This is an op-ed piece that I ran today on the print education page that I put together each week for the AJC. (Please send me your op-ed ideas or your written pieces for consideration, 500 words or 850. The page is formatted so those are the two working lengths. )
This piece is by the new principal of Tech High Charter, a city of Atlanta charter school that has had more ambitions than students. I have visited Tech High three times and always admired the dedication of the staff and volunteers, but felt that the school did not have the quality of life — the fun, the variety of students, the activities — that would draw teens. I attended a 2009 honors program and found a senior class of 55. They were an enthusiastic but small crowd.
I went home from the event and looked at the school’s EOCT scores and ACT and SAT scores and was disappointed. I had wished more for a school where the adults worked so hard and wanted so much for their students. But I asked myself the question that I ask after every school visit: Would I want my own kids to go there?
And I couldn’t say “yes.” I loved the energy, the teachers and the spirit of the place, but I could not find reason for celebration in Tech High’s scores in most areas. Here was an engineering and information technology focused high school with small classes, dedicated staff, extended academics and a tremendous volunteer force, yet 74 percent of test takers failed the EOCT in algebra and 78 percent in geometry in 2008-2009. (The failure rate was much lower in biology and physical science – both below 30 percent.)
New leadership hopes to improve the school’s outlook and numbers. I wish them well.
By Graysen Walles
Recently our school – Tech High Charter in Atlanta – hosted a volunteer event to bring out men, women and children to help us tidy up our 88-year-old building.
Parents and students worked with us, but members from the surrounding community came out to support our efforts too.
All of these people came out to our event to help us meet the needs of our diverse population of 170 students consisting of African Americans, whites, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gifted, average and exceptional needs.
After sweating for eight hours in the hot Atlanta sun, a grandmother approached me saying, “Son, you are the new principal, right?” I replied, “Yes ma’am.”
One of her grandchildren has a slight disability, while the other needs to be challenged more academically. She enrolled both of them in Tech High this year.
She said: “You are doing a good thing here. I am raising my grandchildren, and I prayed for a school just like this. I can tell you are going to look out for these children. I am going through some things right now that might stop me from being here like I want to, but know if you need anything I’m here.
“Keep them in the right uniforms, because they need to know how to dress right, and stay on them to do the right thing, okay?”
I kneeled down closer to her in much awe and respect, as she was sweating, too, and said, “Yes, ma’am, I promise to do right by you and the students. That’s what I came here to do.”
If I had any questions about what I was doing in this charter movement, I knew for sure at that moment what it was all about.
Her nod of affirmation was all I needed that day to know I was on the right track, along with the thousands of other charter leaders, teachers, parents, boards and students around the country.
We all know that the public school system as it is now designed cannot be the answer for the growing needs of our diverse community.
We have seen time and time again by means of reliable statistics and research that most of our public school systems are failing to prepare students for the 21st century global community. These are facts, whether we want to face them or not.
The consistent message from families of all ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds in communities like Atlanta is that they want quality educational choice for their children.
In most cases, a traditional school system is not able to accommodate these choices as they are challenged with a myriad of complex issues, even much deeper that what can be seen with the naked eye.
For many families, such as the one led by the grandmother who stopped me that hot day, charter schools provide the choice and the answer that many parents are searching for.
Specifically, these families deeply desire a nurturing environment, a high quality education that will prepare their students to succeed in college, access to a concerned and proficient administration and teaching faculty and a safe and vibrant school community where bullying and violence are not tolerated.
The charter school movement is an answer for many families around the country, as they provide what most traditional public schools cannot.
Quite honestly, at the current time, many of the students benefitting most from the charter movement are minority students and exceptional needs students.
That is why it is so difficult to digest the negative commentary that some civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, have purported about charter schools.
On the contrary, charter schools are an answer to the challenges of our special education communities and minority communities, as charters provide specificity, flexibility and a level of nurturing for our students that traditional public school have a difficult time mastering.
I was encouraged to read recently that the leader of the National Urban League has clarified its position on charter schools, noting that it “wholeheartedly supports high-quality charter schools and the outcomes they produce for our nation’s children.”
Indeed, if there were any organizations that would support the charter school movement, it is my belief that civil rights organizations would. I would encourage more leaders of these organizations to visit charter schools that have been successful in densely poor communities such as New Orleans, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago.
Undoubtedly, these school communities would definitely provide these leaders with a new perspective about charters and the need for charters as a viable educational reform tool.
Some of the best charters have clearly been documenting best practices and invaluable research that speaks to closing the achievement gap for at least a solid decade.
Charter schools have moved beyond test tube theories. They are now established, valued and successful. Why?
In my lowly opinion, it is because charters have proven that the student achievement gap can be closed among minority students.
Further, these amazing achievements have been accomplished with fewer resources, and many times in sub-standard conditions.
As an aside, I am convinced that far more could be accomplished if there was consistent and intentional collaboration between charters and traditional school systems.
Yet, rather than embrace and appreciate the innovation and creativity of successful charters, they are often ostracized by many public school systems and outright attacked by some supporters of the status quo, including, unfortunately, some civil rights groups. It doesn’t have to be this way.
After my brief conversation with that concerned, loving grandmother, I’m just glad to know that I am making a difference, even if many of our civil rights organizations don’t understand or support the charter movement as a viable educational reform option.
However, I do hope all of them will, sooner than later.
Graysen Walles is the principal of Tech Charter High in Atlanta.