Volume 80, Number 3 | June 16 - 22, 2010
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Talking Point

Charter flap obscures public schools’ resegregation

By Paul DeRienzo 

Public education is facing its biggest challenge in decades as well-meaning parents frustrated with public schools flock to charter schools that are popping up all over the United States. Backed by powerful figures including President Barack Obama, charter schools are privately run but publicly financed schools, usually with the support of either private or nonprofit investors. Charters were created to provide “choice” for parents, but some say charter schools are actually making schools more racially segregated.

Underfunded, failing public schools have generated a movement of parents desperate to give their kids an opportunity for social advancement. Charter schools are one method, introduced by conservatives in the 1980s to replace the large urban schools with smaller, innovative institutions; charters are freed from having to conform to the often-byzantine bureaucracy of government and union rules and regulations that their supporters say have hamstrung educators. 

Critics such as New York State Senator Bill Perkins freely admit public schools have often failed children, but claim the rush of parents to charters is a desperate act. Put in the position of opposing many of his own Harlem constituents, Perkins likens the charter frenzy to a fire where those who can escape are creating “a new place for those who flee and leave the rest inside to burn there.” 

Studies have shown that the most challenging students are being left out of charters. While charters do not formally control who can attend and seats are apportioned by lottery, there are no incentives for charters to recruit special education students and English Language Learners, who are among the fastest-growing segments of public schools and the most difficult to teach. 

The growing reliance on standardized testing and the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” is what’s driving the government’s interest in promoting charters. Any visit to a New York City school will show the majority of students engaged in practice tests and a curriculum designed to teach them how to take a test. Any teacher will tell you that there must be assessments that tell if a student is progressing, but it’s as if testing has become the goal of learning in itself.

Given these high stakes, schools with more failing students can face closure; it’s often in the interest of school administrators to eliminate the potentially lowest-performing students and, in effect, create a two-tiered education system: one tier for those on the way out of the inner city and another for those trapped in slums.

Currently, more than 24,000 New York City children are being taught in charter schools. These students are primarily located in the poorest areas, like Harlem and the South Bronx. These are also areas where many students have arrived from poor countries and face challenges in language acquisition and in overcoming the deficiencies of poor educational systems in their homelands. There are more than 15,000 students in New York who are categorized as at least two years behind their peers, and without massive intervention by specialized teachers and counselors, these students face almost insurmountable odds and have the highest dropout rates in the city. 

Meanwhile, teachers are being told that schools cannot afford to carry out their mandate to help students with special needs. According to one former principal, if every student with a right to referral for special help were to demand what the law already says is theirs, the school system would collapse. 

In his 2005 book, “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” Jonathan Kozol finds that segregation is back with a vengeance, with the proportion of black students in majority-white schools lower than at anytime since 1968. Kozol, in a series of books, has shown that inner-city schools have been devastated by conscious underfunding, leading to overcrowding, shortages of books and dilapidated school buildings. Even in a diverse city like New York, blacks and Latinos make up three out of four public school students, while most white students attend private schools or well-funded magnet schools. No wonder so many parents and students are angry and have lost faith in the system. 

The problem is in the system not in the schools. Some charter schools have been accused of nepotism, cronyism and outright corruption. There have been disturbing reports in some charter schools of administration-run “goon squads” terrorizing students into towing the line. A few charters buck this trend and demonstrate that there is a place for innovation. It would be great if there were schools where new methods, not tied to standardized testing, can be developed; where the questions of what exactly makes a good teacher and how the work of successful teachers can be replicated are presented and possibly answered.

Some English Language Learners have benefited from small charter schools and dedicated teachers who have developed their own assessments, rebelling against the batteries of mind-numbing standardized testing that determine the futures of principals and students alike. 

Studies indicate that, more than any other factor, the involvement of parents in the educational process has shown promise. Migrant education by New York State’s BOCES, or Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, has been at the forefront of teaching farmworkers facing challenges Upstate. BOCES teachers make home visits to the migrant labor camps in the dairies and orchards a key aspect of their outreach. Successful International Schools, charters that focus on English Language Learners, also actively pursue students who may easily have dropped through the cracks of the educational system. 

Philosophies that challenge the corporate thinking of Schools Chancellor Joe Klein and Mayor Mike Bloomberg do occasionally bloom through the cracks at charters. Ellis Preparatory Academy, located on the campus of John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, focuses on using inquiry-based methods to teach English as a Second Language to immigrant students who have come to New York City from every corner of the world. Inquiry-based teaching is a philosophy that says teaching should be centered on a student’s needs, not standardized testing.

A recent end-of-year assessment at Ellis was based on performing “Othello” with simplified versions of the play for English language beginners. Ellis has shown that standardized testing can be replaced by assessments that engage students in meaningful ways by involving peers and teachers together to help students to achieve their dreams.

But with more than 1 million students, how can charter schools — which, by definition, can never service more than a few percent of these students — ever change the status quo and make education meaningful? It’s time to reverse the conscious impoverishment of public schools by greedy, self-interested, corporate shills and recognize that education is the greatest gift that we give to our own future. 

DeRienzo teaches English as a Second Language at an elementary school in the South Bronx. He also co-hosts with Joan Moossy “Let Them Talk,” a live, interview program on Manhattan Neighborhood Network TV 3Tuesdays at 8 p.m.


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