This Fight Isn’t About Charter Schools, It’s About Justice for Our Students

Oct 3, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by Joe Nathan

“We’re in the fight of our lives,” according to a number of chartered public school educators with whom I met at the recent National Alliance for Public Charter Schools summer conference. Having helped write the first charter law and similar laws in 27 states, and having been a public school educator, parent and advocate for almost 50 years, people have taught me many things. 

They’ve showed me how chartering and great district or chartered public schools can, in the words of the classic civil rights song, “keep your eyes on the prize.”

[pullquote position="right"]Our goals, or “prizes,” should not just be stronger charter laws, more charter schools opening, higher enrollments and eliminating waiting lists.[/pullquote] While important, they’re only helpful means to critical ends. 

The first real prize is that virtually all young people graduate from high school with the persistence, courage, creativity and dedication of a leader like Rosa Parks. (Incidentally, in the last decade of her life, Rosa Parks explored founding and creating a charter school.) How can we make that happen? 

Let’s Combine Classwork with Community Service

Part of our work should be to help create, seek and join coalitions that promote greater justice and opportunity outside schools. For example, St. Paul charter students and families are working with their district counterparts and local activists to dramatically reduce homelessness

As shown by the youngsters helping reduce homelessness, promoting justice and opportunity can be part of students’ studies. Why not use research about the value of combining classwork with community service? 

For example, as a teacher, I helped urban 5-8-year-olds design and build a school playground. Since there were no school funds available for this project, they “hustled.” The day that six truckloads of donated sand arrived at school was a big day in the life of the 6-year-old “sand committee” members. They learned they could make a difference.

Philadelphia’s Sharif El Mekki is helping elementary students learn about their heritage as they help strengthen their community. 

My former student, David Ellis, gives us another angle on the power of service to transform lives. Years ago, we met at the district alternative school where I worked. He had been placed there after assaulting a teacher. He was angry and alienated. David agreed to take a class called “Protect Your Rights and Money.” Students solved many real consumer problems that adults referred to the class.

Gradually, David learned to use his anger and creativity to help others. A local newspaper published a story about the class, including David. A few weeks later, David told me he thought his name and picture might appear in a newspaper someday, but he never thought it would be for something good! His life was transformed.

David graduated from that school. He later helped Prince produce a platinum album. After starting his own recording arts studio, David founded High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), a chartered public school focusing on students with whom traditional schools have not succeeded. HSRA students create You-Tube videos. Organizations like State Farm Insurance, Verizon Wireless and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education have hired HSRA students to produce videos for them.

David is also an example of a person of color who founded and is leading a school. We need much more of this. 

Wise Schools of All Kinds Set Goals And Stay Accountable to Them

High School for Recording Arts does something else that the best public high schools do—it helps many of its students earn free college credits. Many Minnesota charters encourage students to use Minnesota’s PSEO law to take free college courses on campus or online. Those, and/or more well-known AP, IB and College in the Schools courses should be encouraged at every high school.

Even without a state program in place, some charters help many students earn dozens of free college credits or even an AA degree. For example, the Geo Academies charters pay for many of their students to take courses on college campuses.

Each high school should have goals posted around the school, on its website and widely understood. For example, a school could set the goal that 75% of high school juniors and seniors will earn college credits before graduating.

Moreover, wise schools use multiple measures to assess progress. Examples from many schools can be found here and here. Test scores are not enough. 

Holding ourselves accountable to the communities we serve also means challenging crooks who are sometimes found in the charter world. [pullquote]We must support action against those who misuse public funds and violate the public’s trust, whether in district or chartered public schools.[/pullquote] Some states must increase charters’ transparency and accountability.

Chartering Schools Can Create Break-the-Mold Opportunities

Next, [pullquote position="right"]we need to understand and promote the idea of chartering.[/pullquote]

The chartering idea did NOT begin with Al Shanker. In 1968, 20 years before Shanker urged giving educators and students more district options, civil rights hero Kenneth Clark urged the creation of new public schools outside the control of local district school boards. The idea of chartering means more than allowing people to create new, non-sectarian public schools, open to all, that are responsible for improving student achievement. 

Chartering means at least one organization other than a local board will have the authority to give permission to educators to create a school. USA Today did not have to get permission from The New York Times to begin publishing. Apple didn’t get AT&T’s “OK” to develop cell phones. Nor should educators need a district’s approval.

Chartering builds on principles that helped the United States attract people from all over the world. What is more American than saying “You may create something new and potentially more effective if you are willing to be responsible for results and operate within some restrictions?

Finally, why not support and encourage terrific district educators, including those who want to create new, potentially more effective schools.? Some are great allies. 

We’re in ”the fight of our lives” partly because some are jealous of our success, and partly because of our mistakes. There’s plenty to do. Rosa Parks kept her eyes on the prize. So should we. 

This column is adapted from a speech Joe Nathan gave in July 2019 on being inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., helped write the nation's first charter public school law. Legislators and governors in more than 25 states have asked him to testify and provide information about chartering and other school improvement issues. Nathan has spent the last 44 years as a public school teacher, administrator, parent, researcher and advocate. Parent, student & professional groups have given him a variety of awards for his work as an inner city public school teacher and administrator. For nearly 30 years, he has written a weekly newspaper column in Minnesota focusing on education issues. Since 1988, Nathan has directed the Center for School Change. The Center works at the school, community and policy levels. It has raised more than $30 million from the Annenberg, Blandin, Bremer, Cargill, Carlson, Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, Minneapolis, St Paul, Kaufman, Target, Travelers and other foundations, as well as the US and Minnesota Departments of Education. Among other accomplishments, Nathan directed a project (with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in the Cincinnati Public Schools that increased overall high school graduation rates by more than 25 percentage points and eliminated the high school graduation gap between white and African American students over a seven-year period. He has helped create district and charter public school options in a number of states. Nathan earned a B.A. from Carleton College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He has been married for 41 years to a recently retired (after 33 years) public school teacher, and he has three children and five grandchildren.

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