Let's start with a parable. Say you pay for your child to go on a cruise with over 7000 other kids (it's a really big ship). The deal is that you, the other parents, and your neighbors all take up a collection at intervals to send fuel to the ship to keep it moving. The ship's never in danger of sinking, the kids will never be thrown overboard, and you know they'll get home eventually, probably better for the experience.
Another ship's captain comes along and tells you he's got a nicer, faster ship and will go rescue some of the kids if you give him some of the fuel and pay his other expenses. But he's only got room for about 300 kids, which he insists on choosing himself--he doesn't want discipline problems or sick children or any others that could make his boat look bad. And of the 300 kids he takes, he claims the option to throw any overboard who don't measure up (with a life jacket, of course, so they can swim back to the 1st ship). Would you give him the fuel?
This is sort of how charter schools work. They take a portion of our tax dollars and, even if they turn out to be great schools, they only educate a tiny percentage of our kids--and usually only the ones who perform well academically anyway and aren't discipline problems. And if the kids don't measure up, they send them back to the public school they came from. That way the charter school can keep their rankings up by manipulating their student population. Meantime, the public school rankings drop because they've lost their best students, and the district has less money for the regular schools because of tax money alloted to the charter.
Still, if you're a parent of a smart student, vulnerable to boredom and bullies, I can't blame you for sending your kid to a place like Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville, which has a few hundred Norristown students enrolled. You want to make sure they're prepared for college.
Ditto if you're the parent of a special ed. student (assuming the charter school has a special education program). You want your child to have more attention and not be mainstreamed or bullied.
Humanus already provides staffing for special ed. programs, autism in particular. They say their proposed charter school will have an exceptional special ed. program. However, they can't only offer special ed. because charter schools in PA must be open to all students within a district.
Humanus has said they'd start small, with kindergarten and first grade classes and only about 100 students. Yet, our elementary schools are doing fairly well, as evidenced by our test scores. I question the need for another option for kids that age.
On the information I've received from Humanus, they point out more than once that Renaissance Academy is a long bus ride, which says to me that Humanus is most interested in those higher-achieving students already enrolled in Renaissance than in any of the rest of our 7000 students.
Humanus listed Chester-Upland schools as an example of a district that they say has benefited from charter schools, so I asked a friend of mine who teaches in Chester for her experiences. Ruth Sheets grew up in Norristown, went to Norristown schools, earned a BS in Education and a MS in Gifted Education. She's in her 20th year of teaching in Chester schools. I've seen her in the classroom and she's one of the best teachers I know. I've also taught writing workshops with her students and I found them to be creative and bright, though tremendously burdened with the sorts of attitudes I've seen in N-town. People have been telling them for so long that they're worthless that they believe it.
I'm just going to quote from Ruth's email.
"Charter schools were supposed to be a great thing because they were going to enable new ideas to be tried out quickly so that the ones that worked could be used in regular public schools. This is not what actually happened. The charters in Chester...do nothing different from what we do in the regular public schools. Their teachers do not have to be certified (only 75% do. I don’t know if the schools even have to inform families if their child’s teacher is certified). The turnover rate is high, or has been.... The children’s behavior is no better. The regular public schools here get back a lot of the students from the charter schools and those children are nearly always behind the regular public school kids."
I think teacher certification is very important. I have a BS in Music Ed--which involved loads of pyschology, educational law and theory and teaching methods classes, classroom observation and student teaching at both elementary and secondary levels. A 3rd of the credits of my masters equivalency were courses in music ed. and pedagogy. I substituted for a year in Norristown schools, then taught 2 years full time here. I've taught community college classes, Main Line School Night classes, Elderweek classes, classes in writing at Norristown and Bluebell libraries, and for the last 17 years, I've been in the Young Writers Day program, teaching writing workshops in districts all over the area (in fact, I'm teaching 4th graders in Haverford next week). Am I qualified to teach full-time in the public schools? No. Certified teachers not only have the diplomas, they have full-time classroom experience and continuing education credits that they have to earn every year. So please, don't tell me that ANYBODY can teach. Try it for a semester yourself. You won't survive. In NASD, our teachers have an average of about 10 years experience and are highly qualified. The quality of the education they provide is not the issue.
As a taxpayer, I'd personally prefer that my money goes to fund our
public schools and not be diverted to charters. I don't believe
Norristown can afford to fund a charter school. Frankly, I wish there
were no charter schools at all, so we wouldn't have to spend dollars on
transporting students away from N-town and could use that money here at
home. I'd prefer to see any new funding (hopefully we might get some
under Governor Wolf's administration) go toward improving the schools we
have, particularly towards fighting the stigmas that we have as an
economically distressed community, and the poor school environments
those stigmas bring.
I'd have no objection if Humanus opened a private school in Norristown. If it turned out to be a good school, I'd support it and recommend it.
Humanus will be giving their proposal to the
School Board on Monday. Please express your own opinion, for or
against, before then by emailing the Board Secretary at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610-630-5010.