Fight Or Flight

By Laura Lang — March 01, 2000 22 min read
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The charter school idea struck a chord with the PTA. “One of the first things we thought was, Wouldn’t it be nice to use our energy to build something instead of keeping something safe from harm?” says a parent.

Charlie Oliver and Claudia Pabo knew that their son Oleg’s first days in kindergarten wouldn’t be easy. It was the fall of 1998, a few months after the Washington, D.C., couple had adopted Oleg from an orphanage in Russia. The boy, then 5, could speak only a few words of English, and his appearance—his eyes are crossed, and he wears round, plastic glasses covered with corrective tape—made him a likely target for teasing.

Oleg was the third child that Oliver, a 51-year-old telecommunications lawyer, and Pabo, a 48-year-old government attorney, had adopted from Russia. The two others, Victor, 8, and Christina, 9, were thriving in private schools the parents had handpicked for them. Oleg, however, arrived in the States too late for the family to meet private-school application deadlines.

So with great trepidation, the couple decided to send him to Phoebe Hearst Elementary, the public school nearest to their home. Hearst is small and diverse, which Oliver and Pabo thought might suit Oleg, but they still worried that he wouldn’t fit in. And given the well-publicized problems of the financially starved and politically turbulent D.C. school system, it was easy to imagine Oleg marginalized and stuck in a dead-end special education class.

Oleg’s first few days at Hearst only seemed to confirm the couple’s fears. Unable to follow lessons, Oleg spent most class time wandering around the room. He didn’t seem to adjust well socially, either; one day the staff found him perched atop a jungle gym, peeing onto the pavement below as other kids played around him.

But Oleg’s rough start at school soon improved, thanks in large part to his teacher, Brenda Burns, a 17-year Hearst veteran who had taught plenty of hard-to-reach kids. Burns

worked individually with him, exploring ways to engage him in class and conversation. She learned that he was well-spoken in his native tongue, and that back in Russia, he would tag along with the orphanage custodian, helping to change light bulbs and build toy boats.

Burns’ interest in Oleg was returned. He found such a level of comfort with the teacher that by the end of the first few weeks, he was calling her “Mama"—the only English word he knew that captured her warmth, says Charlie Oliver. Gradually, Oleg became more engaged in class, paying attention to lessons and interacting with his classmates. By the end of the year, Oleg had become an academic star and was growing wise to American slang. After one teachable moment, a rapt Oleg paused in wonder, then said: “Wow. No shit.”

Such success is common at Hearst. Though set in the city’s swanky Cleveland Park neighborhood, the school has long been a model of integration, drawing students from all quarters of the city. It boasts a model curriculum, high standardized test scores, and a reputation as a school that works in a school system that doesn’t.

However, just as Oleg was finding his feet in his new life, the school’s new principal clashed with parents, rupturing Hearst’s famed harmony. D.C. superintendent Arlene Ackerman stepped in to defuse tensions, transferring the principal as well as two teachers—including Burnsbut the move only stoked the anger of parents. Things got worse when more teachers voluntarily transferred, and the parents began to worry that their wonderful school was in danger. Twice before, they had beaten back attempts by the school system to close Hearst, and now, sensing a third try, they girded themselves for battle once again.

Parent-administrator squabbles are common in schools, particularly in big-city districts, where clashes over money, power, and personality play out on a big canvas. But the Hearst skirmish revealed that parents have a new, potent weapon in these fights. Last summer, a group of about 50 parents moved to convert Hearst into a charter school. As a charter, Hearst would receive public funds diverted from the city’s school budget, but it would operate independently of the system—and largely outside the reach of Ackerman and other officials.

The parents’ charter idea could still be derailed on the way to reality. But their tactics point to what some public school advocates see as a worrisome side effect of the nascent but booming charter school movement. The charter option gives parents real leverage, a way to speak out that they’ve never had before. In the past, a school system’s disgruntled parents would often drop out and enroll their children in private academies. Now, thanks to charters, they can drop outand take their schools with them.

Such defections may in the long run prod public schools to change for the better and become more responsive to parents. But the Hearst example suggests a worst-case scenario in which struggling districts could be stripped of the very thing they so desperately need: good schools with active, engaged parents.

Things are rarely calm at Hearst, and this morning is no different. Twenty 4-year-olds sit in a quasi-circle on the edge of a bright square of carpet in Carla Hillery’s prekindergarten class, squirming and chattering away until the room feels as if it might crack open. Much of the discussion this morning focuses on a new student, Anastassia, a towheaded girl dressed in a Barbie-pink sweat suit and bright gold earrings, who has, as two of the girls report, ignored their inquiries about her name and origin. Hillery sits atop a small, wooden chair at the edge of the carpet, already looking exhausted, and explains that Anastassia is not responding because Anastassia does not speak English.

That’s good enough for the kids. They’re used to this kind of thing at Hearst. In many schools, “diversity” is a concept that lives mostly in printed handouts. But at Hearst, the enrollment is evenly split between white and black kids, and there are goodly numbers of Latino and Asian children, as well. Like Oleg, Anastassia is Russian—which is more than the kids need to know. They hear her name and think only of the animated movie with the same title. “I have that video,” gasps Julia.

FAMILY FEELING: Hearst is a model of integration, drawing kids from all over the city.

When the class finally settles down, Anastassia sits at a table, picks up her backpack, and pulls out a few books written in her native language. Nalle Puh is the title of one, atop a picture of the round little bear most kids in the room know as Winnie the Pooh. As Anastassia flips through the pages, reading aloud in Russian, another girl, Gabrielle, sits down next to her. Gabrielle mistakenly thinks she hears something familiar in Anastassia’s voice. “I speak French, too,” she says helpfully.

It’s a lovely picture, but it’s not the only reason that Washington parents drive their kids over hill and dale to get to Hearst. They’re drawn to the school because of its small size (165 students), its commitment to early childhood education, and its strong support from other parents, who lavish their time, money, and endless energy on the school.

In 1990, Washington designated Hearst a “demonstration center,” which means that teachers and administrators come from all over the system to learn about its program. The school’s curriculum emphasizes both academic and social learning and includes healthy doses of art, dance, and music. The “responsive classroom” technique—another hallmark of Hearst—combines group and solo activities, structured classes, and open-ended projects.

The progressive nature of the Hearst program attracts parents who are politically and socially liberal, says Anne Herr, the school’s PTA president. Most are middle- to upper-middle class, many of them professionals—lawyers, business executives, government employees—and a large number are community activists, leading neighborhood groups or speaking out during area scuffles.

Despite packed schedules, Hearst parents work hard for the school. The PTA has raised as much as $45,000 in a single year—a tidy sum for such a small school. Extensive fund raising includes sweat-shirt and gift-wrap sales as well as a spring fair and auction. Proceeds help pay for curriculum extras: a part-time art teacher and science instructor, library equipment, a sound system, and drama supplies. Parents also run and sponsor the school’s open house, an international festival, and an annual lunch for staff.

Anne Herr (left) and Andrea Carlson want the public school experience for their kids.

Like many parents, Herr and her husband, Karl Jentoft, lead busy lives. Despite full-time careers—37-year-old Herr is a Russian foreign policy analyst at the U.S. State Department; the 35-year-old Jentoft heads up the Canadian division of a financial company—they are active in Mount Pleasant, their ethnically diverse neighborhood. The two belong to the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, which organizes everything from neighborhood crime watches to block parties, as well as to a local historical preservation group. Jentoft also builds houses with Habitat for Humanity. Before Herr became Hearst’s PTA president, she served on the parent advisory board for her son’s day care.

When it came time to enroll their two young children in school, they did a thorough search of the D.C. area; though they wanted to send their kids to a public school, they looked at private ones, too. Once they got a glimpse of Hearst, though, they fell in love with its size, its diversity, and its warmth.

Andrea Carlson, another PTA leader, tells a similar story. A former Peace Corps volunteer and college English teacher, Carlson, 39, now does free-lance writing and editing from her home in Shaw, a historically black neighborhood in northwest D.C. Her husband, Mark Wilhite, works full time for the Environmental Protection Agency. A public school graduate, Carlson says she wanted to stick with public schools for her two kids but wanted a program that offered more than just basic education. Like Herr and Jentoft, Carlson carefully screened several public and private schools. But once she visited Hearst, her search was over. “I was bowled over by what I saw at Hearst,” she recalls. “It was so warm and welcoming.”

