My view of charter schools has been less than positive since they began to appear more than a decade ago in New York State. Public tax dollars go to a company who comes in and attempts to improve the education for a set population of students who are chosen from a lottery system. Money is spent on a pseudo-private school, one that does not have any outside oversight such as a superintendent, just a school administration and a principal, with the next step being the New York State Department of Education. All this comes under the guise of providing a ‘better’ education than their public school counterparts.
The lack of oversight and absence of unions lead to an environment where the school does not have to pay the prevailing wage so that money can return to the classroom where students can learn more due to a longer school day (a benefit), a broad curriculum (another benefit) and the ability to utilize the school in ways that public schools rarely do. In this case, a four-day long ‘Bootcamp’ was held this week from April 10-13, where students came in and were tutored by teachers both from the school, as well as those hired from a Craigslist posting, in order to prepare them for the upcoming New York State Assessment tests in ELA and math over the following two weeks. The school had hired a consultant, Elizabeth, to run the Bootcamp for the week, so that the school could meet their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), as the school is up for renewal of their charter this year. Elizabeth is hired to help improve Charter schools in Upstate New York and New York City, where test results are used as a major factor in determining the school’s renewal fate. I was one of these tutors not employed by the school and I readily responded to the ad, since I had not been in a classroom since last June when I was the victim of the Last In First Out seniority policy. I went in with an open mind, hoping that my earlier view of Charter schools would be changed. The experience was both eye-opening and reaffirming of my view of charter schools.
The school holding this Bootcamp was Albany Preparatory Charter School, located mere feet from the Governor’s Mansion. I arrived last Thursday for a two-hour informative session on the role of the tutor in the Bootcamp. The students would arrive before 8am, some would have breakfast and then take their seats at fold away tables in the gym, where it was loud and echoing enough during this training that I wondered why we weren’t using classrooms, although a few rooms were later used by tutors and students. The sessions were expected to be very timely and follow a set schedule for each day: 10 minutes of ‘Mad Math Minutes’ followed by an hour and a half of ELA, then time for corrections and a showdown of top students, before more math was attempted. I felt the schedule was good and spread out the two subject areas but the materials given to us on the first day were riddled with errors. I was assured by the consultant from New Heights Analytics, Elizabeth, who ran the Bootcamp that I was smart enough to catch and correct the problems, all while supporting my students and keeping order at the table. Mind you, these were not items made by a teacher; they came directly from a book that had errors in math that fortunately, a very quick student was able to notice. Students were to have their work graded and recorded, but not gone over until later that day or even the next day. With little oversight and plenty of questions from my students as to what the correct answer was, I quietly broke from the schedule and went over wrong answers, satisfying their curiosity and teaching them a valuable lesson in the process. The students were hard-working, although I’m not sure the moniker ‘scholars’, as Albany Prep calls them, is one that will make them better learners. I have always found wordplay with which the students and teachers are to be called quaint and not affecting any real change. We are all students, even after finishing classroom learning. But the week was off to a positive start with two students who were content being there on their vacation.
Moving onto an hour and a half of ELA, one student had spent the time with math guessing at most answers, so I let my only other student, the one who noticed the error-riddled worksheets, move on to the reading and answering exercise while I focused on math with this student. We spent the next 90 minutes looking at each problem and trying each one out, going over the method and eliminating wrong answers before settling on a correct answer, rather than looking at the problem and guessing at it outright. It was painstakingly slow but this is my favorite part of teaching – working 1 on 1 with a student who is struggling and raising them up to a level of understanding of the material that allows them to work independently, as well as learning to ask for assistance when needed. We approached the sixth grade materials one at a time and I discovered the student, tired but determined, had no idea what some basic sixth grade math topics were – order of operations (PEMDAS, or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally) was unknown to him, as were many grade-level topics.
