At the most recent annual AZK12 Summer Leadership Institute, I sat with a small group of colleagues from around the state to discuss the future of public education. At least I would refer to them as colleagues. They would refer to me as "all-that-is-wrong-with-public-education" or, more simply, the devil.
I am a charter school co-founder and principal. Please don't shoot.
Seven years ago, two colleagues of mine and I opened a small school after spending over ten years in a large comprehensive public high school. We believed that big schools were simply not good for children or other living things. The impersonal environment and emphasis on management over creativity left us with little choice. It became a moral imperative for us to open a small public school in which kids would be known by all of the adults that worked there.
We hardly reinvented the wheel, as we spent close to two years studying the other small schools around the country that were doing the things we believed all schools should: connecting students to the community, holding all students to high standards, and, most importantly, knowing each student well. We turned to our gurus, Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, and other like-minded educators, and eventually opened our school.
Six years later, we have graduated close to one hundred students, many of whom were the first in their families to graduate from high school and go on to college. We approach our work with a "one-kid-at-a-time" mindset because we can. We were never afforded this privilege when we worked at a school of two thousand students.
I had no idea that what I had been doing this whole time was causing the destruction of public education. On the contrary, my decision to open a small non-profit charter school was the most pro-public education choice I could have imagined. At that time, the only students I knew who were getting a highly rigorous and personalized education were the ones whose parents could afford to send them to private school. And that was just unfair.
Do I believe that business people should be granted permission to open for-profit charter schools? Absolutely not. Do I think that charter schools should have exclusionary enrollment practices that cream the top? No way. Do I believe that teacher leaders and other talented and effective educators should have the opportunity to start and run a school that is held to high academic standards as well as strict financial integrity and transparency? YES!
The notion that all charter schools can be lumped together as one collective representation of any one single belief is as ludicrous as believing the same of all district schools. In fact, this kind of thinking is undemocratic, and makes for poor modeling of critical thinking for all of our students, regardless of what school they choose to attend.
At my school we emphasize Six Habits of heart and Mind. The habit of inquiry is taught as a means of achieving deeper understanding of complex issues and multiple viewpoints. We believe that these habits are essential for a healthy and functional democracy. The next time you meet someone who works at a charter school, try starting with a question instead of an assumption. You may be surprised by what you find out.