I’m a self-proclaimed education news addict, but I have to confess that, until recently, I knew very little about school choice, as it relates to charter schools. “School choice?” I thought. “Sure, sounds like a fine idea.” Almost a year ago, however, when I decided to move to Chicago, school choice began to take on a whole new meaning for me.
Having taught in an urban public school in Atlanta, applying to the Chicago Public School system seemed like an obvious decision. However, I quickly discovered that CPS was not going to be hiring anytime in the near future, given the education budget crisis. After doing some Internet browsing, however, I discovered that CPS had been providing funds to the Renaissance 2010 movement, through which nearly 100 charter schools had been opened to serve urban students. “Aha!” I thought. “More choices!”
More choices was correct, though at that point in time, it was still early in the hiring season, and I wasn’t receiving responses to my emailed cover letters and resumes. On a whim, I filled out a lengthy application to a charter school on the southwest side of the city, writing nine pages to answer the essay questions. I had little hope of receiving a response, since I surmised that the school, with its rigorous application process, must be highly selective. Plus, while most other charter schools advertised strong academics and discipline, this school looked strangely different—students ate only organic food at school, practiced yoga, and played outside in a school garden. I sent off my enormous application packet and didn’t give it another thought.
The Interviews Begin
Soon after, I began corresponding with two different charter school networks that appealed to me. I began the interview process with “Network One” and became more familiar than I’d ever dreamed possible with the Atlanta and Chicago airports. For “Network Two,” I had piqued the interest of a principal but had to wait until the human resources department contacted me directly. With the positive feedback I was getting from both networks’ administration teams, I felt relatively certain that I would end up teaching for one of them.
Then, one Friday evening, I received a voice-mail from the principal of a school called the Academy for Global Citizenship, or AGC. I had to think for a moment before recalling that this was the school for which I had written the nine pages. A phone interview led to an in-person team interview, and then to a demonstration lesson. By the time I had completed the interview process, I was in love with AGC. I clicked with the staff, and I was excited by the systemic change the school was promoting by teaching students how to stay healthy and preserve the planet. Additionally, if I taught at AGC, I would get to teach the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, a long-time goal of mine, and the school was also considering implementing a dual language (Spanish) program, which matched my bilingual certification. What had once seemed strangely different to me had become my ideal place of employment.
However, life never works out the way that we plan. For weeks, I heard nothing back from AGC. In the meantime, I had completed the interview process with Network One, and I was offered a kindergarten position at a new campus. How exciting it would be, I thought, to take part in opening a new school! Plus, the school was offering me two months of professional development. Nevertheless, I had my reservations about teaching for this network.
At 9 p.m. the night before I was to teach my demonstration lesson, I received an email informing me that the location for the lesson had changed. When I arrived the next day, I wandered the streets trying to find the school, before realizing that it was part of an old church and that I had to enter through a dark, narrow alley. Waiting in the hallway, I noticed a huge, professionally-printed graph of the school’s standardized test scores displayed, rather than student work or pictures of the children. Then, a few minutes before my demonstration lesson was to begin, the assistant principal informed me that I would be teaching to a different grade level than I had originally been told.
All of this was disconcerting, and I was left uncertain as to whether I should accept the offer. Did I want to teach for a school that might value standardized test scores more than children? Would I be dealing with a disorganized administrative team? With these questions in my mind, I asked for an extended period of time to make a decision about the offer, and I phoned the principal of AGC. To my disappointment, she had no news for me because they were still interviewing other candidates.
I decided to accept the offer from Network One. After all, it was already June, and I was lucky to have received an offer, given the economy. Then, unexpectedly, I received a phone call from the HR department of Network Two. They wanted me to come in for a series of interviews. I then decided to decline the offer from Network One, a decision that was, for a non-risk-taker, probably one of the scariest choices I’ve made in my life.
Hopeful of receiving an offer from Network Two, I flew up to Chicago immediately. I knew that I liked this network; I would be working with Latino children and families, students and teachers were both held to high standards, and the schools were purposefully kept small. After completing an interview with HR, I met with the principal and was determined to show him that I was the right candidate for the job.