Around lunch time the students’ teacher nearest me, lets call him Greg, came over to speak to me about this student. He remarked that he was teaching him math, although he was only hired in January and noted that this student was one of his ‘low-learners’, showing that this was a persistent problem over time and not just relegated to today or this week. This teacher was also a substitute in my classroom last year for both myself and the five teaching assistants that I worked with, so I took him at his word, knowing that he had previously been effective with known students. Shortly after the end of the day, I spoke with Elizabeth and she assured me that all students were scholars and that none should have such difficulties, rather they were here just to brush up for the tests next week, ones that Albany Prep hasn’t been faring too well on as of late. She assured me that this particular student was in fact, ‘messing with me’. I was a bit surprised but gave a little benefit of the doubt and asked why she thought this. Her reply: “Our students are all highly motivated, learned, and know this material. If he were struggling that much he was clearly messing with you. He’s smart.” This, coming from a consultant who did not have any understanding of the student’s ability level shows the disconnect that is common across the board at schools, although school employees who know the students on a more personal level than a consultant do not artificially inflate their student’s ability despite proof otherwise. After a meeting of the tutors to assess what went right and what needed to be focused on, I left for the day, satisfied that I had done a good job and had a great experience teaching in a school setting once again.
Mind you, this is the same school that not two years ago was facing probation for trying to improve the school’s test scores and had denied admission to – or wait-listed – students with learning disabilities. The school also “pre-tested” students, and the parents of those who did not score well were counseled that Albany Prep was “not a good fit”. Yet I was assured that this student was performing to grade level, if not higher, and was merely pulling the wool over my eyes for 4 hours; this from a consultant who only asked the student’s name after I insisted he may have more deficits than they realize. Being special education certified, problem areas are easy to notice, especially in working one on one with a student for the majority of the time allotted.
Oh, a word on discipline – it was practically non-existent, despite best efforts by fellow teachers. Our scholars, varying from table to table, spent the time talking with each other and those at nearby tables while refusing to do work. Only a small part of this blame is on the tutor, some of whom had limited classroom management skills. Much of the blame is on the students. A great number of these students/scholars did not want to be here on spring break and few understood why they were here. Tutors and teachers alike not only had to attempt to tutor students/scholars who did not want to be there, they had to do so in a noisy gym with incorrect materials on a schedule that was barely followed. It seemed that while this week’s learning was mandatory for some, there was no plan in place to require students to attend the Bootcamp, despite buses and breakfast and lunch plus an afternoon activity planned for all. The degree to which learning was done that day was far from all expectations, and these concerns were heeded, somewhat, by the consultant.
At one point, I was asked for my nomination for ‘Showdown’ where 20-25 students gathered in front of the stage with a dry erase board in hand, to listen to questions shouted out by a teacher on the stage. My student stood helplessly in the back, without any ability to hear what was going on over the other students. He came back to the table disappointed and we went back to some other math which I considered a better use of his time. My other student at the table had shut down by now, after the consultant whom I would later express concern to said “you have to pick one of them”, making the selection process not just public but embarrassing for the student not chosen as well. I felt bad for the student and picked up our earlier conversation from lunch on the upcoming Avengers movie. If the two hours to end the day were better utilized, we could have picked up where we left off with math or moved on to writing. Instead, loud classrooms with movies playing on dying laptops rounded out the day. Needless to say, this student did not attend Bootcamp again this week.
The second day found a third fewer students (now 100 or so) in a gym that was far less noisy and distracting. I worked with my lone student, the one who pointed out the errors the day before, and even let him work through the tutor’s copy of the correct answers, so that I could see him learning, independent of me, how he got a few questions wrong. Not all students are able to do this, but when you find one who is looking for errors and seeks to improve, it is a truly great sight to behold. Two new students were brought to over to me, one of which had worked fastidiously on an essay comparing a handicapped fictional character, Andy, to Lance Armstrong. His essay was good, but it needed to be expanded so we did just that. We had a solid ‘3’ paper by the end, the best grade possible for the NYS ELA assessment. The third student, a girl who immediately voiced her displeasure being removed from her friends, did little work and was distracted by the 100 or so students around her. Although she sought to avoid the writing portion, we slogged through the process and found success in random spurts, when she was on task and focused. We got to math and she excelled, even learning a few things in the process (triangles have 180’, the median is the middle number in a set of data when arranged lowest to highest, etc…) but still not thrilled with being here this day or any day. Although gruff, she was able to smile when she learned a topic and succeeded in both math and ELA. It seemed to me that the students who were here were a mix of ‘needs help’ or ‘needs to polish skills’, but those in the former were not pleased to be there on vacation and an exercise in futility had commenced.
