Friday, June 29, 2018

Another View on Charters

by Someone Who Works in One

I’ve worked now in a number of charter schools. For people who’ve only worked in public schools charter schools seem like a mysterious, sinister world. Do teachers really have to work insane hours without a contract? Can your principal fire you for not liking your shoes? Are troublesome kids “counseled out”?

The answer is more complex than either “side” wants to admit. 

First of all, disclaimer: I’ve never worked at one of the “excellent” charter chains like Success Academy or KIPP. I have heard about the insane work hours at those schools. 7-5, or 7-6? I did interview at one of those chains where the principal cheerily said that “most teachers are here from 7-6.” I made a beeline out of that school.

Most charter schools have an “official” work time and an actual work time. The official work time is somewhere between 8 and 8.5 hours. The actual work time is almost always about an hour less, as most charter school days are not that much longer than the DOE school day. So after school when the kids are gone most teachers find themselves staring at the wall or watching Youtube vidoes. And then they inevitably sneak out. And there are DOE schools where the principals are crazy and your “official” work time is nothing close to your actual work time. Bulletin boards every three weeks! After school tutoring every day! I’ve seen it happen where a unionized DOE school has a bunch of young exhausted teachers there from 7-5 easily.

One thing about charters is for whatever reason (bussing, lunching in DOE buildings) many have a later start time than DOE schools. 9:00 is a pretty typical start time. This might or might not be to your liking. I’ve never been a morning person so I like it.

Now the thing about being fired. Yes it’s true — you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. There’s an upshot to this though — in the DOE, being fired is, like, a big deal. There’s a permanent red flag under your name, your social security number is put on the ineligible list, and many teachers have been completely traumatized by the endless “PIP” plans, “support logs,” and scathing observations. You’re made to feel harassed, worthless, evil, a danger to kids, as you sit through that painful appeal hearing with the principal hollering into the phone about what a lousy person you are. 

At a charter school, everyone takes getting fired with a grain of salt. Each charter school has massive turnover every year. People come, people go, and who cares if you got fired because in the charter world, who hasn’t? And principals who hire you all know the deal. They know that they need a teacher, and it’s best not to inquire too much as to why it didn’t work out at ___ Charter School. It’s a short term contract. At my charter school a long-time beloved veteran guidance counselor is leaving. He’s been there three years, which in charter world is an eternity. I just attended a DOE retirement party where the people had been working at the school for over 20 years. Most principals when firing people at charter schools give very vague reasons. “Not a good fit,” “don’t see a place for you,” etc. Corporate speak. But as I said, most people leave with an attitude of “Bye Felicia!” I’ve rarely seen people get truly devastated at being fired in a charter school. A few times teachers and principals have had to be fired because they showed up in the NY Post as having been fired from the DOE for something really serious.

Now about charter schools “counseling out” students. I can say with 100% certainty that maybe they do that at Success or KIPP, but at most charters it’s actually the opposite problem. Enrollment is always a struggle. So charter schools get a high proportion of kids with special needs, with behavioral issues, with academic struggles. It’s how they recruit — many go to public schools and have some sort of agreement with guidance counselors that if a student is really struggling, the counselors will suggest a different setting. And still by September enrollment is usually low and then there’s a beeline to find basically anyone. Kid got expelled from ___ school for starting a fire? Call them ASAP.

Most charters, however, are much looser with actually following the IEP guidelines required for kids. I have read some IEP’s which say specifically “6:1:1” setting and instead they are in an ICT class with 25-30 students. “Needs a para.” No para. It’s an eternal complaint of teachers in charter schools that there are so many kids with severe learning/behavioral challenges and so little support for them. After awhile teachers tend to become burned out. Regents passing rates and graduation rates at the charters I’ve worked at have been stunningly low. There are few consequences — charters are afraid of angering parents as enrollment is a struggle. One girl finally got suspended when she brought bleach to school and bit a dean. But this girl had been running wild the whole school year. She harassed me during lunchtime, following me into other teachers’ classrooms and physically shoving me and saying “get up bitch and get me my work because I want to leave for the day."

Charter schools have an opposite problem —holding onto high performing kids. I’ve seen it happen too many times. A child comes in, does amazingly well academically, and then starts to get frustrated. Few extracurriculars. Staying in school later when their friends in another school are playing after school sports. The behavioral disruptions in classrooms scare them. And finally at the end of the year they find a better school and leave. And everyone is depressed. “____ was amazing, so sad she’s going to another school.” “But it’s better for her. She’s too good for this place.” This conversation happens over and over again.

One surprising thing I’ve learned about working in charter schools is that teachers are often closer than they are at DOE schools. First of all we spend more time together. But I think another thing is the shared frustration, the attitude of we the teachers vs. the clueless admins. In DOE schools I often found many teachers where their highest priority was being close to the admin. I once knew a lady who loved to march into the teachers’ lounge every day and announce that she’d just had breakfast with the principal. In charters there are maybe one or two people like that but most dislike the admin and what’s the point of being close to them, when you’re likely working there one year, maybe 2 or 3 at most? Plus admin turnover is so high that being “close” to admin can amount to absolutely nothing. Many people I’ve met working in charters I’ve remained close with long after leaving the school. The shared experience bonds us forever. 

And so here’s a hopefully more balanced look at working in charter schools. It’s neither as amazing as the NY Post would have you believe, nor as awful as some UFT bloggers insist. It’s actually just like your average job: crappy in some ways, okay in others, pay is decent, and if you don’t like it, well, just stick it out till June and go elsewhere.
blog comments powered by Disqus