How charter schools betray their students and communities

Time and time again, too many charter schools have failed our students. While the teachers in charter schools are passionate about education, their employers betray them and their students with constant administrative changes, a lack of support, and unethical practices that make the schools a disgrace.

After completing my Master’s, I was offered $26,000 to teach seventh and eighth grade social studies. Because there weren’t too many opportunities to even submit my resume that summer, I accepted the job and began planning the day I was hired, despite the many difficulties that lay ahead.

To begin with, no teacher in the building had any kind of curricular support. The principal told us to look online for copies of the state standards that were in effect at the time and then print copies for classroom decorations. Teachers had no textbooks and no reference material, not even classroom sets of books. I bought my own textbooks and then cut-and-pasted copies for students. Later in the year when a new administrator decided that teachers with 100 students would be limited to 25 copies per day, many of my teaching plans went out the window.

The school environment bordered on hazardous. The building was a former Catholic elementary school that had been vacant for some time. Because of mold problems, part of the school was closed off. Some of the classes that were used still had mold, as did the cafeteria. There were exposed wires in the hallways, torn carpets on the floors, uncovered electrical outlets in the classrooms, and even a bee’s nest in a boy’s bathroom that was never removed.

Less than a month after school started, four teachers were fired because the school’s enrollment was not as high as the school administration projected. Seventh graders were put in classes with eighth graders and taught different curriculum at the same time. It was not an ideal situation for the students but the teachers charged ahead.

The school was part of a multi-state chain based out of Chicago. Administrators throughout were all Turkish immigrants. Several teachers were also Turkish. While I understood the administrators and fellow teachers with ease given my background in teaching international students while in college, parents and students frequently complained that they were unintelligible. Only one of the administrators that I met during my time had actually studied in the United States and he was attending an online university. At first, our school had three administrators: a principal, a Director of Enrollment, and a Dean of Students. The latter two were rarely seen.

When the four teachers were fired, the charter school operator decided to simply switch our dean of students with the dean of students from the Columbus school. In December, the same thing happened to the principal. In March, it happened again with the principal position. Thus, during a few short months in the year, we had five different administrators for two positions.

During “count week,” children were given free meals, candy, and bus passes as an incentive to have them in school. This may have been great for the students, but they were otherwise treated very poorly by the various administrators who came and went. Administrators applied rules whimsically, both with regarding to student behavior and student achievement. When a particularly vociferous parent complained to one of the principals that their child’s grades were too low, the principal simply changed the child’s grades electronically, causing consternation among the other students and the staff.

I set up the school library with donated books. I made a dozen house visits. I arrived at school at 5:30 every morning and left at 4:30 in the afternoon. I received the best possible scores on my evaluations. I took students on field trips with money out of my own pocket.

When it came time for OATs, as they were called then, testing was a disaster. Several Turkish men arrived and pulled “at risk” students from their classrooms, taking them to the moldy rooms in small groups, despite the lack of written documentation allowing accommodations. The week after testing, I went to school on a Saturday morning in order to keep ahead of my planning, and I saw a dozen Turkish men sitting in a classroom with stacks of OATs on their desks. The current principal brought a cup of tea and a plate of cookies to me while I worked alone in my classroom. He said that the men were simply darkening in the answers for students who wrote too lightly.

The director of enrollment was rarely around because he was based in Columbus. He was also responsible for payroll. Sometime in April, several teachers realized that although money was being taken from our paychecks, money was not being paid to the insurance company or to the State Teachers Retirement System. The insurance company told me that my plan had been cancelled. When I inquired to the principal about the problem, I never received a response. I wrote e-mails to the members of the Board of Directors as listed on our school’s slick website; however, all but one of the e-mails bounced back. One person wrote back saying that they had worked with the school’s franchise in another city, but had resigned several years earlier on disagreeable terms.

That week, I was supposed to receive an evaluation from the principal at the time, despite having been evaluated with exemplary remarks by several other administrators, both based in Dayton and based in Chicago. When I politely asked the current principal why he missed my evaluation, he rescheduled it for the following week. The next day, he told me and three other teachers that we would not be hired for the next year. He gave no reason, although he told me that I was one of the hardest workers and best teachers he had ever seen. I inquired again about the money missing from my check and asked again why I was not being renewed. A week later, I was told not to return to school the following day.

Of the twelve teachers that started at the beginning of the year, only four remained at the end of the year, two of them were from Turkey. The other two were fired over the summer, one of the Turkish teachers was transferred to Columbus, and the other quit, telling me he wanted to complete his Bachelor’s degree in the United States. Thus, there was a 100% employee turnover within less than a year.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the charter school was that it encouraged students to swap in and out of other schools. If a student had bad grades or difficult behavior, they were literally asked to transfer to another charter school. The parents were brought in and told that their child would be expelled unless they transferred to another school. This is an endemic problem not just at the school where I taught, but at all the charter schools in the area. Children came and went, much like the administrators. By the end of my tenure, I knew several students who had been to three different schools in one year. The revolving door system meant that there was little consistency for students. Add to that the revolving door of administrators and employee turnover, and there was no consistency. This problem is disastrous for education, although it is rarely discussed and this small paragraph does not do the subject justice. The system, however, is advantageous to charter schools who are then allowed to manipulate their data more easily.

While teachers took responsibility for their students, the administrators saw them as numbers and problems. Parents often simply removed their children from school because of the administrative problems, electing to send their children back to public schools. Despite all my efforts, I can’t say that I blame the parents. They are lured with promises of science education, glossy brochures, and websites with polished clip art.

I loved being in the classroom at the charter school. I loved the students and the parents. Unfortunately, environmental problems, rotating administrators, unethical behavior on the part of the charter school and its sponsor, student manipulation, a complete and total lack of curricular support, and terrible employee relations made school difficult for students, parents, and teachers. This situation is regrettably found in too many charter schools.

By Matt Blair, Springboro Education Association

2 thoughts on “How charter schools betray their students and communities

  1. While I agree that your experience at this particular charter school was awful I can’t say its liable enough to generalize it and say that ALL charter schools are the same. I, having attended multiple types of schools, loved charter schools. Are there bad ones? Absolutely (as your story clearly shows) but by the list of problems you gave at the end

    “…environmental problems, rotating administrators, unethical behavior on the part of the charter school and its sponsor, student manipulation, a complete and total lack of curricular support, and terrible employee relations made school difficult for students, parents, and teachers.”

    could be easily applied to public schools. I know it does because I’ve been in the system, inside and out. Sure most public schools aren’t literally rotting but with it’s new building programs and state of the art gyms it masks the fact that it, too, is rotting foundationally. Public school is not the holy grail of education. It has a lot of the same problems most schools do so please don’t generalize a whole type of schooling off one experience.

  2. […] The other piece, titled How charter schools betray their students and communities, describes the teaching experience at one of Ohio’s 16 Horizon Science Academies, charter schools operated by adherents to the Gülen Movement, a religious group founded by the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.    The experience was not good. […]

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