Please free our schools from the current education monopoly!

Please free our schools from the current education monopoly!

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© Paynich

This post and response by AJC writer Maureen Downey and local attorney Glenn Delk, a school choice advocate reminds me why we need education reform – and not just because of mishandled funds.

Maureen Downey writes an opposition piece opposing Gov. Deal’s Opportunity School District bill defending our need for more funding and questioning how the state could allow these circumstances of cutting education funds for years  – and suddenly come up with an idea and begin caring about students.

But students have suffered since 2003 from $7.6 billion in funding cuts. Hardest hit by the cuts were rural districts that could not make up the lost funds through local property digests, and low-income children for whom lower class sizes and after-school programs mean the difference between passing and failing

When districts complained to the Legislature, the reply was succinct: Do more with less.

Glenn Delk reminds me that it is not just that schools aren’t spending the funding correctly, but that the monopoly that is our education system needs to be broken down.

Like the teachers’ union, the school boards’ association and the superintendents’ association, Ms. Downey chooses to ignore the cold hard fact that, contrary to her claim that we have to rebuild communities before academic performance can improve, organizations such as KIPP, Basis Schools and High Tech High have proven low-income minority students, can and do perform at world class levels without spending more money, if freed from the current monopoly.

For example, Basis students, while receiving $6,500 per student, far less than Georgia’s average of $9,000, outperform the entire world on the international tests.

Ms. Downey and opponents of giving students additional opportunities to escape the monopoly known as district-run schools should attend the April 22 screening in Brookhaven of the documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed.” The movie shows what is possible when the best and brightest are hired to teach, treated as true professionals with freedom and autonomy to teach students who’ve chosen to attend and expected to take ownership of their education.

The movie focuses on High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter network, which, while operating on $7,200 per student, has managed to achieve an 88 percent graduation rate from college. More than 8,000 students apply annually for the 400 slots, while 1,500 teachers apply for 50 positions. High Tech High has no admission tests, with students chosen by a random lottery.

History shows us that monopolies do not give up their power voluntarily.

So yes, schools can be successful and bridge the community gap with less funding. It just needs to be focused in the correct ways. I have heard a former top KIPP administrator in GA talk about the way they engage parents and students in their school community. He admits it is hard work. You can’t just wake up one day and the system is perfectly in place. But these are key samples of things that schools could do now. You know what holds school up from community engagement? Uninterested and unwilling staff and teachers. Charters like KIPP and the MET, build in an expectation that all of their teachers and staff will engage with parents and students regularly and after school hours if necessary. He mentions students who choose to attend these schools and are expected to take ownership of their education. I remember when a Warwick, RI city councilor told me that she mentored kids at the MET and they didn’t respond well to taking ownership of their education. Just because a student doesn’t latch onto an idea initially doesn’t mean it isn’t a skill that needs to be learned and can be learned. I guarantee you that those students who don’t do well taking responsibility are just as lost in traditional public schools.

But, since we are on the topic – please we need to only be paying salaries for effective teachers, effective principals, no excess in school admin positions in the multiple 6 digits, remove the nepotism, and actually make sure that what is “discovered” at the district level is actually being implemented in each school.


Dennis Littky: Just do it!

One of my complaints about my education is that I learned later in life that I would have liked, that I was extremely passionate about education policy. There was absolutely no way to embrace that topic and passion in my high school. The Met School, which I talked about in this last post, would have been ideal for me to start exploring education and discover how to demonstrate my passion for education. It would have been just a coincidence that the type of reforms I want to do are embodied in The Met school. I could have really spearheaded my education policy career in a school like The Met.

Anyways, instead I launched into a political science degree and while I knew I wanted to get involved in education and grassroots organizing, I had little idea about how to do it. I landed my first “real” job as the executive assistant to the Executive Director of a national progressive grassroots organization, USAction. What I love about the experience is that I saw first hand the power grassroots organizing can have, when done correctly. Problem was, I was in Washington, DC and all the organizing was happening in the states. After I was not accepted to the UMD Masters program for education policy, I just up and left my job and moved back to my parents house. I was determined to get into education policy grassroots organizing and just couldn’t figure out how to get into it. I was one of those people with all the great ideas, passion and will, but not on paper experience to back it up.

When I was back in RI, I got more and more interested in The Met school. I even landed myself a phone call with Dennis Littky, one of the co-founders of Big Picture Learning and The Met. Here I was going to get to talk to someone I deeply admired and I had little idea what to say. I simply wanted to find a way to impact education policy and couldn’t figure out how to get started. Dennis tells me “just do something.” And I’m like…do what? The call didn’t last long and I wasn’t sure what to do.