Like Carlson, many parents fall hard for Hearst. And when the school is threatened, they fight as if their own families are in danger. In 1993, when D.C. officials announced a list of 40 schools to be considered for closure to save money, the parents howled long and loud. Hearst escaped the ax. Then, when the district put the school on a second closure list in 1997, parents launched a sustained grassroots effort, reaching out to the media, organizing protests, and circulating petitions. Their slogan—"Don’t close it, clone it"—pointed to the irony of the situation:Washington, a troubled school system with declining enrollment, was attempting to shut down a top-performing program with filled-to-the-brim classes. In the end, the school board agreed to spare the school, but only by a single vote.

Today, after these brushes with closure, the parents are suspicious of the central office. It’s not as if school officials don’t have legitimate reasons to consider shuttering Hearst. Because most of the school’s tiny enrollment comes from outside its boundaries, it draws students away from other schools—a fact that angers D.C. residents seeking to anchor their neighborhoods with strong schools. Plus, Hearst’s Cleveland Park address means the school sits on some pricey real estate; in 1997, its land was valued at $1.89 million—money that could go a long way in a district perpetually short of cash.

Given all this, Hearst parents assume that the district will inevitably try to close the school a third time. “I know, as a former Hearst parent, there is always lurking in their minds: When is it going to happen again?” says Tonya Vidal Kinlow, a former Hearst PTA president and now an at-large member of the D.C. Board of Education. “It’s disruptive to the lives of the children and everyone else that’s there.”

Parent Denise Nwaezeapu thinks charter schools are more vulnerable than traditional public schools.

It was against this backdrop that parents and the central office clashed during the 1998-99 school year. It was a months-long feud, with the controversy centered around Hearst’s new principal, Shirley Hopkinson. Parents and Hopkinson sparred almost from the opening bell of the school year. Parents were particularly upset when the principal dismissed their concerns about unidentified dust in a kindergarten room—only to discover later that it was a byproduct of lead paint and potentially toxic. Tensions deepened later in the year during the school’s budget process. A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators assigned to draft Hearst’s proposal suggested a number of innovations—including assigning an assistant principal to run the school and eliminating Hopkinson’s position. The committee claimed this proposal was designed to save money, but some in the community saw it as a slap in the face to Hopkinson.

Eventually, Superintendent Ackerman got involved. After visiting the school one day last spring and interviewing the principal and teachers, she granted Hopkinson’s request for a transfer to another school. But she also transferred two popular teachers, Burns and Karen Dresden, both of whom had been on the panel that drafted the budget proposal. Neither teacher wanted to leave Hearst.

Parents were furious. They circulated a petition protesting the transfer of Burns and Dresden, gathering the signatures of about 85 percent of parents. But Ackerman wouldn’t budge. “I felt like there needed to be an opportunity for that school to rebuild the climate,” Ackerman says now. “Certainly it was so divided at that point, we needed to give people the opportunity to start over.”

To the parents, however, Ackerman’s moves looked like the beginning of the end for Hearst. After Dresden and Burns were reassigned, four of the other nine classroom teachers also transferred or left the system altogether. Another two asked to transfer, but their requests were denied by the administration. Parents worried that this hemorrhage of teachers would be fatal for the school. A lack of experienced educators could kill the model program and dissuade families from staying, they feared, making the school an even more likely target for closure.

So once again, they fired up their activist machine, starting with emergency PTA meetings near the end of the school year that spilled over into the summer months. At one June gathering, parents tossed around ideas for rebuilding the school and alternatives should they lose all support from the D.C. Public Schools. That’s when Herr suggested turning Hearst into a charter school—an idea that the parents seized on as a potent weapon in the battle to maintain custody of the school’s future.

The task of researching the charter option fell to Herr, Jentoft, and Carlson. The three gathered information about Washington’s charter school law, passed in 1996, and an application. Spreading the materials out at home on their dining room tables, they pored over the fine print and educated themselves about charter schools. The more they learned, the more they saw the charter idea as a perfect solution for Hearst.

“When we started, we didn’t even know what it was all about,” says Carlson. “But when we were reading [the materials], it was like a little light went off....One of the first things we thought was, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to use our energy to build something instead of keeping something safe from harm?’”

