The best and worst of our charter school experience

I was beyond thrilled when my older daughter got into the charter school of our choice. This particular school has been featured on Oprah, 60 Minutes, PBS, and countless articles as a pillar of what the best of charter schools can offer.

Unlike public schools, this school had longer hours. Instead of an 8-2 day, my daughter was in school from 7:25 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. While this sounds like a lot for a 5th grader, it allowed more time in the class for teachers to work with the students, she had Art, P.E., Technology, and Music as part of her school time (instead of carting kids around to after-school programs), and even time for recess and lunch.

I fell in love with the school on the very first day. Their rules were strict, but the teachers and the principal were extremely compassionate and positive. They believed in every student’s ability to succeed.

My daughter went from an average student to a straight A student. After she got used to having 2 hours of homework a night, she rarely needed help (but knew it was just a phone call away, as the teachers were required to be available by cell until 8 pm). Instead of a PTA, we had breakfast with the Principal one Saturday a month. Everyone contributed, and we all had an equal voice. We could ask any and every question, and through those meetings, new concepts were implemented. For example, after the Principal heard many parents voice their concerns, he included information on the weekly newsletter about cognitive and physical development at our student’s age. I had never before felt like I had such a partner in my child’s education.

Then the dream turned into a nightmare. With less than 2 months left in the school year, I learned that the Principal was leaving, and with him 2/3 of the teachers. After a few parents heard this, we started asking questions and set up a meeting with the President of the Board of Directors and the new Principal.

Unfortunately, the Board was disbanding and a new Board (with members yet to be named) would be in place before the new school year. The outgoing Board really wasn’t concerned with our issues. Because it’s a charter school, there was already a long waiting list of students and parents ready and willing to take our place. Our voice was completely powerless.

For those reasons, and other personal reasons, we decided to leave at the end of the school year.

I remain eternally grateful for that dream year. Being back in public school, I’m frustrated again with the “system.” Too many students, too few teachers, too little time. Students that fall behind may never catch up. I do not have the same access to the Principal and the teachers that I did at the charter school. They have half of their PTA meetings during the workday so I am unable to attend. For every problem encountered, there is no solution: just the mantra “no money, no time” as an answer.

My daughter is doing fine. That year grounded her, and she knows how to take responsibility for her own success. She is motivated to do well so that she can attend the high school she wants to attend. I still feel confident that we made the right decision to leave the charter school because it was simply not the same school anymore.

On the other hand, my younger daughter’s public school feels like home. We have a great Principal and other staff members that keep the children motivated with positive reinforcements. The PTA meets on weeknights, offers child care, and is an open forum for everyone. Parents are welcome to help in a variety of ways, and such assistance is genuinely appreciated. While the school still encounters many of the same problems of lacking money, time and resources, everyone is willing to at least consider options for resolution that will benefit all of the students.

The LA Times recently ran an article on the accountability of charter schools. While I understand that the freedom of being a charter means they don’t have to teach to the test, I would strongly recommend that any parent investigating a charter to learn as much as possible about the Board of Directors, and the employee retention record. I found out too late that this particular charter school had been through 3 principals in as many years, had a fairly uninvolved Board, and some staff members that didn’t share the passion and commitment that the teachers had for the school.

When we first started there, I claimed that charter schools were the answer. Now I know that it’s all about the people. Want to know if a charter school is right for your child? Check it out here.