That afternoon, while the students were roller-skating in the same gym they had learned in earlier that day, the tutors (non-staff) were brought to a room to discuss how the day went and determine what to do from 1-2pm – sort baskets of materials, supervise roller-skating or organize some data. I chose the latter because of the three it was the most appealing to me. I sat down with two fellow tutors, each of who were a certified teacher and none of who had a teaching job. All three of us lamented the state of education in New York, the lack of available teaching positions and working two jobs each. We did grunt work for the next 30 minutes, writing down by hand the names of students absent these two days so that they could then be put into an Excel file, a duplicitous process indeed. We finished quickly and had another group meeting at the end of the day about what Thursday would bring. I suggested that a table near me be broken up, as the students were distracting all around, despite the efforts of the tutor who was otherwise helpless and agreed with me. The suggestion seemed to be taken and when I arrived on Thursday, that table, as well as my table, had moved to accommodate different students.
Thursday proved to be slightly less productive day. I arrived 10 minutes late, although another tutor signed in alongside me so we each went right to work at our tables. Ten minutes of working with my two students had passed before a woman named Ginger asked me to see her in her office. I finished up working with the student who caught the errors and was now moving on to 7th grade math, and went to see Ginger. She informed me that because I was late I was not needed today. I explained to her that my lateness was due to a sick pet and arranging for her to go to the vet a few hours later but she did not care, for she was not the one who made the call. The coordinator of the Bootcamp made the call and although we walked by each other fifteen minutes earlier and exchanged pleasantries, she asked Ginger to break the news to me. I was appalled at actions of the administration, which was undertaken here to rebuff a tutor who had modified his schedule at two other part-time jobs in order to work with these students, making them a priority for four days. Ginger didn’t care and the woman, who mistakenly reported me arriving late the day before, was nowhere to be found. I left less than thrilled with how the day started but vowed to be there extra early on Friday so that I might finish up my work with these kids. After all, $120 a day for 6 hours work is great money when teaching jobs are hard to come by.
Friday I arrived and was met by Ginger again, who informed me that she was the business manager. She said that she thought she told me the day before that I would not be needed. I assured her this wasn’t true but she ignored me and said my check would be in the mail, unlike the others who would be paid this day. We spoke briefly but tersely, and I explained that I had cleared my schedule again this day. I was working very well with the kids and had expected to work with them. She informed me there was a lack of need for tutors, and although I signed in with three others, only I was singled out. I left after getting assurances that at 2pm, I could pick up my $260 check and be on my way. While I am not irritated I was shorted $220 for the week that was expected, I was more concerned that this Bootcamp did little to help students thanks to being rigidly designed by a consultant, presumably in conjunction with administrators, and anyone who questioned the process or offered suggestions (ahem) was otherwise ignored or dismissed. The same can be said for teachers in the school who have no union to support them and can be dismissed on a whim.
Such is the state of Charter schools – independent of oversight, accountable to no one, not even taxpayers through a Board of Education (they have a Board of Trustees, much like a business) and able to make decisions impulsively and without any regard for facts or what is best for the students. This is the inherent flaw of Charter schools, that they exist outside the realm of public schools and use public money to fund a cheaper education while taking the savings to return that money to the classroom, but not to the teacher in the classroom. Some are known to be successful, such as KIPP, but others like Albany Prep do not help some students as much as they can and instead focus on those that can make the school look good. A study out this week in New Zealand reported that Charter schools make things worse, while praising the America based KIPP. Furthermore, a high-minority population school like Albany Prep may not be helping their students, per a report on Texas schools that shows Charter schools do not help African-American students.
When administrators come up with an idea for student success, such as Bootcamp, on paper the plan looks great. In practice, however, the plan is far from an educational utopia. Modifying the day’s plan, taking in outside information and input from tutors, as well as adjusting to changes in circumstances are not the things administrators at Albany Prep were capable of doing this past week. Sticking to the plan, going with their limited knowledge of the students and dismissing those who offered suggestions, those are the hallmarks of Charter schools in my experience, both before this week and after. It defies logic that Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan continues to promote Charter schools as viable alternatives to the current public school system we have today.
Although I must admit, the lack of the Last In First Out policy at Albany Prep and other Charter schools is applaudable. Now only if Charter schools were run less like a business and more like a school and with greater oversight, could results be seen in this expense of tax dollars that is otherwise taken away from public schools that so desperately need it. Schools are not businesses, they are centers of learning. Collaborating with teachers and tutors on what is best for the students is tantamount to a successful learning environment. When NYS assessment grades come out, I am curious to see where Albany Prep stands among their brethren in the public schools in the area. Certainly, a business must show a profit or be restructured or sold. The latter would serve Albany taxpayers the best.