By Gary Hardie
This week is National Charter School Week, and I want to set the record straight on one thing; educators can be advocates and supporters of traditional public education and still support charters. My career as an educator is merely a decade old. In the last ten years, I have had the privilege of working in both traditional public and public charter schools. What I have found is great educators, students and caring parents in both settings.
Charter schools are not the enemy of traditional public schools, underperforming schools are. The purpose of public charter schools is to give parents and communities a better option when the traditional public schools in their communities fail to serve the needs of their students. Granted, some communities have gotten to the place where the traditional public schooling option is best, that is the case in my community. My district is small and nimble enough to respond to challenges and meet the specific needs of all students through equity, access and justice. However, many larger school districts have gotten to a place where the task of operating has made them rigid and resistant to change and the needs of students take a back seat.
Often, progress in large school districts are inhibited by bureaucracy and diluted resources. As such, groups of students who need specific support and targeted instruction fall through the cracks. So, smaller charter schools form where they can provide targeted and innovative service to families. Students who live in the margins of public schools often thrive in private or private charter school settings, since they won’t have the opportunity to get lost in the crowd.
I have the pleasure of serving on a school board for the community that raised me and I fully support parents’ rights to choose the best option for their children. So, it is always my focus and intention to ensure that we are providing parents just that. If public education advocates are opposed to a public charter school in their community, the best thing they can do is work hard to ensure they are providing the best options. As an educator, along with my colleagues, I push to make sure that our schools are the best option and much of what I have focused on are the cutting edge and innovative practices I learned while working in public charter schools.
I had the fortune of working for Green Dot Public Charter Schools for two years, in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. There, I found a school that felt less like a group of students and educators and more like family. The school housed about 500 students and the principal knew most every student by name. Whether over coffee, around the water cooler or the teacher’s lounge, student progress was often a topic of discussion. If we knew a student was not performing as they should, acting out or had a serious need, a village of caring adults came together to offer support to students and their families. The Ralph Bunche’s two counselors rarely acted along. Instead, they acted more as catalyst that rallied the troops to ensure that the needs of all students were met.
Too many traditional public school advocates believe their enemy is charter schools leeching their ADA by recruiting their students. In reality, charter schools would not be such an attractive option in some neighborhoods if the traditional public schools were competitive options. We have to turn our sights to schools that are doing students and families a disservice by not serving the needs of the whole child, engaging parents and communities, teaching culturally competent content, and ensuring that students have access to the resources they will need for life in the 21st century economy.
True public education is a give and take between schools and community, no matter the make up of the school. However, public education advocates should always advocate for what is best for the students and families in their communities, even if the best options include public charter schools. In this way, educators can advocate for charter schools and traditional public schools alike.
Hardie currently works as a Regional Manager for a non-profit educational service provider in Los Angeles providing extended learning opportunities in after school, intervention, outdoor education and summer programming.