Teacher’s-Eye View of Life – and Death – Inside a Charter School

Reposted from CoLab Radio, a project of the MIT Community Innovators Lab.

Posted May 31st 2012 at 7:10 am by 
in First Person Policy

Firing Day at the Charter School

I just quit my job as a teacher in an urban charter school. Even though I still don’t have another job and I support myself entirely, it is the best decision I ever made. It is especially liberating this week while my colleagues – and after five incredibly stressful years on the education front lines, my truly beloved friends – wait for the June 1 ax to fall.

Every June 1, the exhausted teachers and staff at my school learn whether they will be rehired for another grueling year. Last year the school gave 43 staff and teachers the you’re-outta-luck-pal letters, including the entire three-man physical education department and the student support genius, Dany Edwards, who somehow made harmony out of the schools’ cacophony of crazy student behavior. This year the school’s three glorious new gymnasiums are largely unused because we have no gym teachers and Dany is dead of unknown causes. Whatever happened to this beautiful young man, firing him didn’t help him live any better or happier for his last few months on earth. And the kids he championed lost his tender, tough, hilarious and real guidance.

This post is dedicated to you Dany, one year after you ran from the building in frantic disbelief, waving your letter as you ran up and down Hyde Park Avenue, looking for people to share your grief. If they can fire you, they can fire any of us. Except they can’t fire me. I beat them at their game.

Dany Edwards, by Sean Flaherty
An image of Dany Edwards. Art by Sean Flaherty, who was also fired from this charter school on June 1, 2011.

The first thing you need to know reader, is that there is no job security at a charter school. Even excellent veteran educators, like the three physical education teachers who were fired one year ago, are vulnerable. Between them these men gave something like 35 years to the school. They offered serious nutrition education in their fight against childhood obesity. They miraculously coached kids who have hair trigger tempers through team sports without break-out fights. They taught the kids good sportsmanship and how to represent themselves, their families and the school during games at other schools. They taught yoga, which the kids actually used to calm themselves in class. And they worked the kids hard. Oh how I miss seeing the kids come to class from gym all red and sweaty and happy. This gymless year, the kids seem fatter and more out of breath as they huff and puff their way to the third floor.

Dany Edwards, by Sean FlahertyDany “Devs” Edwards. Image by Sean Flaherty.

To you Michelle Rhee and all you anti-union fanatics, you are wasting your time waiting around for superman. They already fired superman at my school. You see a union would have protected Dany as well as these three talented teachers who provided quality physical education to all of our 1200 students. Meanwhile, some not-so-gifted staff and teachers get to keep their jobs every June 1. At least public schools and their unions have transparent guidelines for tenure and enough respect to let teachers know they won’t be rehired for the next school year by March or earlier. June 1 is late to jump into the teacher hiring season. I suspect the administration keeps it a secret to the bitter end because they don’t trust us to keep working hard. They are suspicious and we are paranoid. It’s part of my school’s culture.

The second thing to know is that we work very hard at my charter school, completing endless tasks that are not designed to instill habits of critical thinking in our students. Rather we are driven like cattle to collect mounds of data, to divvy the data up into tidy and irrelevant skill categories, and finally to create individual action plans to remediate each student’s poor data points. We are required to write lesson plans that note exactly which discreet skills we will be working on during every minute of every school day while delivering scripted programs. It takes hours to make these plans and we don’t use them. Can’t use them. Because kids are unpredictable and surprises happen. Most of us work at least ten hours on every weekday preparing our rooms and teaching. We continue working on weekends. The building is open on Saturdays and during vacations and there are a lot of cars in the parking lot on these days off.

This heavy workload doesn’t even take into account the trauma and anguish of working with urban children who suffer all the indignities of poverty. One day last week I had to file three mental health emergencies for neglect – two for kids who reeked of urine and one for a boy who was wobbly with hunger. One of our school psychologists once explained that many of our students come to school afraid and then stay afraid all day, afraid that their home or family may not be there when they get off the bus. These are the kids who constantly disrupt the classrooms. If Dany had been allowed to continue his ministerial work, he would still be providing discipline, safety and love for these broken children. And he would be giving us teachers rock solid support without judgement in our struggle to keep these kids learning. The school psychologist said she prayed for the students’ safety every night. In case you are wondering, she quit before they got a chance to fire her.

