Biopsy at a Charter School

For anyone who actually believes that charter schools are the only answer, may I suggest doing a ‘self check up’ on your views by looking at the evidence – similar to what a doctor does when you go to their office not feeling well.  While doing a needle biopsy is painful,  it may be the conclusive test which provides the real information the doctor needs to make a diagnosis of treatment.

First and foremost, not all doctors are the same – neither are charter schools individually or within an organized system.  In the same way a doctor can go to a top flight med school and be an intern in ER (not the TV version) or can go to a lower tier med school and intern at a small community clinic in the midwest, is the same as how principals make it to lead various charter schools.  This is not to say where you attended grad school is the only delimiter to success, rather it indicates the broadness of your world view and intellectual prowess in some areas, both of which are important for teaching in an inner city and/or being on board with school reform.

If a principal attends a local school to obtain an MA, often paid for in part by the school district or charter school organization or Teach for America, etc., you can rest assured that principal has been ‘taught’ to have a myopic view of education and reform and to lose their ‘opinions’ if they wish to have a career.  In other words, your educational experiences shape who you are and your belief system – which is crucial in education.  It is the same in medicine – I would prefer after a major car accident to be treated by a doctor in an ER who had an intersting internship at a county hospital and has seen it all than a doctor who has read about but not had to deal with a traumatic injury.  

As a teacher, I would rather work with a principal who has a broad mind and can balance multiple ideas than one who talks the party line and  can ‘interpret’ data much like a phrenologist.  In fact, I would much prefer to work with a principal who actually understands the nuance or has the ability to question issues – such as child safety on a field trip (or for that matter, follow up on the teacher(s) plans) or when having ANY relationship related to the school (much less one with the ex-student co-ordinator) could be construed as over the line.  Alas, most principals are not expected to have a broad exposure to situations leading to question(s) or questioning behavior for the mere fact they themseleves might be in a position to actually ask questions of those above them – and this tends to cut ones chances of climbing the success ladder, most especially in charter schools.

Neither Dr. Maldonado-Rivera nor Ms. Marin-Reyes denied the facts in the report, except to say that their relationship did not become romantic until the summer. “I thought for a conflict of interest money had to be exchanged,” Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said.

As I began to read about Columbia Secondary School and Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera, I became both sad and ill.  I had read before of the two main issues (student drowning on field trip with lack of supervision and  interesting principal intimate realtionship) but I had not read much from the teacher perspective. Teachers tend to be a good thermometer at a school, especially when there is a great deal of turnover. It is kind of like the immune system kicking into gear.

To be fair and upfront,  I attended grad school at Teachers College in Columbia University and have a Secondary Science -Bio degree, so I am aware of what Columbia does in educational outreach.  As I read the article, I was unable to find who or what group selected Dr. Maldonado-Rivera to run the school and this was also unsettling.  This would be akin to finding out what accident occured which led to the illness, so I am not above looking within my own graduate school.

 Charter schools are unique in that there is supposed to be a great deal of parental involvement, which is why it is different from a regular government run school.  If teachers are a thermometer, parents are a blood test.

The School Leadership Team, a group of parents and faculty that is supposed to help shape Columbia’s development, grew increasingly divided, participants said: differing over discipline, supervision and, ultimately, over the very idea of whether students from vastly different backgrounds could succeed in the same accelerated curriculum.

COLUMBIA parents were supposed to be partners in their children’s education, and the school’s diversity was a big draw. But those active in the School Leadership Team and the parent association  tended to be disproportionately white and professional.

I had this similar experience at Aspire Public Schools although some of  the parents were from U.C. Berkeley (staff and/or professors and other professionals).  At the time it made me concerned as a charter school is not supposed to be about ‘seed’ planting of the elite.

If it seemed that they were making things up on the fly, that was all right. “We all knew that when we signed up,” said Christine Stute, whose son was part of that first class. “And I think the group of people that decided to sign up was a special kind of group because they were willing to take these risks.”

I have had the expression ‘making things up on the fly’ explained to me as ‘building an airplane while flying it’ by my principal at Aspire Public Schools – and in fact, it was a supposed ‘selling’ point for the school.   It always made me think that no one had adequately thought or planned ahead.

But to some people, the shifting approaches felt like chaos. “There was a general administrative disorder that characterized the school,” said one parent who worked closely with the administration and, like many of those interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of adversely affecting his child’s education.

But in the front office, the parent said, “all kinds of things weren’t getting done.”

