A while back, Will Carless and Dagny Salas asked for submissions to “Dear Superintendent …” — a place for people to send in ideas and requests for new Superintendent Cindy Marten. Mine requires a bit of explaining, so I’ll do it here instead.
I hope that Marten takes steps to make the best use of San Diego Unified School District’s successful charter schools as a resource to improve education for all district students, not just the ones who attend those charter schools.
I recognize that talking about charter schools is a touchy subject, so I want to be clear about the points that I want to make in wading into this discussion. (Disclosure: I work at The Preuss School UCSD, a charter.)
I know that the research on whether charter schools as a whole are better than their district counterparts supports varying conclusions. I know that there is a general suspicion that successful charter schools owe their results to “cherry-picking” or some other form of skewing their student applicant pool. I also know that charter school advocates are involved in the charter movement for a variety of reasons, including concerns about issues surrounding public unions, teacher tenure, school choice, the need for effective college prep tracks and raising low-income student achievement.
What I don’t know for sure is why districts create charter schools in the first place.
I think I know why they should: Charters are supposed to be laboratories for educational innovation, which can then provide some guidance to the district as it works to improve education for all students.
But the relationship between districts and charters sometimes feels less than friendly, and I wonder if this strained relationship has gotten in the way of improving education for all students.
I also know that there are a lot of successful educational programs taking place within San Diego Unified’s district schools, so I don’t mean to imply that charter schools should be seen as saviors.
Charters should be seen as another district resource to further improve education within the district. I think it’s fair to say that currently, charter schools and the districts that charter them are often seen as existing in opposition — probably because there are groups in both camps who do see each other as opponents.
The district and its charters should find some systematic way of taking the educational successes at charter schools and bringing them to scale at the district.
To give one small but significant example, Preuss held a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) workshop in early January on a Saturday for our families. Filling out the FAFSA can be a real pain for students who come from families where parents don’t have college degrees and have not gone through the college application process themselves (even parents who did go through the process will notice how much it has changed over the years). Our seniors and their families came to school with their most recent tax return, and sat down with teachers, counselors and bilingual volunteers who helped them fill out the FAFSA according to each family’s specific financial circumstances. As a result, 100 percent of our seniors have submitted the FAFSA.
I don’t think successes like this should be a cause to advocate for the dismantling of districts, as some (but by no means all) charter supporters tend to do. Instead, districts and their charters should find a way to work together to implement successes like these at the larger districts for the benefit of all students.
Say a sports franchise that wanted to upgrade its performance ceded space in their offices and training facilities to smaller independent teams with the power (and budgets) to experiment with new drafting strategies and training regimes, independently of the larger franchise. Some of the new experimental teams would fail and some would succeed. But when a successful team developed a way to improve athletic performance (assuming they did it legally), wouldn’t you expect the larger franchise’s management to adopt the new approach for their own benefit? In other words, you would expect the goal for the independent team to be to have its relative advantages erode over time as the larger franchise appropriates its successful strategies. You wouldn’t expect the independent team to take on a life of its own and directly compete with the larger franchise that gave it its autonomy in the first place.
People with kids who know that I work at Preuss often lament the fact that they can’t send their children to us (students only qualify to attend Preuss if they live in low-income families and their parents have not graduated from a four-year college). However, the successes at Preuss at and other charter schools like Gompers should be shared and implemented so that we can get away from the idea that a good education depends on “winning” a lottery.
So, Dear Superintendent, my request is that charters and districts reconnect with the original purpose of charter schools and share their educational successes for the good of all students.
And while I’m making requests, can we also get a longer academic calendar year and universal preschool?