Our workload is a favorite theme of the school’s superintendent and CEO. Charter school leaders love these business style titles. Dr. CEO often chuckles during all-staff meetings at how we charter school teachers work harder than they do in Boston Public Schools and get paid less for our troubles. Apparently he doesn’t know how insulting this is. Last December a group of administrators entertained us during a holiday party with a school version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas that included a verse about how little we get paid for our hefty workload. That was the last time I worked a ten-hour day and the moment I knew I had to quit.

The third and last thing for you to know is that psychological torture precedes the June 1 firing ritual in the form of annual performance reviews. It looks like our new principal has brought this final blow to a new level. I’ve talked to many teachers and they report the same experience. He begins the review with gracious smiles and copious thank-yous for our commitment and hard work. And then he trashes our performance. So many of us have “failed to meet professional standards,” you would think the school could barely function. Teachers are leaving their performance reviews convinced their June 1 letter will be very bad news. They have to sweat it out to June 1.

Dany Edwards, by Sean FlahertyDany Edwards. Image by Sean Flaherty.

The most disturbing part is that the principal already knows who will be rehired. And he knows which teachers have especially compelling reasons to stay one more year. But he keeps them guessing. He doesn’t even give them a reassuring wink or a thumbs up. Just a fake thank you. Another administrator asked me last week if people were freaking out, and then changed our plans for getting a drink after work on June 1. “I don’t want be out when people are all upset about losing their jobs.”

This week it feels like the school’s windows have been draped with heavy black curtains and the florescent ceiling lights are flickering. The kids are more difficult than ever and we don’t have Dany to let the sunlight in. No matter what happens Dany, I will never work in another charter school. That’s the least I could do.

Editor’s Note: The author of this post was terminated immediately and escorted out of the public charter school on the morning of June 4th, 2012. Although she had already given notice of her resignation, she wasn’t allowed to finish out the school year with her students and colleagues as is the school’s customary practice.

Post by Nancy Bloom. Art by Sean Flaherty.

Bloom also wrote We Need Problem Solvers, Not Test Takers for CoLab Radio.

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Update: charter initiative coalition to begin collecting signatures in two weeks

According to the Seattle Times, the charter initiative coalition won’t begin collecting signatures for about two weeks, so they will NOT be “out in force” at Folk Life. Therefore “Decline to Sign” leafletting will also not be happening at Folk Life. We’ll post more information as we know it.

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Charter initiative coalition hires “No on 1098” consultant to run their campaign.

Charter initiative backers have brought in political consultant Mark Funk to head up their campaign. Mark Funk was the political consultant and spokesperson for the highly misleading “No 1098” campaign in 2010. Initiative 1098 would have imposed an income tax on the richest 5% in our state to raise $1-2 billion for, wait for it… public education!

Do millionaire charter backers really care about public school children, or do they just want to make sure they don’t have to pay the taxes that would actually help our kids?

Note: I’ll never forget a discussion among PTA members about the WSPTA support of charters. When the opposing sides of the argument tried to find something we could all agree on, someone suggested an income tax to raise revenue for schools. The most vocal pro-charter members immediately replied with such comments as “count me out!” I was naive enough then to be surprised.

Here are more details about the charter-funders from the Slog.


Big Money Pledged for Charter Schools Initiative

Posted by  on Tue, May 22, 2012 at 5:43 PM

Today a passel of organizations and lawmakers filed an initiative that would create 40 charter schools for five years, raising the possibility of taking a well-worn controversy to Washington State voters yet again. (The state posted the text of the measure in this Word document.)

With only six and a half weeks to finalize ballot language, print petitions, and gather more than 241,000 valid signatures, the initial question seemed to be whether this yet-unnamed group was serious. Secretary of State’s office spokesman David Ammons said it is “virtually unheard of to start this late.”

But while Mark Funk, a campaign operative brought in to handle media for the initiative’s roll-out, was short of details this evening—he was confident that there was money in the wings. “We have, how would I phrase this, there are pledges that have been made to this,” Funk said. “We will be a position to undertake a robust paid signature gathering campaign.”

Charter schools, which use state money to fund private schools, have traditionally been heralded by conservatives as a panacea for government’s ineptitude at education—despite data that shows they aren’t terribly effective. However, charter schools picked up the support earlier this year of Democratic state representative Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle). He introduced a bill, which failed after the governor threatened to veto it.

Hoping to find more support from the electorate at large (though voters in Washington have repeatedly opposed charter schools), the initiative campaign includes: Stand for Children, the League of Education Voters, Democrats for Education Reform, Pettigrew, and Republican state senator Steve Litzow.

