Stuart Rhoden, Ph.D.
Arizona State University
In 1969 when the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, they, or rather more specifically John Lennon, wrote a song titled Come Together.While there are many songs that articulate the concept of finding common ground, this song has always stuck out to me because of the back story that was taking place while it was being written. Even in the midst of tremendous conflict, Come Together from the brilliant Abbey Road album demonstrated the genius of the most influential band in the world. If the Beatles could come together during that time of extreme conflict to create beautiful music, why can’t we in public education get along amidst similar factions and struggles?
It seems that these days society prefers to remain in what is colloquially referred to as “silos” or “bubbles” in which the preponderance of a particular cluster of people or institutions who inhabit said space generally all agree on a particular philosophy. School choice folks associate with school choice folks. “Progressive educators” match up with other “progressive educators,” and so on. The complexity however in this analogy beyond silos is that the very terms we use to define said silos are now being co-opted by others to mean something entirely different. None the less, despite the definitional conflicts, very few individuals or groups attempt to cross boundaries, or more
importantly try to build bridges. You are either with us or against us, whoever the us is.
One of the most contentious areas where there is a strong need to build bridges is the division between those who support “traditional neighborhood public schools” versus those who advocate for “charter schools.”
Charter schools have been defined as schools that are created by a group of individuals, or a charter management organization to provide an alternative to traditional schools. While many charters are in urban areas, charters exist in many districts in every state in the country. Let me be clear, some conflate or confuse the discussion with charters with the discussion surrounding vouchers. Vouchers are defined as a state monetary subsidy that helps parents pay a certain amount for their child’s education. Generally, that voucher is worth around $5000 or so depending on the state. A quick cursory examination of independent or parochial or religious schools can discern that most of their yearly cost, even for pre-K, is in excess of $10-20,000 per year. Thus, vouchers at best pay for only 50% of the overall cost of attending these types of schools.
Separate from the voucher debate, charter schools are supposed to be “free” public schools. Their organizational structures can include non-profits, charter management organizations or even “for-profit” companies. And while they are free to attend, there is generally some cost associated with attending a charter school. For example, at some charters, full-day kindergarten is not subsidized by many states, and as such, parents have to pay for afternoon school care. Other costs could include after school programs, sports, extra-curricular/enrichment (chess, STEM, robotics, dance, etc.). As such, many contend that charters are a slippery slope towards the “privatization of public education.”
However, there is an alternative.
At least since the 1990s, there has been a movement within large comprehensive high schools (and some middle schools), to create “small schools” or “schools within schools.” Just as charter schools were created to be incubators of innovation and best practices, small schools were created to do similar work within the confines of a larger comprehensive district run school. The goal for small schools was to provide not just innovation within the larger school, but to create learning communities or academies that were focused on specific areas of academic interest (e.g., arts, STEM, technology, business, social justice, etc.). These smaller communities were also designed to create a level of autonomy at the school site level and place ownership on teachers to become leaders within the school (Dingerson et al., 2008).
As a young educator who wanted to transition into the classroom from working with students in after school programs, I moved to Los Angeles to become a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. In the school where I started as a long-term sub and concluded, in four short years, as a Small School Coordinator, we were an incubator of change – rapid, constant, and at times divisive change. In my four years, we went from theme-based academies, to small learning communities to eventually leaving the control of Los Angeles Unified School District and becoming a consortium of charter schools on a single 23-acre campus run by a charter management organization, Green Dot. Choosing to “leave” the district was seen as a drastic step by many, but the majority of the teachers voted for this change. What was unfortunate was that there were many opportunities for the transition to a charter to not occur. Time was not given to let academies, or even small learning communities be able to marinate and take root within the school community. As such, the teachers, and many parents believed that what was best for the students and community was a fresh start with new management and hopefully new outcomes.
Ten years after the transition to Green Dot, we have seen the benefits of the teachers’ difficult choice to become a charter school. The question that will forever linger is what if we, as a school and a community, were given more time to make the small schools in this large comprehensive, persistently dangerous, low performing high school work? The infighting among teachers as well as disagreements with the district, as to what small schools should look like within our school, was what ultimately led to the exodus from LAUSD all together.
The teacher factions within the school could not convince one another that meaningful, long-term change meant doing something significantly different than what had previously been attempted to achieve more positive academic outcomes for our students. Our skeptical colleaguesmall schools would be academically and socially beneficial for all our students – even at the most persistently low performing school in the district. In addition to our skeptical colleagues, we were not able to sway the union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), that we were willing to adjust our contractually obligated number of hours in the day to obtain a greater level of actual autonomy. We were not able to quickly alert those skeptical colleagues to the preponderance of research that indicates smaller is better, even to those who had visited excellent examples of small schools in New York, and other parts of California. In short, we were unable to make change happen because the vocal, powerful minority did not believe in the power of a small group of dedicated teachers and students who saw a different way of educating youth in an urban environment.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to skeptical educators “buying into” the small schools movement, not just at our school, but across the country was the millions of dollars being spent towards small school efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Strauss, 2014). Gates and his wife were insistent that the comprehensive “factory” model of public education was not only antiquated, it did not prepare students for the 21stcentury work force (Gates, 2005). People were then, and still are, skeptical of Gates and his intentions when it comes to public education.
Regardless of Gates’ prior support of small schools, it is well past time that we revisit this educational innovation again before we really do “lose” more of our public schools to charter conversions. In order for us to attract and maintain middle class parents and continue to have schools that are inclusive and representative of society as a whole, we need to revisit the concept of small schools within large comprehensive schools and school districts. Without this change, we will continue to lose ground, not to mention teachers and students, to innovative schools who do not have the same pedagogical constraints as many traditional, comprehensive neighborhood schools.