Charter schools: Are they right for Alabama? (Post 2)

Today we continue with the second post in the charter schools series. This is a guest contribution from my friend Laura, who has extensive experience as a public school teacher in Alabama AND as a teacher in a charter school of a neighboring state. To me, nobody's voice should speak louder than hers.

 Go here to read Part 1.

charter schools in Alabama

We also found out at the same teacher orientation meeting that the charter school administrators were establishing 80% as our minimum acceptable score. Therefore, if a child takes a test and scores a 48, you reteach and retest. That child now makes a 63. You reteach and retest. 67, reteach retest…71, reteach, retest…

There are AMAZING teachers that I worked with but do you honestly think they all retested that many times? Did the child REALLY make that much gain? Was there TRULY any quality learning taking place, or were both student and teacher simply brutalized by all the testing?  

Now, a word about grade books. Even when the calendar showed a short work week, teachers were told it was mandatory to have the exact number of required grades in the grade book. Each subject had to have the exact number needed, or suffer disciplinary action as a consequence. As a “specials” teacher who some weeks didn’t even see a class because of a variety of reasons, I was told I had to put a grade in for every student...even if I had not even laid eyes on those students that week.

The physical plant of charter schools also tends to pose major issues for teachers and students. In my experience, teacher orientation was one full week and faculty meetings started the next week (also one full week) in preparation for the school year. The only day we were given to work in our classrooms was the Saturday in between. I was able to get most of my decorating done and decided to just stay late if I needed to the next week. Charters tend to purchase already-built, often foreclosed properties. These buildings are far less expensive than building a new school, but of course, you get what you pay for. The reason this is of concern to me is because of the space needed for classrooms. Classrooms in my charter school were EXTREMELY small, and after traveling to other charter schools in this state I noticed that really small class spaces were a common occurrence. In my school, our building was originally a Target store (not a SuperTarget, but a regular size chain store). They sectioned off this building to create the approximately 50 classrooms needed to build into the school they needed. It started its first year as a K-6, then expanded with 7th grade the next year and 8th the next. This year the enrollment was expected to be almost 1400 kids. Can you imagine going to Target with 1400 of your closest friends?  Except this Target has walls and a lunchroom built in...but no gym. It is also important to note that many charters end up being K-8 (or higher) schools. This caused me a lot of stress as a parent as well because I feel strongly that my kindergartener does NOT need to be in the same school, traveling to the same restrooms, and sharing the same common spaces as an 8th grader!

In addition to charter schools cutting corners on classroom spaces, they also cut corners on teacher salaries and benefits. When I was first hired, I was given the login information for our personnel site. I was to go on the site and choose insurance policies, etc. I was sickened when I got on and realized that for a policy anywhere close to the PEEHIP coverage I had been receiving in Alabama, they would be taking about $400 dollars out of my already reduced paycheck EVERY TWO WEEKS! After all these tough changes, I had to coax myself into a positive attitude and started school.

What about Saint-Exupery’s longing?

Fast-forward… sometime around the end of the first quarter we went on teaching lockdown as testing took over for almost two weeks. I have multiple problems with how testing goes down in a charter school:

  • First, multiple classroom days are taken away from the kids.  Every nine weeks, kids are tested to see if they are hitting benchmarks..benchmarks that could probably be hit so much easier by taking those days spent in testing and giving them back to the classroom teacher as teaching time.

  • Secondly, every child was tested with material printed by a certain company.  A company that also printed the material for preparation and the re-teaching material and sold “who knows how many” dollar contracts to organizations for their websites that track students’ progress. Do you see a problem here? A company sells a test to a charter.  They also have the corner on all the other parts of the testing process..   

But assessment is life! The whole charter system lives and breathes on testing and scores and tracking data. Say a child loses a dog or has a bad day, and the teacher’s job is at stake because her class isn’t performing up to the level of the other classes. Or maybe a child suffers from Oppositional Defiant Disorder and shuts down the day of the test, refusing to finish the test OR sits quietly bubbling in the letter “C”; the teacher is still held accountable for that student. Or perhaps a child tries his or her best and comes really close to the mark. They are excited because it’s the best they’ve ever done...but then their scores are posted on the classroom “data” wall for all to see (because it is a classroom mandate). The kids around him make fun and he’s devastated. He and all the other “non-achievers” are then sent a letter home indicating that they have been "chosen" to have tutoring. It’s free, after all!’s not really a choice either. Kids and parents are expected to take advantage of this "opportunity."

What if they don’t have a ride home and sign “no” on the paper? Then they are called and told to make arrangements, that this opportunity is needed to make their child succeed. I have stood in an office and heard a conversation with an administrator “talking to” (belittling) a parent about not caring enough about their child’s education because they weren’t letting them take advantage of tutoring. Things that kill passion for education…

More tomorrow from Laura about how tutoring, PE, student selection, and teacher retention work in a charter school, in the last installment of the “Charter Schools: Are they Right for Alabama?” series.