Black families support charter schools. It’s not because we’ve been duped, or that we’re “privatizers.” It’s because many of us have looked at our neighborhood schools and realized we need better options for our kids. I know, because I saw it firsthand in West Oakland, struggling to get my brother the education he deserved, in a system that didn’t treat him with concern or respect.
When Schools Disrespect You
I never intended to be the “charter guy.” It just happened. It all started when I went to my little brother “Johnny’s” school in West Oakland. “The teacher made fun of my mama,” my little brother said, restraining his sobs. I would help Johnny with his homework if I was around, but I was in law school and out a lot. If his mom couldn’t help him, I told him to just tell the teacher he couldn’t do the homework and needed help. That’s what he did. The teacher then mocked him in front of the class, “Johnny’s mom doesn’t know how to do long division.” Chuckles and ridicule ensue, and he is left humiliated. I wrote a nice letter: "It’s not his fault. Maybe we can meet and talk about a schedule to support his homework or what resources there are." I thought it was very nice. After sending the letter, the next day in class his teacher announces, “Oh I better not say anything to Johnny or he will get his big brother after me.” I get another frustrated call from Johnny. So, I write another letter: "It’s not right to embarrass him." This time more formally written and asking for a meeting. We meet, there are four or five folks there. I don’t know what they expected. The teacher addresses me in a condescending tone, “Those were very big words in the letter you wrote.” I think they were trying to say I didn’t write it or understand it, because some brother from West Oakland couldn’t have written that. “You learn big words at Berkeley Law School,” I responded. Long pause, and everything changes. Now the teacher gives me her phone number. They will write a report each week on his homework and send it home with him. I should reach out any time. It took them learning that I was not biologically related to him and a law student, for them to treat him or me with respect, and something is so wrong about that.
The Beginning of My Charter Movement
When I first started doing homework with Johnny, he would not finish it and say it was done. It was totally annoying until he explained they only checked the first sheet so that was all you had to do. If that wasn’t enough, the final straw was when I heard that a student had tried to stab him on the playground (in elementary school). After asking about it, the principal responded, “It was only a steak knife.” So yeah he needed a new school. I saw an article in the paper about a new school around the corner that promised college preparation, a family atmosphere, leadership preparation and a focus on African-American history and culture. It was a public charter school. I wasn’t sure what that meant but figured it was worth a shot. I cold-called them, liked what they were doing and volunteered to help. This was the early 90s before any philanthropists or corporation cared about charters, before there even was an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or any privatization cabals, or even a “charter movement.” These were a bunch of Black folks and some honorary Black folks sitting around tables in West Oakland trying to figure out how we can save our kids in the face of a system that was failing them. That was the beginning of my charter movement. The union did not oppose this charter, everyone knew our kids were getting shortchanged and nobody had any answers. Far from privatizing the schools, we brought them to the community. And far from “creaming” we focused on Black kids from the Lower Bottoms—arguably the most underserved students in Oakland.
For the Kids Left Behind
Since then I haven’t looked back. I have worked with dozens of community-based groups in creating responsive schools for kids left behind. There were no college preparatory schools in New York that catered to students with mental health challenges—we started the first,
John W. Lavelle Preparatory Academy. Kids in Harlem weren't getting diagnosed with autism until much later in their academic careers. We worked with providers to help families identify indicators of autism and get free screenings. And set up the first autism inclusion program in Harlem—
The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem. Staten Island had thousands of high school aged students out of school, but only one alternative high school. We created the second,
New Ventures Charter School. We are graduating our first class this year. Now we are working on Oakland’s first residential charter school, the
Oral Lee Brown Preparatory Academy, as well as programs to support our most vulnerable students, foster kids and kids in lockup.
History’s Lessons and Systemic Inequality
As a Black man and a student of history, the system is rigged. It used to be segregation by law, now its segregation by habit and privilege. And despite the heroic efforts of many within the education system, I wonder whether it will deliver in the future what it has never come close to delivering in the past. So no, I ain’t no sock puppet for the "philanthro-capitalists," and I certainly haven’t gotten rich, but I am trying to get free. Charters are no panacea, and come with a whole range of warty characters and defects. But for many families, what are their actual options? How long have we been waiting for that mythical high-quality neighborhood school, waiting at rainbow’s end? I know for my brother I couldn’t wait, if it were your child would you?
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...