System-wide change: don’t settle for less!

By Lisa J. Cooley | Aug 23, 2011

The Rural Aspirations Project proposes to take Monroe's abandoned general store and open an innovative, project-based charter school there for 24 at-risk high school kids in our district.

It falls to the RSU 3 School Board to authorize this charter. It sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Two caring and highly competent teachers, community-based activities; it’s all good.

I believe that to evaluate the effect of such a project on education in RSU 3, we must look at the issue from the broader perspective of national politics.

Often, the evolution of an education activist goes like this:

1. I want my children to go to a school that understands them and helps them achieve their goals.

2. The schools aren't doing that; I think I'll get on the school board and try to make positive changes.

3. The problems of education are larger than my own district — I'll go to Augusta and agitate for change there!

4. That won't do it. The problems lie in national education policy.

Therein lies the rub: who really believes the changes we need will come about, before our kids have kids of their own? If we get a charter school here that helps some of our kids, it is better than nothing, right? Well, wrong, and I'd like to talk about why.

Before the advent of the No Child Left Behind legislation there were big problems in public education, and standardized testing was one of them. But NCLB put standardized testing on steroids.

If the goal of the legislation was to destroy public education then it is well on its way to success. In 10 years since the bill became law, public education has come unglued entirely.

Standardized test results attach to money that school districts badly need. Pressure comes down on school boards, who transfer it to superintendents, to principals and on down the food chain to the students. The focus of education devolves to the "drill and kill" model that gets results on the tests. This process is built into the system; it's irresistable.

Some good things are always happening in any school or district, but when they do, they must always be against the current of those all-important tests. I picture the kids in our schools as standing in a big field on a prairie, with a huge wind blowing them from the east.

Some of the kids are blown off the prairie, either dropping out when able to do so, or blown into homeschooling or private schools. Most families can't support that, so their kids go to school, struggle to remain upright, and try to learn what they can.

Enter the charter schools. They are a sheltered valley, a refuge for those who can't afford private school or homeschooling. To those kids and their parents, it can be a godsend.

Some say the Rural Aspirations Project will help make system-wide changes by pioneering the teaching techniques that will inspire change in the larger district. Charter founders nationwide have made this claim. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any school district has ever made changes as a result of the influence of a local charter school.

A successful charter school actually relieves a district from pressure to change. Parents who take this option for their kids lose their sense of urgency, dissipating the whole community's energy for change. That only makes sense: the impulse to take care of your own family is strong, and who really has time to take on the system?

A stand-alone school with 24 kids in a general store is a fresh, exciting idea, sure to get lots of good press and happy local support. How can it not work? Bringing about effective school change in an entire district is a far greater challenge.

To make changes that last, you have to go carefully through the process of building supporting walls of a new system when the old walls are still bearing weight. Those walls include everything that we old folks have grown up thinking as normal: age-based groupings, grading systems, report cards, school calendars, bell schedules, and so on.

Yes, taking the old walls out is a dangerous, intricate process — but make no mistake: they have to go. That is the only way to establish a system that can handle all kinds of options for students who learn in different ways, doing work that is rigorous, meaningful and relevant.

It can happen here. Momentum is already building for district-wide change. The industrial model of education needs to be completely overhauled, and I believe that in Heather Perry we have the superintendent who can do it. We are ready to create a system that responds to the needs of each child.

But in the meantime, if we authorize this charter, we will have to give them their due sum of money for each child who attends it, while our expenses go down not at all; in fact, in all likelihood, our costs will go up.

Anyone who says that a loss of any amount of money will make our job easier is simply wrong. Money is already scarce. Big cuts are still coming. Change is hard in any circumstances; in poverty it is nearly impossible.

Do we really need this charter here? Originally, charter schools were created, in large part, for underserved communities in large urban areas. In these cases, the charters were an effort to bring educational equity.

Here in RSU 3 there is no real divide in access to education between economic, racial or cultural strata. Some say that the at-risk kids are suffering most under this system that doesn't value what they have to offer and need to learn, but I believe that the traditional system fails the best students, too — and all those in between.

How often do we see a good student, who wants to do well, attach his or her self-worth to a number or a letter rather than what she is doing or learning? We are raising jaded kids, all across the system, and the bad news is often even those good students are ill-prepared for college. All kids need a new system.

The charter’s proponents claim to want to teach at-risk students, but the law requires that they open their doors to all who want to get in; if the number exceeds their capacity, a lottery will be held. It will create a division between students, and engender an undercurrent of resentment between those who are a part of the excitement, and those who get shut out.

It is beholden to the same standardized tests as regular district schools, and is therefore subject to the same pressures. Its budget and policies are not held to the same standard of public accountability. In short, a charter does not bring the changes we need.

I've been on the RSU 3 school board for nearly eight years. School change has always been my goal. I'm not discouraged; very much the opposite. But I can tell you from personal experience that if board meetings and committee meetings had a consistent number of community members in attendance, urging and arguing and standing firm, things would change.

Don't be satisfied with the creation of a charter school. Learn about how we can change all schools to places where every child is respected for what is inside them, and given the resources needed to develop the best of who they are.

Lisa Cooley lives in Jackson, and is that town's representative on the RSU 3 School Board.

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