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Originally published Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 5:08 PM

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Good charter schools have role when innovation is needed

Washington was smart to set up a process for weeding through charter applications and picking only the ones most likely to benefit the children they hope to serve.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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My opinion of charter schools has evolved as the schools and the movement itself have evolved. Early on, I was skeptical, but I came to appreciate what the best charter schools have to offer.

The strength of good charters is in their willingness and ability to do what is necessary to improve themselves and the life opportunities of their students.

Washington will have its first charter schools soon. Making that happen took awhile, partly because a lot of people have been suspicious of charters, which take public education money without being accountable to elected school boards.

My concern was that charters would cherry-pick students and maybe increase school segregation and that they would be a distraction from the work of making public-school systems work better for all students. And I wasn’t sure they’d be any better than most public schools.

Charters have had a mixed record. Some are great, some are awful and a lot are just OK; so Washington was smart to set up a process for weeding through charter applications and picking only the ones most likely to benefit the children they hope to serve.

The state has been cautious. Voters in a close 2012 election opened the door to a limited number of charters with a limited time, five years, to prove themselves. There were 19 applications. On Thursday, the state Charter School Commission chose seven nonprofit organizations to open the first charters.

One of the Seattle schools is not new to the state. It’s the one that will be operated by First Place, a 25-year-old nonprofit that serves homeless families, and will convert the private school it runs for homeless children to a public charter. Public money will allow the school to serve more children and to teach them for more years.

I really like that First Place made the cut, because it epitomizes something that good charters do especially well — they meet their students where they are, understanding and engaging with them (and with their families) as whole people with multiple aspects to their lives that affect learning.

First Place serves a particularly challenged community and is a social-service agency, but a significant degree of holistic family engagement is a hallmark of all successful charters.

One of the ongoing arguments in school-reform debates is that schools are schools, and homes are homes, and educators should not be expected to do what parents cannot or will not do for their children. The ability to educate is diminished by the degree to which teachers have to deal with nonacademic issues. Educators are not trained to deal with those issues.

I want more responsiveness from schools, but I recognize the constraints of the current system. Public schools would benefit from having more counselors, nurses and other staff members to deal with the broad spectrum of needs that affect academic performance. Teachers would benefit from training that increases their ability to interact with a broader range of students.

I do feel for public educators, yanked this way and that by various reform efforts, constrained by rigid rules and culture and in some schools left to deal with social problems that many educators are not equipped to understand let alone address.

Despite all that, many teachers and administrators do a remarkable job, but that doesn’t guarantee students consistency from class to class or year to year. Good charters more easily spread best practices throughout their operations.

Charters with the best measurable outcomes have generally arrived at success by trying multiple pathways, some of them dead ends. The thing is that the smart schools continually test their progress, and when they hit a wall, they change direction. It’s easier for them to do that than it is for a large school district.

It’s always been the case that individual schools can be innovative. That happens with public schools as well. I’ve talked with many successful principals over the years, and one message is consistent, schools often innovate and improve despite central offices, not because of them. Big institutions get wedded to their rules.

I said one of my early worries was that charters would divert effort and resources from systemic change, but systemic change is something a lot of children can’t wait for.

Good charters have a role to play in filling some of the unmet need.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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