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Guest Commentary: Geoff Dobson, also known as 'Dobber', is a former Charter School teacher who is
interested in Educational reform and was generous enough to offer valuable feedback in the writing of 'A Charter School Tale' and volunteered to share his personal observations:
From a Former Charter School Employee
May 3rd, 2005
After I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, I decided that before starting a career that would fulfill my own personal goals, I wanted to spend some time working for the betterment of society. I researched different “volunteering” (not totally free labor, but extremely low-pay) options; two of the most prominent being the Peace Corps and Americorps. I ended up deciding on the Americorps program. I was offered a ten-month position as an Americorps domestic volunteer with an inner-city Philadelphia Charter School called YouthBuild Philadelphia. My position was officially called Technology Educator. I ran a non-profit computer refurbishing outfit, through the school, and a group of students were my workers. The “company” was called Urban Tech, and you can check out an advertisement here, www.urbantechproject.org, that pictures some of my former students Raphael, James, and Maria, working on the donated computers.
This unique experience was considered “alternative education” and part of their quite radical curriculum. All of the students at this school are aged 18-21 and were formerly expelled from the public school district of Philadelphia, for a multitude of reasons ranging from violence, to truancy. This school was started in 1991 to address the ongoing problem of a large number of inner-city youth not graduating from high school. In 1991, the dropout rate was hovering around 50%, since then, it has only gotten worse. To learn more about this school check out its website here: www.youthbuildphilly.org.
I am a proponent of education reform. I have not
yet decided on a policy that is best, but I recognize that the current system needs change.
Many argue that charter schools and school choice in general is the way to go.
I see reason to believe school choice is worthy of more consideration.
I will give some positive observations of my own, from working in a charter school for one
1. First and foremost, the school exists. Without the charter school legislation that most states have adopted in the past fifteen years, this school would not exist. This school provides education for a specific demographic: eighteen to twenty-one year old, inner-city, drop-outs (and/or kick-outs). After spending one year at this school, the former drop-outs (approximately 62% graduation rate) now have a high-school diploma, and many aspects of support for success in life. This school offers everything from SAT preparation, to psychological services, to drug and alcohol abuse prevention and help, to career services, to furthering education placement, and many more.
2. Since the school is a Charter School they can offer teaching jobs and other faculty positions to anybody. Some of the teachers there are former successful CPAs that want to switch gears in life. Some of the teachers hold teaching certificates and enjoy working with that specific demographic. There is no tenure at this school, and teachers that don’t perform well are fired. In my experience, the faculty that wanted to do well and truly cared about the students, excelled, and therefore, continued to have a job. Those that didn’t, were let go.
3. The teachers enjoyed the fact that they could adapt their curriculum as they saw fit. Each teacher was charged with coming up with new and innovative ways to engage the students, and they adapted to the students’ needs. They were relieved of the bureaucracy of the Department of Education telling them what they had to do, what they had to teach, and how to do it. When techniques worked, they were pursued. When something didn’t work, it was dropped. All techniques were discussed (with other teachers, principals, students, etc) and examined.
4. Since the program I taught (technology job-training) was only one year old, I was able to try out radical (I would call them common sense) teaching practices that would not be possible under State guidelines. For example, I abandoned the traditional ABCDF grading system for a credit based system. My students had already all failed in schools that used the standard practices. If these students were going to be successful, I had to think outside the box. So, I explained to them that necessary skills that they needed to learn. They were given time frames (usually 6 weeks) to learn them within. There were no tests, no homework, no quizzes, and no memorization; just constant learning. I explained to them that it was in their best interest to spend the time that we were allotted for class, approximately five hours per day, actively working and learning. As long as everyone was on-board with this mindset, the class was successful. Every student worked at their own pace, and smarter students were encouraged to help slower students, for credit. I put up a “scoreboard”. It was a large poster board with everyone’s names as rows and every possible learning experience or completion of a task that had value, as columns. I identified tasks that must be completed, at some time during the six week period, and it was up to the student when to do it. Those tasks were listed first on the scoreboard. But, it was a dynamic scoreboard, in that it was often being changed. I allowed the students to offer suggestions, and if I thought that their suggestion merited educational value, I added it. For example, two students got credit for fixing the school secretary’s CPU fan. Another student got credit for networking a new computer lab. At the end of the semester points were awarded for every task completed. It was easy to see who the “A” students were. And for the students that didn’t pass, all I had to do was point to the scoreboard and say “you better do more next rotation.” They couldn’t say they were cheated, or it wasn’t fair, because the policy was hanging on the wall, and I (and other students) was available to help them with any task they had trouble with.
That experiment was only possible because the only educational authority I had to answer to was the school principal. She loved the idea. I documented everything and provided an analysis paper at the end of each month for her. I can only imagine what education would have been like if my teachers were allowed to think outside the box.
Now, don’t misinterpret me and think I am suggesting that we throw out the system entirely.
The situation I was in was extremely unique, and drastic measures had to be taken, if my
students were to have any success at all. I am simply
pointing that exciting possibilities exist, if the reigns of control are only slightly loosened.
5. Smaller class sizes and more faculty makes for better relationships.
One thing I definitely learned through my experience was the fact that a good student-teacher
relationship is much more important than material, curriculum, or even teacher expertise.
This seems obvious to me, so I will not elaborate. Charter
Schools can address this problem because it is up to their management what ratio should exist.
In Williams Arizona, maybe a 20 – 1 ratio is perfect; but in Garwin, Iowa maybe a 16 – 1
ratio yields better results.
6. Discipline can be handled more on a per-case basis. I
think back to middle school, and remember the “bad kids” always getting the same punishments.
Week in, week out, they do something wrong, and then they get one of the standard
punishments. In charter schools, the management decides
how the school will deal with unruly students, and the parents decide whether or not they agree.
Should the punishment for throwing globes out the window be tar and feathering?
I don’t know. But if it works, and a charter
school employs that tactic, and parents see results, and choose to send their children there, then
so be it!
7. Way less paperwork. I’ve heard horror
stories about all the worthless paperwork that some of my friends have to mindlessly deal with just
to satisfy some government standard. At YouthBuild,
paperwork was secondary. The management team decided
what things needed to be documented, and that’s what we documented.
No unnecessary busy work for employees. What was
really great, was if I had a problem with something, I simply walked upstairs and poked my head into
of the management offices and talked it over! If I were
in a public school, I would have had to take a personal day, drive to Harrisburg and hope to get a
meeting with a bureaucrat, who would probably just re-direct my concern to some committee that
wouldn’t do anything about it. And why should they?
They don’t care about little old me, when they have thousands of teachers to be in charge
of. But, at YouthBuild, the executive director did care
about me! In fact, we were in the same lunchtime
8. Standards, hah! Why should Johnny, who lives in Alburg Vermont, be taking the same standardized test as Jenny, who live in Ramah, New Mexico? Every year I hear bad news about test scores. Basically, here’s how I observe it:
1. Give students national, standardized test. 2. Score tests. 3. Display bad results.
The easy way to fix the problem of displaying bad results, is to simply knock out step number one! Don’t give the tests!
Well, needless to say, YouthBuild de-emphasizes standardized tests, which exist in the
interest of bureaucrats, and focuses its energy on learning, which exists in the interest of the
These are just some of the observations off the top of my head. YouthBuild was no utopia, and problems came up. But, it was great to know, that we both created the problem and solved the problem. In public school, in many situations, the employees do not create the problem (they are just following guidelines) nor are they allowed to solve them (the solution might break a guideline).
Others who wish to contribute personal observations please email me.
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