Table of Contents

  • Free Editorial

    Just Math

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools
  • Free Whose Community Is This?

    Mathematics of neighborhood displacement

    By Eric (Rico) Gutstein

    Students use advanced math to study gentrification, displacement, and foreclosure in their neighborhood.

  • Transparency of Water

    A workshop on math, water, and justice

    By Selene Gonzalez-Carillo, Martha Merson

    Community educators bring math into an intergenerational exploration of the environmental, political, and economic issues surrounding bottled versus tap water.

  • Free Beyond Marbles

    Percent change and social justice

    By Flannery Denny

    Middle school students analyze a classroom full of social justice issues, armed with their understanding of percent change.

  • Other Features
  • Free Responding to Tragedy

    2nd graders reach out to the Sikh community

    By Dale Weiss

    When a racist attack kills members of a local Sikh temple, a 2nd-grade teacher involves her students in a journey of connection and solidarity.

  • An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

    Saga of a promising new charter

    By Grace Gonzales

    Helping create an independent charter school seems like a dream job. But teachers, parents, and children soon confront all-too-familiar charter school woes.

  • Creative Conflict

    Collaborative playwriting

    By Kathleen Melville

    A high school drama teacher searches for ways to encourage students to write about their lives without replicating stereotypes.

  • “Hey, Mom, I Forgive You”

    Teaching the forgiveness poem

    By Linda Christensen

    An English teacher builds community as her students write a poem about forgiving or not forgiving. She starts with her own story.

  • A Pure Medley

    Poetry By Adeline Nieto
  • Free Paradise Lost

    Introducing students to climate change through story

    By Brady Bennon

    The film Paradise Lost - about the rising ocean that threatens Kiribati - proves an evocative introduction to a unit on climate change.

  • Departments Free
    Action Education
  • Seattle Test Boycott: Our Destination Is Not on the MAP

    By Jesse Hagopian
  • Good Stuff
  • Encounters

    By Herb Kohl
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

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An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

Saga of a promising new charter
An Unfortunate Misunderstanding
Spencer Walts

I was nervous as I started the conversation. I was talking to a mentor of minean experienced teacher and administrator who I look up to as a staunch defender of public educationand I needed some sort of absolution. You see, although I think of myself as firmly against attempts to fragment and privatize public education, I was going to work for a charter school.

I had a couple of ways of justifying that decision. The charter school, which was just starting up, had a wonderful educational philosophy and would be using first-rate curriculaworkshop-based, experiential, project-orienteda far cry from the scripted curricula I had been forced to work with in my previous school. It was located in a diverse urban neighborhood where many public schools had been shut down, presumably leaving families with few good options for where to send their children to elementary school. I was told this new school had ties to a successful community preschool that had been operating for many years. And the principal who had hired me was an open, welcoming person with a strong vision for the school as child-centered and project-based. Though not from the neighborhood herself, she was African American and had a profound level of respect for the historically African American community in which we were working. She made deep connections with families and I loved watching her talk to the students.

As I explained all of this to my mentor, a wistful look crossed her face. She didn't particularly like the idea, but told me, You have to do what you have to do. You have to see what it's like.

I'm worried, I said, but it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'll have the chance to help create this school from the ground up.

Almost a year later I would find myself in a different room, talking to Carol, a board member and another powerful woman, and saying almost exactly the same words: When I took this job, I imagined that weteachers, parents, administratorswould be able to shape this school into the kind of school we all really wanted. I didn't expect the structure to be so top-down. I thought we were all creating a school together.

Her response, as she accepted my resignation, was succinct: I'm sorry you misunderstood.

If I began the year thinking that our school could be differenta small, innovative, independent charter school unaffiliated with the politics that make the charter school movement so problematicI ended it with a profound understanding of how pervasive many of the issues that arise around charter schools really are. There were a lot of concerns floating around in my head that I shoved back when I signed my contract. I worried that I would suffer from the lack of job security and union protections. I worried that we would not be able to equitably serve students with special needs. I worried that the school would ultimately turn out to be less community-based than it appeared. As it played out, those fears were founded.

Underlying the beautiful language of the charter was a strong thread of deficit thinking about the students and their neighborhooda sort of missionary attitude whereby a group of privileged professionals, most of whom were not educators, were swooping into a neighborhood they thought needed saving, to play saviors to children they assumed needed protection from the public school system.

When details about school operations had to be filled in, they drew on philosophies of the wider charter school movementat-will contracts, extended hours, extended school years, merit-based pay, strong reliance on private philanthropy, and a host of other policies that they labeled best practices. Although in name we were not affiliated with other charter schools, the ideological connections ran deep.

I hope that the story of that first year can be useful to other educators, especially when it comes to understanding how what appears to be a community school can, in the hands of a few people, turn into something very different, ultimately disempowering the peopleteachers, administrators, and parentswho are the key to its success.

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