Today, it reminds me of the famous Art Williams speech “Just do it!” which I’ve embedded the related segment here:

Just today, I found this video of Dennis Littky talking about how he started the idea for The Met. I’d never heard this story and it made me feel better that I am still in the infant stages of my plan to reform education policy. But I know I am on my way.

What does “Just do it” mean?

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I was working at a liquor store, which was what I could get for a job while I was deciding on my next step, and a previous guidance counselor of mine told me I could be a guidance counselor in MA without having to teach first. This struck me as the very way to impact students in one of the ways I wasn’t – offer support and guidance early about what a student is passionate about and how they can build a future around that passion. After a graduate program at Assumption College in School Counseling and an opportunity to serve as a parent organizer in Worcester with Stand for Children, I’m finally on my way to my goal. I will be opening a community based school counseling nonprofit geared towards preparing middle school students to be fully prepared to engage in high school from the first day of 9th grade.

One of the resources that helped me drive this project, was Dennis Littky’s book about Big Picture Learning schools, where I first learned of his strategy of building a curriculum around a student’s passion. I also learned through this book that its not necessarily about the topic of the work at hand, or the outcome, but learning process that can be applied to any future project, need, or passion.

The BIG Picture book

While I never quite understood what Dennis Littky meant when he told me to “just do something” it always stuck with me and it looks like I’ve finally started to figure it out, several years later.

What does your high school graduation say about your school? A look at The Met charter school

I know that my mother was considering The Met school for my younger sister but I feel like I have some responsibility in helping her attend the school because I pretty adamantly recommended that she take a look a the school before making a decision about where to attend high school. I still remember that day when we toured The Met. Almost a year ago, this last May, my sister graduated from The Met school in Providence. Even though I no longer lived in RI, I made sure I could attend her graduation. And I am so glad that I did! I think the enthusiasm exhibited in the graduation is a testament to the school experience as a whole. Two things stand out in my mind from the graduation. The first was how the students walked across the stage. This is what we are used to….mundane, walking appropriately, receive your degree and walk off. Maybe a photo is snapped while you are standing there.

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© Paynich

During the Met graduation, maybe one or two students walked traditionally, every single other person, my sister included, skipped, jumped, ran, or otherwise enthusiastically crossed the stage. They were hugging their advisors, and not just an appropriate hug, but over the top enthusiastic embraces. To me, this embodies the goal of The Met by demonstrating that students are encouraged to be who they are and develop their passions at The Met. They learn their academics through the lens of their passions – through independent projects, dedicated time for internships, and classes like math that are integrated for their individual learning. The Met kids looked like this:

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© Paynich

I also got the sense that these kids wanted it and earned it more so than other students in traditional public schools. Usually students who look for a different school environment do so for two reasons – either their parents are well informed and want to offer their child something different – or the student is not being successful in traditional public schools and they are looking for an option that is going to allow them to be successful. I saw many of those kids as students who may have dropped out, may not have graduated, may not have found their passion, may not have become contributing members of society, and attending this school made it possible for them.

The second thing that really stood out to me was that as each student came to the podium, there was a big screen that indicated the student’s name, school small at The Met, what they are passionate about, and what their future plan is – most if not all has some level of college as their next step. Intermingled in the graduation were student performances and a student who was aiming to accomplish a Guinness Books of World Records record. The student speeches were compelling. This was the best, least boring graduation I have ever attended. Here is a video of students and staff talking about The Met School:









Placing blame does not excuse your responsibility to offer quality education

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I’d like to offer a response to the comments of the Warwick City Councilor who I’ve started a conversation with about my own high school experience.

Maggie, It is apparent that you were completely dissatisfied with your HS experience in the Warwick School District. That is really unfortunate but not peculiar to public school systems or the City of Warwick. You are convinced you would have “thrived” at the Met School which offers an alternative learning experience. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Yes, I was pretty dissatisfied with my experience at Pilgrim High School. You can learn more about why in this last post. But indicating that my experience is not “peculiar” does not excuse my high schools responsibility to offer a quality education. Claiming that other schools are not better, does not excuse your responsibility to offer a quality education. I’d like you to spend less time putting other school options down and working to fix your own schools.

I have been a mentor to students while they were enrolled at the Met. They did not flourish or enjoy the rigidity of public school education and sought a different educational platform. One dropped out of the Met because she lacked the discipline to take charge of her own education and could not handle the responsibilities or the freedom. A second graduated from the Met but left college for lack of preparation and found competition in college too stressful. In both cases, the students washed out of traditional secondary education. And others succeeded at various levels, the same proportionally to traditional schools.