Relationships between teachers and administrators were increasingly strained.

“His philosophy was just go, just do it,” said Dana Ligocki, a social studies teacher who quit in the middle of last school year. “It doesn’t matter if we’re doing things well, but it matters if we do a lot of things. I started to see that that was his way of being a leader. And then safety gets cut or curriculum gets cut.”

What begs the next question, is WHY Dr. Maldonado-Rivera, of such high standards, was not able to hire the right teachers for his school.  Instead of taking some ownership for a school with a revolving door for staff, a charitable excuse was made on the backs of teachers. For maybe two teachers, this is acceptable, after that, you have to begin to wonder what is wrong with the principal amidst  one of the greatest binges of unemployment in forever.

Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said that some teachers left for personal reasons, and that others could not live up to his high expectations.

“It’s a very ambitious school with a high intellectual demand,” he said. “We don’t need to apologize for having high standards for teachers. I’d ask myself, ‘Would I want my son to be learning science or math with this teacher?’ And if it’s not something I would want, then that’s something I would need to fix.”

Something else amazingly interesting is how substitute teachers never manage to ‘fit the bill’ and if you talk to those subs, they never wish to go back to the school as it was so poorly managed. This is a very real problem with charter schools in the bay area of N. Ca. currently. 

Dr. Maldonado-Rivera did not think highly of the city’s substitute teachers, so when a teacher was absent, a colleague filled in — sometimes Dr. Maldonado-Rivera himself.

The next little nugget really caught my attention as my school lacked sufficient counselors, RSP teachers – just about anything you could think of.  And, for the same reason(s) expressed below.

Parents and teachers pushed for a guidance counselor; Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said the school did not need — and could not afford — one.

Although people should have been looking at the disparity of scores/data, my principal was hell bent to narrow the curve and so I was ‘encouraged’ to fix the grades such that the data would more closely match a narrow band of educational difference.  Interestingly, in this same year, two teachers realized the ‘data’ from the READ 180 program was wrong and the students who were showing as ‘improving’ in literacy, had not, the data was just analyzed wrong, but let bygones be bygones.   Students were counseled ‘out’ but most of the time it was parents who left due to utter frustration with a completely dysfunctional system.

Perhaps the biggest debate came over academics. Some students scored as high as 90 on the entrance exam, but the mean was a 28. Once in, all faced the same accelerated curriculum. Some soared; others sank. At one point last school year, a third of the seventh grade was on academic probation.

Struggling students were tutored after school, pulled out of electives, kept behind in the classroom during J-Term. Some were counseled out — Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said there was 8 to 10 percent attrition for academic reasons each year. “Sometimes,” Mr. Stillman said, “you end up cutting your losses.”

In what was perhaps the most telling part of this article, a teacher pushed for justice.  This rarely happens as once you do this you will (a) lose your job (b) ruin your career.

But — in a turn of the kaleidoscope — a significant number of others at the school saw things differently. A faculty group led by Mr. Nalley, the teacher who had helped a student learn to ride a bike, went to the union arguing that the drowning had been “part of a pattern of negligence at the school,” said a member of the group, Ms. Ligocki, the social studies teacher. When the investigator’s report did not go that far, Mr. Nalley, the union representative at Columbia, protested the findings publicly and then told city officials about the principal’s relationship with Ms. Marin-Reyes.

A group of the principal’s supporters also went to education officials, to deny any improprieties between Dr. Maldonado-Rivera and Ms. Marin-Reyes, which, in an odd twist, ended up spurring the investigation.

Mr. Nalley declined to be interviewed. Instead, he e-mailed an excerpt from a report on the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster: “Hubris refers to an exaggerated pride or self-confidence that turns into arrogance. It results from excessive admiration of oneself, a series of previous successes, uncritical acceptance of accolades and a belief that one is exempt from the rules. In the end, hubris is eventually rewarded with disaster and comeuppance.”

Sadly, a biopsy was never done at the charter school I taught at  (  My principal was promoted and the school was moved from Oakland to Berkeley, another twisted up story about where a property could be found and proximity to UC Berkeley so the promised access to leadership in the Education Department could actually be provided.   To date, no one has been able to demonstrate how many students from Aspire Public Schools system have graduated college.

In both cases the ‘patient’ was partially treated and is in what one might call remission.  In no way did the students come out unscathed.  If these two cases for ‘medical’ review are anything to go by, we have a lot to learn about treating the disease of low academic success.