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.