I applaud your efforts to mentor students at The Met. However your story only relates to these two students in particular. The fact that they were are at The Met in the first place, indicates that they were searching for something OTHER THAN traditional public school. Can you say they would have performed better in their traditional public school? They made an effort to try a different type of school. So it did not work for them, but they tried. Clearly they were looking for another option. Perhaps a third type of school would have been appropriate. We can’t limit options because some students don’t do well. We need to continue to offer options so that as many students as possible have the opportunity to try something new to be successful. Again, it is unfortunate that those students were not able to or successful at attending college. But can you say they would have been more successful in college had they stayed in their traditional public school? I doubt it. Your own admission that the rest of the students succeed at various levels proportional to traditional public schools indicates that alternative education schools are AS SUCCESSFUL as traditional public schools. And for those students, maybe they needed a school like The Met. Maybe those students wouldn’t have been as successful in traditional public schools.

Alternative ed is not a magic button. It may work for some but not others—just like any other school. My Resolution to withhold financial support to Mayoral Academies is based on the belief that our taxpayers should NOT be forced to pay for the charter school experience for anyone but their own children. Warwick school district pays over $1.2 million for students to be educated outside the city. If a student decides to return to their city of origin after 1 October of the school year, the money stays with the outside charter school and the Warwick school district must make up the difference. Why is that fair?

So, if I read this correctly, your only complaint is that IF a student returns to their how city after Oct 1, the city doesn’t recover those funds. How many students does this actually apply to and how much money is that? Because I bet the Warwick residents who ARE sending their students to another school in another city of their choosing expect their tax dollars to pay for that education. So while you may be helping the few exceptions, you are not helping the majority who likely stay in the school of their choice.

We have students who live in Warwick and choose to attend parochial schools, which are also charter schools. Should we augment those costs next? 

There is a clear separation of church and state so, should public money go to private schools? Not necessarily. But what do we say to the parent who determines that the public education they are paying for isn’t good enough for their child and they choose to pay out of pocket for those costs? They are literally paying for two educations. Granted we make a similar argument that residents without children still pay for those education costs, but that can be seen as contributing the society as a whole AND those residents are not paying twice for their education. I’m not saying we should allocate public funds for private schools, but I think we need to recognize that these parents have a valid concern and the least we could do is provide the public funding for public charter schools to support the students who choose to attend.

the school system has its problems but you don’t fix them by pulling the kids out and bringing financial resources to charter schools.

Obviously, it doesn’t improve schools to loose monies – but what are the schools doing to FIX the schools? We pour money into schools and seldom get results. If the schools could start implementing some bolder ideas, perhaps learn from some of the successful elements of charters, maybe they would be better. But you cannot tell parents and student, “Just wait, don’t leave your school, it’s going to get better.” Are you seriously going to tell that to your constituents? “Our schools are going to get worse if you don’t attend here, and we lose the funding from your child.” A parent would laugh at you. Their best interest is in their child, and you are NOT taking their child’s best interest into consideration.

 If a child will THRIVE in charter school because of smaller classrooms or specialized instruction, then Warwick should create District charter schools or academies or “school within a school.”

I hate to have a “duh” moment here…but yes! Implement some of the strategies that have worked in charters into your public schools. But where are they? When is this progress going to come? Talk is cheap. Until you ACTUALLY have the programs in schools students want and will thrive with, you can’t make them stay there. DO IT and then you can argue all day long that you  should keep the kids in traditional public schools.

Why bus our kids outside of their neighborhoods? I went to school during a time of forced busing. It was nothing short of a nightmare. Why send Warwick tax dollars to Providence or other municipality schools? How does that improve the issues that made you so unhappy when you attended school so many years ago?

I believe my prior statements answer these questions. We aren’t forcing busing anymore. That argument doesn’t stand. Why send tax dollars to another municipality? So your residents can get the education they desire and deserve and their funds should travel with them. Even if the money stayed in the school district, wouldn’t you equally argue that Warwick shouldn’t have to pay for out of city students?

Because money isn’t the problem. Policy is the problem. Sometimes, teachers and unions are the problem. Sometimes its principals, or superintendents. We have been pouring money into problems for ages and haven’t seen results. When you can implement the strategies that all students need in your schools, make the argument all you want. But until you can accomplish that, don’t deny students and parents the right to put their child’s best interest first and send their child to a school better suited for their success.

I appreciate your comments but as you said, you no longer live in the community where you were educated. I was elected to represent the folks who still live here and while my responsibilities do not extend to educational policy, my fiscal duties remain steadfast to Warwick tax payers. Be well.

I believe I addressed the issues of fiscal responsibility to residents of Warwick above. In your attempt to protect Warwick tax payer funding, you are putting those parents and students who aren’t satisfied with their Warwick public education at a severe disadvantage. And those students and parents don’t have anyone, especially not you representing them. Your role is to ALL residents, not just the ones you are choosing to represent.