If there is one thing that the charter school movement has highlighted in our current education system, it is the need for variety. Not every student responds to the same curriculum. Not every child matures at the same pace.
However, with the emphasis on standardized testing only growing more punitive, and school budgets continuing to do without in the arts and enrichment fields, variety comes at a premium. It either costs big money at a private school, or demands heavily of parents who may find themselves driving across town to magnet schools.
In pursuit of a solution, the George W. Brackenridge Foundation hosted a panel discussion on June 24 to explore innovation in education. The foundation’s educational offshoot Choose to Succeed with its board chair, Victoria Rico, is the driving force bringing many of the larger chain charters like BASIS and IDEA schools to San Antonio.
The topic was even hotter than the hosts anticipated. After a thought-provoking op-ed by author and panel moderator Richard Whitmire, the event had to be moved from the San Antonio Area Foundation to the Full Goods Building at the Pearl to accommodate the crowd.
The panelists represented various forms of innovation. Charter schools were represented by Jarrad Toussant, vice president for Texas with Rocketship Education, and Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools. Lorenzo Gomez, executive director of the 80/20 Foundation spoke about businesses and non-profit partnerships to create educational programs and improve outcomes. Carri Baker Wells, board chair of the SAISD Foundation, spoke on behalf of the strides public schools are making to broaden their approach to education and cultivate the kinds of partnerships that will give kids the diverse experiences that they need.
Much of the discussion centered on the role of technology in the classroom. The increased demand for science, technology, engineering, and math education has led to innovative ways to teach students about technology. When asked why it took outside entities to do so in the revolutionary style of CodeHS or Codeup, Gomez was pragmatic and earnest.
“You have to really be in love with change and most people aren’t,” Gomez said.
Wells spoke in support of bringing outside partners into schools as well, especially as content experts.
“Business has the responsibility to help drive innovation,” Wells said.
Quickly, however, the conversation turned from teaching tech to using tech to teach. “Blended learning,” the use of technology to teach kids, can range from math software to self-paced credit recovery programs. Its proponents believe it is a vital factor in creating the kind of diversity needed to educate across the spectrum.
“I don’t care how good of teacher you are; you’ve got 28 kids in a class for 90 minutes, there’s no way you can differentiate for that many students,” said Torkelson.
At IDEA Public Schools, students could expect to spend about 20 percent of their time on the computer using a math software that has had great results among students struggling to learn English. The software doesn’t teach word problems, and allows them to hone math skills without waiting until they are fluent in English.
Gomez voiced the concern of many, which is that the human element is irreplaceable. Even when teaching technology, such as with CodeHS at Highlands High School, he believes the strength is the humans doing the teaching.
Naturally, no one is going to argue that teachers are irrelevant. In fact, when proposed solutions to educational problems center on bringing new hardware into the classrooms, such as iPads, the panelists expressed their doubtfulness.
“It still comes down to transformational classroom teachers,” said Torkelson.
The key, all agreed, was to invest in strategic technology, accompanied with the professional development that would allow teachers to utilize it to maximum
effect. The fear, voiced by Whitmire, is that getting technology into the classroom has become an end unto itself, and is not being well used once it’s there.
With the array of panelists, the discussion inevitably came around to the conflicted relationship between charter schools and traditional public schools.
Charter schools, tuition-free institutions funded in part by tax dollars and in part by private fundraising, were invented as a solution to the needs of diverse student populations. They were intended to be incubators of innovation that could then be implemented across school systems. However, in San Antonio and across the country, the advent of charters has sparked a heated battle for students and the funds that go with them.
It’s hard to pinpoint where the animosity between traditional public schools and charter schools originates. When asked, leaders from both spheres in San Antonio will tell you that they are team players who welcome the opportunity to succeed together. Meanwhile, both claim that it’s the other side refusing to play nice.
Among themselves, charters are apparently quite keen to share best practices and new ideas.
“Charters have a reputation for sharing,” Whitmire said, crediting that largely to how many of their teachers are Teach for America alumni.
When Whitmire voiced his concern that traditional districts were not as keen to share ideas, Wells spoke to the source of their protectiveness.
“It starts with trust,” she said.
She spoke of the Bexar County School Boards Association, whose purpose was to share ideas and outcomes across the county for the good of all. The ultimate model of this sort of collaboration, extending to charter schools as well, is Spring Branch ISD in Houston, where charters were actually able to come alongside the traditional public schools to educate the students whom all agreed were not being well-served by traditional public education.
Gomez compared the charter school culture to that of a start-up, where collaboration creates a buzz of energy, because everyone feels they have something to offer.
“Everyone wants to know that they are a valued member of a winning team on an inspiring mission,” said Gomez.
He suggested that perhaps traditional public schools had not gotten that kind of encouragement, suggesting that teachers and administrators are feeling more embattled than inspired.
In the question and answer portion, Wells again had to answer for the seemingly defensive posture of traditional public schools. She was questioned as to whether or not the Go Public Campaign was, in fact a response to the attacks from charters. She confirmed that it was a positive message campaign that arose to counteract the negative messages being disseminated by the charter school community. No one school district had the resources to launch their own campaign, and so the 17 Bexar County districts banded together to create a unified front.
Toussant added that charter schools probably had not done a good job of telling their own stories either, which leads to the misconception that they are coming to town to destroy the neighborhood schools.
“I think we tend to be a little myopic in our focus on student outcomes,” said Toussant.
Panelists also had to answer to the suggestion that charters are siphoning off the best and brightest from the neighborhood schools around them.
Torkelson refuted that assertion, claiming that IDEA staff go door-to-door with simple applications, and often enrollment comes down to a lottery. The lottery winners and losers represent an even distribution of resources, and yet Torkelson cited a Mathematica study showing that the lottery winners do better than their lottery losing counterparts.
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Wells agreed, citing similar outcomes from SAISD’s in-district charters, though still maintained that some parent engagement made a difference.
The final question, directed to Torkelson, asked how IDEA planned to enact quality control as they grew.
With a 35 percent yearly growth rate, Torkelson’s answer seemed to be as simple as this: they have to. If they don’t provide a quality education, people will go somewhere else.
“Informed people have the ability to choose,” he said.
While acknowledging that this may be true, Wells pointed out that public schools have a public responsibility that extends beyond their own campuses. Neighborhoods are judged by the quality of their public school. A public school system is so tied to the fabric of a city, that its success cannot be negotiable.
*Featured/top photo:Richard Whitmire (far left) moderates a discussion among (left to right) Tom Torkelson, Jarrad Toussant, Lorenzo Gomez, and Carrie Baker Wells. Photo by Bekah McNeel.