay for extra help outside of school.  Whatever the case, your school should respond to the needs of your child, or be clear about their limitations.

School Drama – Having worked at several different schools, I can tell you that all schools have drama.  There are always some parents and teachers that are happy, and some that are not.  People like to chat, and some people live for controversy.  Often how you think of the school depends on whom you talk to.  If the drama does not affect your child, you probably don’t need to worry about it.  You will know if it’s affecting your child if there are problems with the first five questions at the top of the article.   If the drama gets bad enough, it can affect the climate of the school.  In that case, you will begin to see children who do not feel safe, teachers who are too distracted to do what they need to, and administration that is constantly reacting instead of being proactive.   Is your child thriving and either blissfully ignorant of what is going on or doesn’t really care?  Pulling your child from school out of spite for a teacher or the school administration is not helpful for the child or your family. 

Commute -  Parents are willing to sacrifice their time and effort to take a child to a school outside the neighborhood.  Sometimes though, the length of time spent in the car may not be worth it.  We tend to dismiss the stress from “car time” because it’s such a routine activity.  If morning routine is constantly stressful or evening constantly exhausting because you are driving over 30 minutes to school, you may want to take a second look to see if something closer to home will meet your child’s needs just as well.

If your answer to any of the first five questions indicates it’s time to find a new school, you might want to let administration know.  Perhaps your issue is one that other parents are having as well, and the school needs to address it.  By letting the school know about why you have decided to leave, you are giving them important data about their program, policies and procedures.  The best way to do this is a brief face-to-face meeting, but only if it can remain civil on both sides.  If that isn’t going to happen, a letter is also a good way to let the school know what’s going on.  Be specific but refrain from getting personal.  Make sure to send a copy of your letter to the district office, the Board of Directors or whatever authority is ultimately responsible for school governance.

Once you have made your decision, please respect those who decide to stay.  Their circumstances and priorities may be different from yours.  If there is currently school drama, it's not your job to "take as many people as possible" with you.  You might be furious about a particular situation, but others may decide that the school is still the best choice for their family. Moreover, chances are that there are staff and families that have put a lot of effort into the school and should be respected for their work. 

I hope that you are happy with your school and that your child is thriving.  If you have a difficult decision to make, hopefully this article will help.

As always, your comments below are welcome.   Have other questions?  You can contact me on twitter @Pam327, and on FB at Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC.