August 01, 2002 6 min read
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Creating and Sustaining a Public Charter School

by James Nehring
(Teachers College Press, 192 pages, $21.95.)

In 1996, Nehring, a humanities teacher at the year-old Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, was promoted to principal- teacher, a job the faculty at the progressive middle school decided to create after completing the entire first year without any declared leadership. While the diplomatic Nehring writes of his tenure in the position as a welcome challenge, it seems in truth to have been a kind of education hell. He worked himself to the bone, both teaching and putting out one administrative fire after another, and was relieved, two years later, to return to ordinary classroom work.

Much of this volume focuses on those difficult years, but Nehring’s bigger purpose is to chronicle the messy task of starting a charter school from scratch. Indeed, the book, which takes readers from the school’s conception through year five, is among the best titles of the burgeoning charter school genre.

A number of the problems Nehring addresses are endemic to charter schools. For example, Parker, like most new charters, received no additional funding for a year of pre-launch planning, so it was forced to invent itself on therun, a practice that led to organizational chaos. Rapid growth—in fiveyears, the school went from 120 middle school to 350 middle and high school students—only made matters worse.

Parker had been founded on democratic principles, the idea being that the small, close-knit faculty would administer the school collaboratively, through consensus. But from the beginning, this produced a policy vacuum, since initially there was no authority entrusted with making the decisions or addressing the problems that could not wait for staff input. Consequently, things often happened willy- nilly.

The faculty also struggled with discipline and teacher-student relations. The school’s progressive ideals placed a premium on egalitarianism and respecting students’ opinions. But as time went on, Nehring writes, the kids “sometimes acted as though their voices were the only ones that mattered.” After a student drew an obscenity on the sidewalk in front of the school, his peers were quick to defend it as free speech. Given great latitude on how to approach their academic work, many students arrived late to class and failed to do homework. Eventually the teachers realized the necessity of “adopting disciplinary procedures” and “assigning consequences for violation of school rules.”

None of this suggests that Parker was a failure. As the book shows, Nehring and his colleagues benefited from ongoing, if somewhat painful, self- reflection, identifying problem areas and making adjustments as needed. In the end, the faculty had to sacrifice some of its idealism, the author notes, but not its overarching vision. Parker remains a progressive school, offering an ungraded, thematic academic program, but it now has a full-time principal and an administrative infrastructure that allows for smoother day-to-day operations.

Toward the end of the book, Nehring offers a wealth of practical advice for trailblazing educators thinking of starting their own charter schools. He cautions against over-relying, as Parker did, on bright but inexperienced young teachers, insisting that skilled veterans are needed for both guidance and stability. And he warns about what he calls “mission drift.” A new school has to be flexible, he argues, but must also remain true to its core vision, whatever that might be.

Finally, readers of this honest and compelling book will learn—if they didn’t already know—that starting a new school is not for the weak of heart. “The single unavoidable fact of a startup school,” Nehring concludes, “is the overwhelming presence of chaos and anxiety. No amountof planning can eliminate it.”

What a Teacher Learned From Her Student

by Elizabeth Stone (Algonquin Books, 208 pages, $19.95.)

Seven years ago, Stone received an imposing package from a man she’d taught some 25 years earlier at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, New York. His name was Vincent, and the box contained 10 years of his diaries, some 3,500 pages, along with a note urging her to use the material in a book about his life. The note, Stone discovered, had been written just before Vincent died of AIDS in San Francisco.

Stone remembered Vincent from New Utrecht. She had befriended him there, and they’d kept in touch over the years through an exchange of Christmas cards. But the former English teacher—now a college professor—found the gift unsettling. For one thing, the pages contained a running account of Vincent’s risky sexual activities. How, Stone wonders, could he have been so foolish? But even more, she questions what caused Vincent to name her as his posthumous confidante.

The choice, she suggests here, points to a mystery at the very core of teaching, having to do with the influence a teacher can unknowingly—and even naively—have on a student. “For the most part, teachers work in the dark, offering what they can . . . never quite knowing if their offer is received,” Stone writes. “When Vincent sent me his diaries, he was letting me know there was an outcome.”

As Stone gradually read through the diaries and became enthralled and eventually moved by Vincent’s life, she realized that her former student had become the teacher, helping her, among other things, come to terms with illness and the loss of loved ones. In the final analysis, this beautifully written book is a testament to how teacher and student can learn from each other—even years after they have shared the same classroom.

Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters

by Karen Stabiner
(Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $25.95.)

Stabiner, an acclaimed journalist and author, spent a year following students at two very different all-girls schools: the private and prestigious Marlborough School in Los Angeles and the public Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem. Based on the title, the book purports to be an argument in favor of single-sex education for girls, but it never really gets around to supporting, much less proving, this premise. It does, however, offer a fascinating, highly entertaining portrait of two very different girls schools and many of the teenagers who attend them.

Indeed, by delving into the girls’ personal backgrounds, Stabiner shows that their single-sex educations are not terribly significant factors in their lives. Most of the girls at Marlborough, for example, come from wealth and privilege—true defining factors—and would probably fare just as well academically at a coed equivalent of their elite school.

The girls at the YWLS, on the other hand, are plagued with problems associated with urban poverty. They lack basic academic skills and confidence and are saddled with such tasks as spending long hours looking after younger siblings. While the girls at Marlborough worry about the SAT and whether to attend Brown or Stanford, these girls worry about making it through a semester of algebra.

As Stabiner herself acknowledges, it is almost impossible when examining the impact of single-sex schools to disentangle the deep effects of race and class from those of gender alone.

—David Ruenzel


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