Ground-level profile of a California charter school, from a San Jose Mercury News education reporter.
Charter schools broke onto the public education scene 25 years ago, Jacobs writes, because teachers and administrators were fed up with the “impenetrable mass of bureaucracy that crushes creativity, chokes innovation, and gobbles up education funds.” Devised by educational reformers (parents, community activists and others) with the hesitant blessings of the American Federation of Teachers, charter schools now enroll nearly a million students at some 3,400 sites across the country. They are public schools, Jacobs explains, but each is run by its own board and exempt from some state regulations; they also receive less state funding than district-run schools. Charter-school teachers are usually young, hard workers who don’t necessarily have an education degree and (the big sticking point for the AFT) are not unionized. The teachers are held accountable for results, as are the kids. Downtown College Prep (DCP), the San Jose school Jacobs depicts, expects its students to display respect, a sense of pride and community and a willingness to work—something of a challenge for their target group of D and F students in traditional public schools. Jacobs witnessed administrative stumbles, as well as student vandalism, violence, defiance and other trappings of gang life. Yet she also saw the school instill self-discipline, responsibility and a work ethic in kids who were in jeopardy. The teachers’ and administrators’ patience, dedication and enthusiasm bore significant fruit. During the year Jacobs chronicles, grades consistently went up, participation in all aspects of school was strong and the general mood was hopeful. Charters are still experiments, and not all succeed, she writes, but those that don’t will close, unlike the failing schools in the consequence-free traditional system.
Balanced but supportive, aware of DCP’s problems yet cautiously optimistic—a persuasive brief for an alternative kind of public education.