The Charter World’s Dirty Little Secret: “Counseling” Kids Out aka Getting Rid of the Kids We Don’t Like

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I am very protective of my students. I feel like a Mama Grizzly Bear and I feel like that about all of them. I call them “my kids” and I don’t even want to have my own kids. I love teenagers, I really do. I find something to love, something that is beautiful about each and every one of them. They get under my skin sometimes, and I may not always like what they do, but I try to look for the good in them. I am not unusual in this as a teacher. I also feel a great deal of responsibility for my students. If my friends at Facebook make a mistake, they might cost Facebook money, they might feel bad, it might not look good for a while, but it can be fixed. If I make a mistake, if I have one bad day, if I give a child the indication that I don’t love them, that I don’t believe in them, the consequences are dire. Every friend of mine has vivid memories of how they got the message that they couldn’t succeed, we remember those words. Sure the kid might not perform in my class, but that is not the more important concern. For some of my kids, one bad day, one use of the term lazy, or bad, or even the slightest messaging that implies that I don’t think they can succeed and I am putting the nail in a coffin. That is not a metaphor.

The charters I have been at have been on the progressive end of the spectrum, but even then I saw some of my kids “exited” meaning they were encouraged to leave and go somewhere else. They were told that they couldn’t be successful at that school. The charters are under no obligation to educate every child. The two I have been at were mostly good about this, but the reality is that both Summit and EPAHS are special places. The vast majority of charters follow the KIPP model. Some of them are doing some good work for some kids, but in the long run, even if they educate the few they do have well, some of their policies have lasting and incredibly damaging impacts on not only the students but also the community that far outweigh the fact that a small number of kids scored high on some tests.

A lot of people don’t realize what is going on. In the charter world, they call it exiting the kids. They tell SPED kids and ELL kids, and behavior kids, that they can’t be successful there, and they do this before the kids even walk into the door. If the students can make it past that gate then they have to deal with a set of rules, and if they don’t score high enough the charters will encourage or find a way to make them leave. It is an open secret that charters recruit kids before funding kicks in and then drop the kids off back into the public schools that make their lives difficult before tests happen. Comprehensive schools then have to pick up the slack with less funding. Charters serve a self-selecting and small population. A population of students that are told that if they follow the rules (including walking in lines, chanting when they are supposed to, doing work under unreasonable conditions) that they are good and that the other kids from their home community are bad. Charters already start with a self-selecting population because few parents have the cultural capital to apply to the charter. Then once the kids get there they leave in mass. There is a charter in New York that was praised in the media. They started with 55 middle schoolers. 16 entered their freshman year. That is a horrific attrition rate. KIPP, which is probably the best in the bunch, loses 40% of their kids. Charters get a lot of outside funding the publics do not get. Then they educate a much smaller percentage of kids, an already self-selecting group, and then they get rid of anyone who makes trouble.

I am not going to mince words here. If you have 55 kids and only 16 make it to 9th grade, and you also have more money than the public schools, I don’t care what the scores are. Any teacher can get 100% proficiency with 16 top performers, and on top of that, they also run their staff into the ground and have massive turn-over. If you have to run a slave operation on your teachers to get 16 well-behaved, higher performing, better resourced kids, to get proficiency, your model is not working. It is failing. That they have so many kids dropping out, have so many more resources, have teachers working under horrific conditions, and can only get a small percentage through, and that the percentage that does finish goes to but can’t finish college, then you are doing something horribly wrong.

This is all statistics and data to me, and it matters, but I want to talk about the emotional ramifications. These charters pull kids out of their home communities, isolate them, use awful tactics to train them to act appropriately privileged (a lot of them us SLANT which means Sit UP, Look at the Speaker, Ask Questions, Nod, Track the Speaker- follow them around the room- all things I don’t see many privileged kids doing anyway), tell the kids that they are somehow better than their friends from the neighborhood and that their neighborhood is the problem and that they are personally responsible. Then they have crazy discipline policies, some of which violate the Geneva Convention clause on group punishment (yes, seriously, I’ve seen the archives of charters applying to districts), and they lose their kids. Disproportionately, they lose their beautiful, brilliant, fun and charming young black boys. So let’s look at this from the kid’s perspective. You’ve just been told that your culture and community is bad, that if you fail it is your fault and that the charter is your only hope for getting out. Then you behave like a child, and your principal and teachers, your community, your only contact with mainstream society, tells you that you can’t be successful in the place that was supposed to save you. Just so we are clear, kids are getting kicked out for things that I did fairly regularly, things that privileged kids do all the time, things that are perfectly normal for kids to do. If you look at the behavioral contracts at some of the charters kids can get kicked out for defiance, for not going along with specific programming, for not doing homework and for not performing. So basically, if I had gone to a charter I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

What do you think the consequences are for the children who get exited? Well, they’ve just discovered that school is not a pathway they can be successful on. Since school is the only legitimate way to get out, where do they go? Prison. Drug dealing and using. Prostitution. The streets. I am not being melodramatic, this is the reality of the situation. They are done. They will give up on school entirely. The small percentage that stays and gets a “good” education (high test scores, and access to resources the public schools don’t have because they get outside funding) would probably have been fine at a fully integrated and well-resourced comprehensive public school. The kids that leave should not be sacrificed on the alter for our unwillingness to honor our Constitution and our unwillingness to fund public schools. This is ultimately the thing that made me decide to not go charter this year. There are some good charters out there, EPAHS and Summit are both offering things the public schools in that area don’t have and filling a need that needs to be filled, and for the moment at least doing a good job of it. But wouldn’t it be easier to have comprehensive public schools that are dedicated and designed for equity? And Summit is an outlier, most fit into the No Excuses mold of that school I mentioned in New York and of KIPP. I love my kids too much to continue to watch this happen. The public schools are far from perfect. I went to one and it was awful, but it was also not integrated and didn’t have resources. We can’t get around the resource question. We can’t get around Brown v. Board of Ed. The consequences are too serious. If we want to fix education, we have agree that we have a responsibility as citizens of this democracy to provide a true meritocracy with equitable access to education. Rich parents have to stop trying to get around the rules to give their kids advantages. Frankly, since most of them believe that their children are geniuses who earned everything they have, maybe we should see what happens when they have to deal with real competition, because the system right now is rigged to make it as easy as possible for them to maintain their position. That is racism. That is classism. We have to stop dancing around the issue. Integrate the schools. Fund them equitably. Because right now, as far as I can tell, some of these corporate guys are funding the charters so they can continue to get around our constitution.

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