A recount of my experience as a visiting teacher at a Charter school in Philadelphia during the 2011-2012 school year.
In the few months I have worked as a teacher, my outlook on the operation and foundation of what Charter Schools are has changed completely. Before, I believed Charter schools to be a saving grace from the public school system; brought about by people hoping to revolutionize education and the school system. Growing up in Maryland, a state that is a lot less charter friendly than the city of Philadelphia, I based my ideas about Charter schools on second hand information. Having lots of family from the District of Columbia and hearing how many parents had opted to send their kids to a Charter school to escape the frustrating antics of what the public school system had to offer can be attributed to much of what I believed. Now, just two months after working as an English teacher in a public Charter school in Southwest Philadelphia, a lot of what I once believed has changed.
I must say that in this city, Charter schools are very much a business. In my experience, the agenda is less about revolutionizing the school system and more about protecting reputation as a means to gain funding. In February, I was brought in as a visiting teacher at a reformed public school (whose name I will not disclose), now finishing up its first year as a Charter. I was assigned to teach a senior seminar class; a life skills class designed to prepare seniors for life after high school. In my mind, I imagined teaching this class would be a breeze. I quickly began designing lesson plans, creating surveys and working towards building a solid relationship with my students in order to help them as much as I could.
I quickly realized that my perceptions on what the ideal classroom setting would be were completely incorrect. For the most part, none of the students were where they needed to be academically. From reading skills to writing skills to critical thinking skills – even note taking skills – these students had been deprived of their educational rights. Getting them to understand some of the most very basic skills of the classroom setting in general was a battle. This was only the beginning. I had so much in mind for what I wanted to explore with them. From college applications to resume writing and interviewing skills – all of which were areas I had been psyched to learn about is high school – were of no concern to these students. It was clear that many of the students had been pushed through the school system for 12 years and at the end of their last year in high school, they were unconcerned with being challenged in any way. Many of the students were disrespectful, disruptive and resisted being helped whenever possible. The dynamic was very different than what school was like when I was in 12th grade. Because of this, I struggled with figuring out how I could teach people who didn’t want to be taught.
Apart from finding solutions to helping my students, I was forced to face the harsh realities of the intentions of the administration and the school itself. After having several conversations with different staff members, I quickly learned that the seniors were not on the top of this list when it came to priorities of the school. During PSSA testing, the standardized assessment given to students in public school in Pennsylvania, the truth came out. The 11th graders, being the grade level that tested, were the clear focus. Since the AYP is measured by the reading and math scores of those students who are tested, the seniors – being at the end of their last year and on their way out the door – were of no contribution to the overall progress of the school and the funding it would receive. This fact was no secret.
It became even more evident when I heard stories of the teachers that preceded me. The class I was now teaching had been through a laundry list of teachers throughout the school year, leaving the students with little to no guidance and no structure. When I was brought into the picture, I received no grade book, no roster, and no measure of progress of any of the students in the class. There was no one shadowing me to keep track of the student’s work or progress or grades. When I would ask questions or inquire about how students would be graded, I received cookie cutter answers and often times got no information at all. Because of this rocky road, it was a challenge even getting the students to trust that I would even be around long enough for them to care.
The biggest struggle of my position came with the senior projects. As with any group of graduating seniors, these students were to complete a final research paper on a topic of their choice, which would count as a graduation requirement. I saw requirements for the papers change on every level, from paper length, structure and style to even the due date. The school granted an extra month for students to complete projects on top of the 6 months of preparation they had already been granted. Because the paper counted as a graduation requirement, it made sense that the school would change many of the requirements to keep the numbers of failing seniors from skyrocketing. Large numbers of non graduates would be a bad look for the reputation of the Charter Company. Because this was the first reform year for the school, it was important for everything to look peachy. Teachers in the school informed me that we were basically lying to the students by telling them that not completing the paper would result in non graduation. How could they even think of failing so many students who, for the most part, hadn’t had a steady teacher for more than three months at a time (less than that in some cases)?
There was no accountability on the student’s part at all. During common planning periods, I would hear tales from other teachers about the school’s failure to step in and take the proper disciplinary action. Students could do next to nothing and not be penalized in any real way. These were teachers who had been working in the school for a great deal longer than I had.
In addition to this, I battled with accountability of students versus the social and cultural realities that many of them were facing. The neighborhood in which this particular school is located is not the best. Students who come from communities like this one – rich in crime, violence, drug activity and poverty in general – are mere products of their environment. Many of the homes that these students come from are dysfunctional. There is little to no guidance, no positive role model, and no reinforcement for progression or success. How can one expect children coming from environments plagued by so much negativity to thrive in a classroom; especially considering the racial structure of many school systems that group kids towards failure. The problem stretches farther than this one school.
The reality of the situation is that every day, people of color in this country are being robbed of their constitutional rights. By not being afforded the best possible education and educators, they have been stripped of any hope to succeed. When you encounter high school seniors – some 19 and 20 – who have no idea how to send emails, could care less about obtaining jobs or attending college, or students who can’t even write papers, you find a generation that is academically handicapped.
Although I am no longer working as a teacher at this school, my time there provided much insight for the work I hope to do in the future. Because so much of what I plan to do focuses on connecting community and literacy, I think that it was almost destiny to be granted this particular experience. Although the journey was challenging, it was rewarding as well. I learned to be less judgmental in interpreting the attitudes of young people (in this city especially) and was challenged to tackle personal goals like patience, will power, determination and leadership.