Chicago Charter Schools

I wrote this blog post back in February, but before I managed to post it the world changed rather dramatically. Now we begin to settle into our new normal, I’m revisiting what has formed the way I think about education. We will return to our schools (whenever that may be) I hope with a renewed vigour to improve the educational chances of our students. We should always be asking: what does great look like? This post is about a time when I was sure I was seeing “great”.

In 2012, I was granted a week’s leave by a kind Headteacher to be able to take part in a visit to see Chicago’s Charter schools with the charity Teach For All. It’s a visit I come back to again and again, often with the sad corollary question: why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the US Charter schools?

I started to teach in 2010, the same year that the documentary “Waiting for Superman” came out. As such, I was exposed from the early days of my teaching career to the incredible feats of learning happening in schools like the KIPP schools; I was exposed to the thinking of the short-lived but much-lauded chancellor of DC public schools, Michelle Rhee, and I was introduced to the British version of this in my training weeks with Teach First: King Solomon Academy.

I’ve frequently heard educators say that America is always five or ten years ahead of the UK in terms of education, and so a visit to their leading schools was likely to become a formative event.

An attitude that all the schools we visited seemed imbued with was success at all costs. We visited three schools – one elementary, and two high schools – all of which massively outperformed the local public schools, all of which had incredibly deprived in takes.

At the elementary school, in the middle of an estate strewn with boarded up and broken windows, an intake which was 96% free or reduced lunches moved around the building silently and were taught traditionally. Flags celebrating their teachers’ universities adorned the hallways, a feature notable across all the Charter schools we visited. Even the Maths examples were linked to university (“if you have a college degree, you earn 20% more than someone who does not. Work out what your take home salary would be with or without a degree for the average state salaries of these ten states”).

Yet I also witnessed heart breaking bullying of a child with clear special educational needs, who on the particular day I visited appeared to receive no specialised support at any point – not even a teacher giving her extra help in the lesson. When the teacher in one class asked the children to choose their partner, she tried in vain to get someone to work with her as her peers pretended she didn’t exist, before turning to me – the observer – and saying: “can I work with you please?” In terms of the ethos and culture of the school, the messaging seemed to begin and end with: we’re going to get to university.

Of course, it is unfair to judge a school on a one-day visit, but school culture inevitably pervades. This culture was evident in our next visit, to a high school where 75% of students received free or reduced lunches. The mission of university for all pervaded the school – though students were “tracked” into three streams, the expectation was that all would make it to university. One student told me that they were learning to be more independent (for example, students picked up work from a central area to complete if they had missed any school) because: “in college no-one will hold your hand.” What shone through most at this school, though, was love – the children we met absolutely loved their school. They proudly showed us their “anti-bullying pledge wall,” and were incredibly loving and accepting towards one another. This was most touchingly revealed when we saw lockers that were covered in wrapping paper, sometimes with balloons tied to them – a tradition that happened for student birthdays (we even, sweetly, found they had “wrapped” a teacher’s door having found out it was her birthday).

The final school we visited had an intake where 84% of students had free meals, 10% reduced lunches. The school mascot was this big cat, which they coloured in every time someone won their university place along with posting a copy of the acceptance letter.

Incredibly, on our visit day our staff orientation was interrupted to announce that the final member of the senior class had won their university acceptance: the cat was complete. 100% of that class had been accepted to a four-year university course, the most prestigious kind in America.

At this school, they didn’t just talk the talk of university – they also managed the practicalities. Students had three hours of classes a week on university: how to apply, how to get funding, how to study, how to live independently, how to balance work and university.

The students described incredibly tough discipline, starting with demerits and detentions, and escalating to Saturday detentions. If a student received more than four Saturday detentions, they would be held back a year in school. As you can imagine, this was quite a deterrent.

It is clear that the challenge for schools in England is tough: our system necessitates some children leaving our institutions at the age of 16, so we have more limited control over university acceptances. We can’t hold students back a year for poor behaviour. In other ways, of course, Americans face a far steeper challenge: excessive university fees, as well as access to healthcare and other benefits being more challenging.

This trip was formative for me though. Until you actually see it, you don’t truly believe it is possible – or else, I didn’t. I thought I had high expectations, but what I saw in the Charter school classrooms exposed these as frighteningly low.

And while the details differ, this visit taught me some overarching eternal truths about schools.

For example: the building doesn’t matter. Charter schools often open in the actual building of a failing school. Technology doesn’t matter. These schools all used blackboards and the occasional overhead projector (I might be the last generation of teacher who remembers these in their childhood classrooms!). Class size doesn’t matter. These schools are often widely oversubscribed, and classes were much larger than the state averages.

But culture matters. Parental support matters. Quality teaching – and all the attendant concerns like teacher development – matters. Curriculum matters. And belief matters. That core belief: it is possible, it is being done, we can do it too.

Why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the Charter schools? We can, we just haven’t yet.

2 thoughts on “Chicago Charter Schools

  1. I found this post inspiring. We have a proportion of our children who are not engaging with school due to behave, poverty, parents lack of support. We are hoping that parents, in this pandemic, will get on board with homeschooling, following the dedicated and detailed plans that we post daily. However, we only know by what is sent back, as to how the children are engaging. When we come back we will find ourselves in unchartered waters. This will be the time to look at how we can really close those gaps and make education a true leveller in our school.

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  2. I think a major factor here that is often overlooked in touting success of US charters is that they can choose their students. They can say they take all students, but they aren’t required to, and what it often means is that the children to have the most involved parents will end up choosing to go to one, because the parents cared enough to get involved in any way. This takes the most engaged families out of the local public school. Just like wealthy middle and upper class parents take their children out of public schools, the result is it ends up leaving a lot of the least engaged families at the public school and the struggle continues. The money that follows the charter school children to the new school that is often run by people in business (not always, but enough) leaving local schools with their usual operating expenses, but now lacking some of the reliable funding. And each chip at the foundation of the local community is cumulative.

    I worked at a charter school for five years, the mismanagement of funds and the frighteningly low pay for teachers (but mind you there was certainly money for administration and for hiring their family members as consultants) let me see first hand why a businessman had no business starting a school. Our graduation rate was dismal and the harm done to the students and families who attended there will probably never be truly understood.

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