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Charter Schools Initiative Introduced Today, First Analysis

 From PAA-Tacoma 

From PAA-Tacoma A charter schools initiative introduced today will be on the November ballot, if supporters are able to gather 250,000 signatures by July 6th.  I did a quick read through today, to see how it compared to the very problematic bill introduced in the last legislative session.

Some initial thoughts:

While this past session’s bill limited the establishment of charter schools outside of “at risk” communities, this initiative explicitly doesn’t:

“Authorizers shall give preference to applications for charter schools that are designed to enroll and serve at-risk student populations; provided, however, that nothing in this act shall be construed as intended to limit the establishment of charter schools to those that serve a substantial portion of at-risk students or to in any manner restrict, limit, or discourage the establishment of charter schools that enroll and serve other pupil populations under a nonexclusive, nondiscriminatory admissions policy.”

In other words, while the initiative is worded as though charters are intended to serve at risk kids, there’s nothing stopping wealthier communities from establishing them.

Like the last bill, this initiative creates a right of first refusal for charters, for any surplussed school buildings.  This creates a problem for districts to balance enrollment in under-enrolled neighborhoods (making it more likely neighborhood schools will close.)

Issues also carried over from the last bill:

  • the initiative allows “conversion charters” with a parent or teacher trigger but establishes no particular framework for how the petition process will take place
  • charters can be authorized by an appointed charter schools commission (in addition to school districts) in which case school districts will have no authority over their budgets or enrollment.
  • collective bargaining units are limited to a single charter school even if the charter is authorized by a district
  • charters can only be closed for poor performance following a lengthy process including a right to counsel, and to call witnesses (rights public schools facing closure do not have)Changes from the last bill
Changes from the last bill
  • no transformation zone section, no involuntary charters (thankfully)
  • explicit prohibition against contracting for educational services with other than non-profit entities.
  • charters can only be authorized by a district or the charter schools commission, no universities/colleges
  • limited to 40 charters in the first five years

This was a quick first impression, I’m sure other issues will come to light as others read the initiative.

Full text here:


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Charter initiative coalition already has $7 million war chest.

As we said yesterday, while the collection of 250,00 signatures by July 7 seems a Herculean task, the pro-charter coalition (LEV, Gates, Hanauer, Stand For Children and no doubt a panoply of other deep-pocketed usual suspects). Signature collectors will be out in force at the Folklife Festival at Seattle Center this weekend. Some PAA-S volunteers will be there passing out flyers. Please contact us if you can give some time to this effort [email protected]. If you happen to be there and see a signature collector, please feel free to talk to anyone considering signing.

Here’s Crosscut on the coalition’s big money:

“Jolt pooh-poohed the charter schools initiativeTuesday—it seems a bit late in the game to just be getting your signature gathering effort underway for the July 6 deadline (they’ll need 241,000 valid signatures).

But a source tells Fizz that the campaign already believes it has $7 million in commitments toward supporting their cause, including $4 million from the Gates Foundation and $1 million from Nick Hanauer, the local investor, big Democratic donor, and ed reform advocate who caused a flap earlier this year by bad mouthing Jay Inslee over education issues.

Speaking of Jay Inslee, if the charter initiative does go forward, watch for the anti-charters Washington Education Association, the teachers’ union, to match the charter camp in spending, which will drain a traditional source of money away from the Democrats in the governor’s race.”

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LEV files initiative to put charter schools on the November ballot

A coalition of education advocacy groups has filed an initiative asking voters – yet again – to allow privately run, publicly funded charter schools to operate in the state of Washington. The initiative was filed by Tania de sa Campos, chief of staff of the League of Education Voters (LEV), but many other, as yet unnamed groups and individuals are involved of the campaign. Because venture capitalists and other billionaires are generally devotees of charter schools, there is no doubt this coalition has a lot of money to spend on their campaign.

Still, the backers of the initiative will have to collect 250,000 signatures before the July 6 deadline. That will require an enormous effort, but it is one which they are well equipped to fund. Let’s all save ourselves an ugly election battle and “Decline to Sign!”

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Education “advocacy” group, Stand For Children, endorses no-new-revenue Republican for governor

Three days ago, Stand For Children endorsed Rob McKenna, the Republican candidate for governor. The reason? Democrats wouldn’t give them their charter schools.

