Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My response to a proposed charter in RSU #3

This blog post began life as a letter to my fellow board members in an effort to explain what I could barely understand myself: why I felt so firmly opposed to a proposed charter school, The Rural Aspirations Project.

Dear Colleagues,

I can't remember ever being so deeply ambivalent about a school board issue. I know that at my core I do not want this charter to be formed, for reasons that all lie in the area of fairness; but I have thought long and hard about these reasons, and about the reasons why I SHOULD support it. In the end, I will not be the vote that prevents this charter from being created. But I wanted to go on about it for a few paragraphs so that my strong feelings here are better understood -- by you, but also by me.

The task of starting a small school, with all its excitement of possibility, newness, the joy of making 24 teens happy by providing them with the means of doing what will be real and meaningful to them...well, with all the hard work it will entail, it is a happy job. I expect this charter to succeed admirably. They had better, with 2 teachers teaching 24 kids, all the individual attention and group excitement that it will entail! In this light, the job is an easy one. Starting from the ground up, doing something new, with no old habits or traditions to have to push out of the way.

The job of changing a system is hard, and not nearly as much fun. You have to go slow, you have to be careful not to push people to change too soon, you have to build supporting walls of a new system when the old walls are still bearing weight...it's people, traditions, outside influences, habits, everything that goes into keeping a large institution running that have to be changed and it's really NOT all that fun (unless you are Heather, and thank God SHE regards it as fun!)*

What I'm saying is that the ease with which a new school is started will be seen as coming from the failure of the larger system to change. In fact, the system has had excuse after excuse to NOT change, and has succeeded in NOT changing because of all those things, above, that make a large machine keep moving down the tracks regardless of a faulty engine.

Charter schools, when looked at through a national lens, have been significant in that they allow the public school model to NOT CHANGE. And it hasn't changed. And the more we see charter schools form, the less likely it will be that it WILL change. Why do that hard work when you can do something fun? And yet, changing the large, slow-moving and intractable institution is the ONLY WAY we can look ahead to an RSU #3 that is a place where ALL kids can pursue their dreams with the energy and passion that is inside every one of them.

Maybe I'm jealous...maybe deep down I would have liked to be the one to start this charter. But I have not been that person, and the reason is that I simply do not want to change education for 24 students. It never would have occurred to me to go down that road. And, God love those folks who came out in support of Rural Aspirations last night; they are excited and energized by the idea, but where have they been when some of us have been singing the same song for a decade, in efforts to change education for EVERYONE? I know people are motivated to act for many different reasons, but I can't help being resentful. What I have needed more than anything else has been a few people from the community to help spread the word that we CAN transform public education to meet the needs of every student. There have been precious few...then, last night, look at all those faces!

Here is what I believe will happen when this school opens: In NYC, when I was in middle school, the divide between those who triumphed (gotten into Bronx Science or another "special high school") and those who did not was palpable. I have no doubt that when this school opens, there will be more than enough applicants to necessitate a lottery. My own children may very well be among them! If you don't get in then you "hafta go to Mount View" and for kids who have been hoping on something, the sense of dejection is heartbreaking.

I was one of the ones who got into Bronx Science, and when I looked into the eyes of those who did not, believe me, I relished it. I loved it. I had triumphed over them! It doesn't matter that there is no "aptitude test" governing who gets into Rural Aspirations. The idea of creating a divide of any kind is anathema to the ideals of equity that is -- or should be -- the foundation of public education. For those who get in, great! For those who do not, not so much.

I can't willingly trade the sense of equality of opportunity between students for the sense of some people getting what others do not have -- especially when the creation of this system will result in a loss of revenue to the district, thereby making our own transformation that much more difficult.

What I would prefer is that when this school opens, it will be one of many choices every student can make when they get to high school; Rural Aspirations, or a focus on engineering, or drama, or fine arts, or history, or whatever they feel personally drawn to. That we make this school fit into the scheme of teenagers' lives in this district. That we have a system in place that allows every student to pursue their learning by pursuing their dreams. That way, when a teenager doesn't go to Rural Aspirations, it will be because they chose to do something different.

I like the idea of having an "outpost" of the high school where kids can go to pursue a direction of their choosing. However, this can take place only if our own transformation into a new system with a new direction and new walls will be in place when this charter opens.

Here is what I have discovered in the writing of this post: having Rural Aspirations be a part of the general transformation of RSU #3 would make the existence of it as joyful for me as it will for those who are so wholeheartedly in support of it now.

*Superintendent Heather Perry