On July 7—the deadline for charter proposals—the Hearst PTA submitted to the D.C. Public Charter School Board an application to convert the school to a charter. The parents, the application noted, had the expertise and commitment to make the new school a success. Moreover, they would build it on Hearst’s academic foundation.

The application also made clear the parents’ motivation: Hearst’s survival. “At this point in time,” it read, "[we have] no assurance that Hearst will receive from DCPS the kind of support that is necessary to ensure the continued integrity of our program.”

Aday’s worth of rain has smeared the handmade sign in front of Hearst this evening. But you can still make out the words: “Back to School Night.” The flaw only adds to the building’s schoolhouse charm.

It is September, two months after the parents filed the charter school application, and a new school year has begun with a new principal, Betty Shamwell. Shamwell opens the evening’s festivities with a greeting in broken Spanish, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and the parents and students who speak Spanish—and there are many. Shamwell stands on a small stage at the head of the so-called Big Room, a large rectangular area used for meetings as well as the kids’ drama and dance classes. A former assistant principal at another D.C. elementary school, Shamwell has decades of experience in early-childhood education. Parents give her high marks so far.

After Shamwell speaks, the teachers parade across the stage to introduce themselves, to hearty applause. PTA president Herr gives a short speech and is followed by another parent who talks about the latest fund-raising project.

For many parents, everything at Hearst seems as it should be—for now, anyway. In August, the PTA revised its charter school application; instead of requesting to convert Hearst to a charter, it petitioned to open a new school. This means that parents could create a new program based on the Hearst education model but would not have any claim to the Hearst building.

All the talk of charter schools has left parents with mixed emotions. The logistics of building a school virtually from scratch are daunting for many of them. Some already put as much as they can into the school as it is. Creating a charter school may be more trouble than it’s worth. “I just see it as more hard work,” says parent Denise Nwaezeapu. “I view charter schools as more vulnerability than security.”

Some parents who are philosophically opposed to charter schools are sanguine about the prospects of turning Hearst into one. To them, it’s a last resort, an option secured behind glass to be broken only in an emergency. “I would prefer that a charter school for Hearst would never be necessary, but if there’s a threat of closure, I could consider it,” says Elizabeth Vandivier, who has two children at Hearst. “I think the charter application is a good way to say, ‘We’re here, we want to continue the school.’”

Other parents are sold on charters. Charlie Oliver, Oleg’s father, says, “I believe that if you put the control of schools in hands of parents, they would be better off than if either the school board or Ackerman had any involvement. Just get downtown out of the picture. Sell the administration building. Just eliminate them and send checks. That would be far superior.”

Karl Jentoft is also passionate about the charter idea, in part because he’s worried that standards-based reforms that Ackerman is introducing will leave little room for Hearst’s progressive curriculum. “I’m pessimistic that she is flexible enough to include Hearst as it is,” he says.

Despite this division within the ranks of Hearst parents, the school’s PTA worked throughout the fall to make clear that its charter application was no idle threat. It secured a commitment from the National Crime Prevention Council, which will help build a school-community collaborative. It also formed a partnership with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that assists with school reform.

Last month, the PTA cleared its biggest hurdle: The D.C. Public Charter School Board gave a tentative green light to the application. There are still details to be hashed out, but it’s likely that a new school will soon be born: Capital City Public Charter School.

Ultimately, many parents may decide not to leave Hearst. But some parents figure that they have no choice. “The future is very unpredictable in DCPS,” Carlson says.

If Hearst parents do break away from the district, they will join one of the fastest growing movements in education. Just eight years after the first charter school opened its doors, there are now some 1,700 across the country, enrolling about 350,000 students, according to a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.

Critics of charters have always argued that the schools will skim money and students away from traditional K-12 programs. The result: a two-track education system, with conventional schools serving as a poorly funded dumping ground for special education students, troublemakers, and disadvantaged kids. The movement is too new to know whether this nightmare scenario could happen, but the Hearst battle makes clear another potential threat: Charter schools can attract some of the most active parents in a school system, siphoning off involved moms and dads.

Bruno Manno, an education specialist at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and a charter advocate, says it’s no surprise that charter schools attract engaged parents. “It’s the ultimate act of parent involvement: They choose these schools,” says Manno.