However, as the interview went on, my enthusiasm waned. Nearly all the principal spoke about was the heavy teacher workload and the intense scrutiny I would be under by the administrative team. Although I hold myself to very high standards and seek to improve my teaching, I was put off by the principal’s intensity. I wondered if I would be working in a climate of paranoia, where my every move would be noted and evaluated by instructional leaders and administrators. I also began to understand why this network has one of the city’s highest teacher turnover rates.
Walking out of the interview, I grimly reminded myself that if I did receive an offer, I would have to take it. I knew that I could survive in those working conditions, though the job’s high demands (and odd requirement of wearing a suit jacket, even to teach kindergarten!) would be draining. At least I would have the support of an instructional leader to guide me in my growth—and I most certainly would grow at this school.
The very next day, I received a phone call from HR, offering me the kindergarten position at the Network Two school. An uneasy feeling formed within me. I had learned that this network de-emphasized the importance of Spanish in the children’s lives. Wasn’t this the same as devaluing their heritage? Would the school, in holding its students to extremely high expectations for behavior, value blind obedience over an understanding of why rules are important? How might high teacher turnover affect the school climate?
Running Out of Options
Again, I was filled with questions, but I was out of options this time. There was also the problem that I had never been able to get the Academy for Global Citizenship out of my head. In my mind, every other school paled in comparison. I knew that, at AGC, students were valued and supported, rather than silenced to create an appearance of excellence. By this point, I was convinced that I needed to forget about AGC, though a friend encouraged me to call the principal just one more time. I did so, and left a message that I figured would never be returned. To distract myself, I laid down to take a nap.
I awoke to my phone ringing: It was the principal of AGC. “I’m glad you called,” she said. “We’re getting ready to send out offer letters, and you’re one of our leading candidates—so check your e-mail today.” In my decidedly less-than-optimistic mood, I anticipated a rejection e-mail all day, though a small part of me hoped for better news. I drained my PDA’s battery checking my e-mail repeatedly, but by the time I went to bed that evening, I had received nothing.
Before I turned off the light, I checked my e-mail one last time. And there it was—a message from the director of AGC. My heart beating rapidly, I opened it and read, “It is with great enthusiasm that we extend to you an offer to join the community at the Academy for Global Citizenship!” By this point, I was so exhausted from all the stress that I went to sleep in a delirium. The next morning, I got up and e-mailed my acceptance.
What a journey it had been! I had gone from knowing very little about charter schools to becoming intimately acquainted with several different ones in Chicago. Even though, initially, most of the schools had looked similar to me as an outsider, I had come to realize that charter schools just a few miles away from each other can be extremely different. Not only is school choice an issue for families, but it is also an important issue for teachers seeking the “right fit,” and I am fortunate to have found a school where I feel at home. Of course, I still face the daily challenges of a public educator, but I am at peace knowing that I face these challenges in the context of a school that is, quite simply, good for kids.
Do We Always Know What We’re Choosing?
My purpose in writing is not to imply that these other charter schools are not successful. I am certain that they provide many students with an outstanding education. I do, however, encourage educators and parents to look closely before making a choice about a school. I also encourage educators and policymakers to question the charter school movement as a panacea for public school problems. How successful are charter schools on a large scale in improving the quality of public education? Are we really providing equal opportunities in educational choice when some parents simply do not have the educational, socioeconomic, or linguistic means of choosing the best school for their child?
I can’t answer these questions by myself, but I want to work with other educators to continue to explore these topics with policymakers. In the meantime, you can find me teaching kindergarten at the Academy for Global Citizenship, where my students and I enjoy healthy organic meals, engage in five hours of physical activity per week in our schoolyard garden, watch our chickens lay eggs, and practice yoga—all in the city!
Every day, I witness my students becoming inquiring, caring members of our classroom community, supported by our Responsive Classroom, Balanced Literacy, and IB programs. I feel honored to be a part of such a unique educational environment, but my hope is that our school becomes less than unique, so that more students can enjoy these opportunities no matter what kind of school they attend—public, private, or charter.