Education Opinion

No Waiting. Meet Superwoman.

By Nancy Flanagan — October 07, 2010 4 min read
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I think charter schools are a great idea. Some of my best friends--as they say-- teach in charter schools. I wish all public schools had the freedoms and advantages of the best charters: fewer state regulations, the autonomy to serve a student population based on its unique needs, the option of demanding parent involvement prior to enrollment, loyal supporters with deep pockets. Charter schools even have their own highly effective PR

machines these days.

A lot of the gauzy narratives around charters come from entertainers, politicians, economists, hedge fund managers and hired-gun charter flaks. I thought it might be enlightening to talk to someone who actually co-founded a charter school.

Meet Eve Rifkin, co-founder of CityHigh, in Tucson, AZ. City High School strives to be a “community of learners in which all members use their minds well and care about one another--and use the unique resources of Tucson.” Eve, a National Board Certified Teacher and blogger at Stories from School AZ, will take your questions now.

TIASL: Tell us why you--an accomplished veteran teacher--took the huge risk of co-founding City High in Tucson. What was the motivation to leave your comfort zone?

Rifkin: I was certainly in a comfort zone. I had spent 10 years in an affluent district high school. There were TVs in every classroom with cable; laptop carts, and a beautiful campus. But also the nagging feeling that I could never really know my students, simply because I had too many of them.

Early on during my time at that school, a student committed suicide. The next day there was, literally, no school-wide recognition that one of our kids had taken his own life. NONE. Not an announcement, a gathering, a moment of silence, nothing. I knew then that there was something terribly wrong. It took me several years to turn that feeling into an action that resulted in a small school, where every single student is known well and cared about.

Your charter school seems the qualitative opposite of franchise charters which focus on behavior enforcement and raising test scores--"work hard, be nice.” Where do your teachers put their energies?

We want our students to do well on standardized tests too, but our definition of excellent teaching and learning goes way beyond a good test score. Our teachers put their energies into being excellent teachers who have to find creative and substantive ways of engaging learners who are all over the map. We don’t track kids in the ways that traditional schools do. There is no “honors track” or “AP track”. It’s a heck of a lot tougher to teach a truly heterogeneous group of kids than a homogeneous one.

Establishing meaningful relationships with every single student is hard work. It goes much deeper than simply knowing how well they read and write. We take time to get to know their backgrounds, their family members, what truly makes them tick. Teachers at City High School put a lot of energy into knowing our kids.

There’s a lot of pro- and anti-charter myth-making. What are the misconceptions about charters that drive you crazy?

One major notion about charter schools that drives me absolutely crazy is that they can cherry pick their students. I find this disturbing for two reasons.

#1) Most charter schools are serving kids who were unable to or chose not to remain in the traditional school system, for various reasons. About a year before City High School opened a couple of us attended a workshop hosted at ADE for prospective charter school operators.

I will never forget the woman at the front of the room who was explaining laws around enrollment policy. Her exact words were: “If a kid comes to your school without a HEAD you are required by law to admit that student.” We believed her. Our mission from the get-go was to serve all kids. We don’t cherry pick. On the contrary, we work really hard at differentiating and personalizing so that all of our students get a fair shake.

#2) This is the part that kills me. Some charter schools actually DO cream the top and they make those of us who don’t look bad. Some charters give “placement” tests to kids before they enroll. On the surface, these tests are designed to assess where kids are with their math, reading, and writing skills. If a student is in ninth grade, but they test at a 6th grade math level, that student is told that he/she will be placed in a 6th grade math class. Self-respecting 9th graders would rather die than be placed in a math class full of 6th graders, so they choose to go to other schools. On the surface these tests seem like innocuous assessments of skill levels, but what they do in reality is weed kids out and effectively allow these charters to cream the top. Then, these same schools get major kudos from US News and World Report in its annual top schools issue. To say that it drives me nuts is an understatement.

How do you feel about unionizing charter teachers? Would that change everything about your mission and success?

I didn’t go into this business so that I could fire teachers because of low test scores. I opened a school because I believe that teachers are the most important part of the educational system. They need to be paid as professionals and treated as human beings.

Unions are designed to protect workers. If teachers are given fair and reasonable expectations, clear guidelines around evaluation, a supportive coach/mentor, regular opportunities to receive feedback and access to important decision-making, then there would be nothing to protect teachers from. On the other hand, when teachers are treated like replaceable parts of a machine, then they do need a structure that will protect them from being dehumanized.

Seen “Waiting for Superman” yet?
I have not yet seen the film, but I plan on it. Later.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.