Ted Kolderie, senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minnesota, says that parents committed to getting their children the best education possible have been leaving troubled public school systems for decades—often to elite, high-tuition private schools. Charter schools just give the same option to parents who can’t afford expensive private education, he says. “The [traditional public school] system has always been a choice system. It has been stratifying itself steadily over the years. From an economic standpoint, [charter schools] give economically disadvantaged parents the same opportunities as parents with greater incomes.”

Charter critics argue that the schools skim off money and students from traditional K-12 programs. The Hearst battle makes clear another threat: Charters can siphon away some of the most active parents, too.

Kolderie and other charter advocates argue that parent defections aren’t necessarily a bad thing. To compete for students and parents, traditional schools will have to become more flexible and, ultimately, improve. “What we’re coming up to is the question of whether the school district should be guaranteed its students and revenue and also its parents,” Kolderie says. “It’s not smart to tell organizations that they can take their kids, teachers, and parents for granted.”

Others see charters as a way to keep disgruntled parents from abandoning the public system altogether for private schools. A public education system that includes charter schools could actually increase parent involvement, says Richard Wenning, manager of Wenning Associates, which supports charter schools nationwide. “I would argue that charter schools would cause there to be more active parents [in public education],” says Wenning. The more choices in public education, he claims, the more parents will be involved.

But experts like Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, worry that losing active parents will leave the larger school systems bereft of the sort of advocates they really need. “There’s a big fear there,” she says. “We keep adding on layers to the system, and pretty soon the regular public school systems, especially in urban areas, are going to be left with students who have the least parent advocacy.”

In Washington, a hotbed of charter school activity, such fears are particularly acute. In just three years, more than 30 charters have been approved; 27 are open, enrolling almost 7,000 students—most of whom came from district schools, says Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a nonprofit charter school advocacy group based in Washington. That’s roughly 10 percent of the 70,000 students in the city’s traditional schools. Cane estimates that another 1,500 students are on waiting lists to attend charter schools.

“I don’t want to see parents who choose—and who are active enough to choose a school like Hearst—leaving the public school system,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a Washington parents and teachers group. “They have been strong advocates. It’s a small school, but it has powerful parents. They work for that school.”

Philip Blair Jr., a parent and schools watchdog agrees: “The worst thing that could come from this charter-school spin is that all activist parents would get out of DCPS and leave the system as a warehouse for residual students. I fear that.”

Oleg Oliver doesn’t really like to talk about school. Of course, not many 6-year-olds do. He tells me a little about recess and about tunes he sings in music class, like Jingle Bells and Frère Jacques, but when I ask too much, he cuts me off. “Shhh. No talking,” he says. “Let’s be quiet.”

Oleg is swinging from a rope his father has draped over a high tree limb in the family’s backyard. He’s got only a few minutes before he has to head off to school. He wants to enjoy them in peace.

Oleg’s parents say their son has had a hard time adjusting to the new Hearst. He misses Burns and can’t understand why she’s left. So far this year, says Oleg’s mom, her son has called his new teacher a “liar” and a “butt.” When I push him a little about her, he pauses, seeming pensive—more thoughtful than I thought a 6-year-old could be. “She’s a stranger,” he says. “She looks like a stranger to me.”

Oleg’s only 6. It can be hard to please a 6-year-old. Besides, he’ll eventually get over losing Burns. But his parents are also troubled. His father has circulated letters to school and government officials, asking that something be done about last year’s forced transfers. Oleg’s mother is optimistic about Hearst but admits that, like Jentoft, she’s worried about how it will fare under the district’s new standards-based reforms.

Oleg has had a hard time this year adjusting to the new Hearst and his new teacher.

We’re talking as we walk Oleg to school. When we arrive, he runs off to join the students already lining up with their teachers on the playground. The scene reminds me of my first visit to Hearst weeks before and my first encounter with Oleg. I didn’t know him at the time. Even so, this little boy with a mop of blond hair and strange glasses walked up to me and gave me a quick hug on his way into the building. It was odd, but sweet.

Getting swept up in the Hearst family is easy. It’s a warm, tight-knit community that you probably wouldn’t find at most schools, certainly not with the same mix of people. It’s no wonder the parents are determined to save the school—even if it means dismantling it.


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