Remember venture capitalist (and League of Education Voters founder), Nick Hanauer, having a hissy fit when Democratic legislators didn’t deliver exactly what he wanted (that would be charter schools, of course)? Or, as one commenter wrote “Millionaire finds out world doesn’t revolve around him. Has temper tantrum.” (Actually, he’s a billionaire.) Well, it looks like more and more of our major education “advocates” are going the same way. What does this say about their commitment to public education? It says that their primary commitment isn’t to training better teachers, or reducing class sizes, or preserving counselors and librarians and art teachers, or ensuring quality early learning, or providing one-on-one tutoring for kids who are falling behind, or making sure school buildings are safe, or preventing overcrowding so that all kids can get in to AP and language classes and the basic classes they need to graduate. The primary commitment of education reform groups like Stand For Children is school privatization, full stop.

But be careful. You will hear McKenna say he’s going to increase funding for K-12, that he’s so committed to education he’s going to prioritize education spending above all else in the budget. What’s more, he will do this without raising taxes or closing loopholes. Not one penny of new revenue! How can he do this? By gutting all other social services like health care for the poor, aid to the elderly, recovery programs for addicts, shelter and assistance for homeless individuals and families, translation and transition services for non-English speaking immigrants, support for children in foster care, and on and on. This Scrooge-like strategy is unacceptable at a moral level. It would also be a disaster for public schools. You cannot help school children by pulling the rug out from under them and their families. If Stand For Children is really buying McKenna’s cynical act, then they do not deserve our respect. If, as is likely, they are willing to throw Washington’s families under the bus just to get a crack at winning on charter schools, they deserve our wrath.

*     *     *

For the real story on what it’s going to take to help our public schools, read the text of Governor Gregoire’s recent press conference epiphany on taxes:

We cannot properly fund our schools, our colleges, our universities, and early childhood education in this state without more money….There is simply not enough money in our current revenue stream to keep up with the cost of educating our young people so they can compete in the 21st century…. 

In 2013-15 (the next biennium) based on the legislation we passed, the price tag for K-12 education alone will be approximately $1 billion.  So to think that the legislature can cut $1 billion — they’ve already cut $11 billion over the last three years – without destroying the safety net…. The idea that we are going to turn the economy around in a split second and get $1 billion projected, there is absolutely nothing in terms of a forecast that would suggest that to be true…We have to have a long-term sustainable source of funding.

The state of Washington has got to step up and understand: we are not going to meet our constitutional mandate for K-12 education, our moral mandate for early learning, and our economic mandate for higher education, if we are not going to look at new revenues.

We all wish she’d said this sooner, but at least she’s saying it loud and clear now.

Democratic candidate Inslee should listen and change his tack. He, like McKenna, is insisting that we don’t have to raise new revenue to help the schools. His particular fairy tale is that the economy will improve and we’ll reap the money that way. You can see above what Gregoire had to say about that. If I were Inslee, I’d say it’s time to stake out my difference from the sweet-talking lies of my opponent. I’d insist we DO need more money for our schools. I’d repeat and repeat that this is no time to be cheap. I’d say we are hurting and we need the richest among us to step up and help the state that has helped them so extravagantly. And I’d tell parents exactly what I was going to do for their kids with taxes I’d be collecting from the richest 5% in the state.

Why doesn’t he say this? Do you think he’s afraid all those wealthy, education “advocates” and their venture capitalist supporters would abandon him? I think so. But, newsflash, Inslee, they’ve already done it.


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McAuliffe’s “Democratic” challenger backed by big-money charter supporters.

1st District: 20 year state senator and Education Committee Chair, Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell), is being challenged in the primary by non-politician, pro-charter kennel owner, Guy Palumbo. Palumbo is now running nominally as a Democrat, though just two months ago he identified himself as an independent and has been scathingly repudiated by First District Democratic Chair, Nicholas Carlson.

Palumbo is the favorite of Washington’s corporate reformers – LEV, Stand For Children, Nick Hanauer, etc. – who were so angered by McAuliffe’s staunch opposition to charter schools during the last legislative session that they’ve all but jumped ship - or, in the case of Stand For Children, fully jumped ship -to the Republican party. These deep-pocketed supporters have helped Palumbo raise ten times as much money as the veteran McAuliffe – over $50,000.

The Republican challenger, Dawn McCravey, Northshore School Board member (along with Chad Magendanz, fellow charter enthusiast and candidate for representative in the 41st district) is also vehemently pro-charter (she cites the charter issue as one of her main reasons for running).

In other words, if McAuliffe loses, single-issue ed reformers will have the ally they need to make their charter obsession a reality.

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