Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How Trenton Can Embrace Charter Schools

The charter school movement will never go away, and so we as a society need to come to terms with these schools and how they will participate in the public school system. An opinion piece by Richard Cohen in today's Trenton Times stoked the debate in the most unseemly of ways by insinuating, as is often done, that opponents of charter schools are somehow advocates of inferior education, that opponents are little more than protectors of a status quo that props up poor teachers and bad schools. Thinking along these lines is not only counter productive but perpetuates the notion that charter schools are competitors to public schools, and that they embody the lone hope for providing a sound education to inner city students. Cohen distorts the issue and does a disservice to those like me that believe that charter schools can and should complement what is happening in the public schools. Hopefully I can make some sense of what issues should be salient in this debate, and offer a more positive perspective on these schools by looking at the city of Trenton and the new high school soon to be built.

First of all, the charter school movement is heralded by those who take an individualistic approach to education, that individual families should have greater choice in where their kids go to school, and that what matters is not education "for all," but for my children. Let's be real, charter schools- assuming they are an improvement over the typical public schools- will NEVER be able to include enough kids to make a significant dent in the overall poor performance of urban schools. They will help a small number of children, but do nothing to help the vast majority of students. This is especially true in the competitive model that has seemed to gain favor, though it might surprise Cohen and others that this model is totally inconsistent with the intent of its initial supporters. For example, the legislation that created charters in New Jersey was clear in its belief that these schools should be seen as "laboratories" for the public schools, and that any successful strategies and philosophy be shared with the public schools so as to benefit ALL students, not just those in the charter schools. This belief in coordination and shared goals is rarely found in discussions today. Moreover, many of the new charter schools are popping up in the suburbs, even in highly successful districts, as a sort of "boutique" school founded to emphasize narrow agendas, i.e.  "we are latin based, we are Chinese based, etc..."

Charter schools and public schools MUST coordinate their efforts so that the impact of any success can be felt throughout the public schools and not just felt by a narrow few. Done right, charters can be an integral element in the overall success of our urban schools. As initially conceived, I am a fervent supporter of charter schools, so much so that, given the abysmal track record of our government's intrusion into public schools through its initiatives and mandates and testing, that if I could I would turn EVERY public school into a charter school! The statistics don't lie: the performance of public schools has either remained unchanged or gone down as government involvement has increased. This is why, when I look at the city of Trenton and the building of its new high school, I see a great opportunity to make a daring and bold change to education in our city.

I believe that Trenton High should be demand to be classified as a charter school, and as such to be seen as a "demonstration school," a school that should be completely free to experiment with new strategies in everything from how it hires teachers to its curriculum design to how it pays its employees. Let's face it, given the low graduation rates and test scores at Trenton and almost every urban high school, we have nothing to lose. Things cannot get worse!!!

I am disappointed that there has been little to no conversation about coordinating profound changes with the creation of the new school. The State should embrace the idea of "liberating" Trenton High from its Core Curriculum Content Standards, its graduation test(HSPA), and other mandates that have done nothing to improve learning in Trenton or other urban high schools. The graduation test has no connection to the needs of students in the real world, the curriculum is filled with irrelevant minutiae created by "experts" who seem to want students to be scholars in their field, and the imposition of testing has bastardized the learning process. Do these experts realize how time consuming true learning is, and how their demands are counterproductive? Do they realize that they could do real good by helping provide incentives that will attract passionate and knowledgeable college students to education?

So please, citizens of Trenton, demand that the new Trenton High School be turned into a charter school, demand that a new group of innovative, passionate administrators and clinical supervisors be brought in, insist that stronger ties be created between the school and stakeholders in the greater Trenton area, demand that we shake up the faculty and bring in those with passion and knowledge, push for performance pay and performance ladders rather than relying solely on years of service, and, finally, promise that you will get intimately involved in the future of the school.

The time is now to turn Trenton High into a grand experiment, one that could hold the key to success for urban high schools throughout the State. I am tired of hearing that change will take time; it can be done quickly and it can be done now. Am I the only one that sees this new high school as our chance to provide true learning and opportunity to our teenagers? I sincerely hope not, but I am not encouraged. I fear the status quo, because I fear that no one wants to take a chance, take a risk. But why should they? Things are just going so well right now, aren't they??