Friday, July 17, 2009


By Diana L. Chapman | Random Thoughts column in CityWatch: an insider look @ LA

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I have a sickening and increasing fear of the new education revolution that has charter schools popping up everywhere in Los Angeles– especially now that our mayor has endorsed this as the gateway to fixing public schools.

It stems from scary stories like this:

High School senior, Aurora Ponce, a class president, straight “A” student headed for a UC university, sat in a silent protest regarding enlarging class sizes and the elimination of college prep courses at her charter campus. After she did so, the Accelerated School (several South Los Angeles charters) suspended her for two days and tried to bar her from giving  a valedictorian speech.

Scores of protests forced the charter to allow her the opportunity she deserved.

Two teachers, during Black History Month, put together a program to remember 14-year-old Emmett Till, hanged in 1955 in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. The program included placing a wreath down for Emmett at Celerity Nascent charters.

The 7th grade math teacher, Marisol Alba, and co-teacher, Sean Strauss, were both fired. School officials declared that telling Emmett’s story was too horrific for young students.

I signed the petition to rehire those teachers. This is the type of program I don’t only expect – but demand from good teachers.

These Los Angeles stories, and many others like them around the nation, bother me deeply that we are murdering our public education system and leaving behind our American values as individuals; the right to protest, the right to free speech, the right to learn about tolerance – which we’ve always learned at schools. And more so, the right to learn our history.

During my junior high school years, I learned about Native American Indians living on reservations, the brutality of the Civil Rights Movement and about the Klu Klux Klan. Not once did I believe these stories were too much for me to learn. In fact, those lessons helped shape me and taught me tolerance.

I want our children – our future – to be analytical and to know our history – no matter how dark it is. If we  avoid the Emmett Till story, will we ignore slavery too? How about the Lincoln assassination? Should we discuss JFK then? What about the Holocaust?

Even when charter test scores are high, I wonder what we eliminate: perhaps we destroy the concept of students thinking for themselves.

I gagged when I read about the American Indian Public Charter schools in Oakland.

These students live with strict military-style discipline at the school and achieved some of the highest test scores in the state – 976 – out of a 1000 on the API (Academic Performance Index). Mostly, strict academics are part of the structure such as math.

But my question is: at what costs? While public schools are teaching to the tests as well, teachers are often chagrined by this and continue their attempts to instill values, tolerance --- and our history. Maybe then we won’t repeat some of the same ugly mistakes we’ve already made.

As a parent, I took a short dip in and out of a charter school in San Pedro for my son, Ryan. It definitely was not the school for us for a variety of reasons, but in particular odd discipline policies and the amount of control the principal and executive director had was bothersome.

After that, the only recourse was to go to the board.  And students were not encouraged to speak up.

We didn’t make it past the first semester, especially after Ryan was disciplined with an eight hour in-house suspension for wearing the wrong shirt to school. At this point, I decided this campus just didn’t fit us. It did, however, suit other students who blossomed and flourished at the smaller school.

Still, what I fear most coming out of charters is the cookie-cutter approach to teaching, especially at charters that are wedded to the basics, and want to squash what their students say out loud.

It’s almost a dumbing-down of students, intimidating them to not speak out vocally or become the way most of us are as Americans: believing we have the right to speak.

Jose Cole-Gutierrez, heads all 156 charter schools for Los Angeles Unified which currently serves 60,000 students.

In the end, charters have wound up operating similar to public schools – some are excellent, some are average and some have failed.

What they did offer the school district is a need for competition, Cole-Gutierrez explained and for parents -- options.

The school district does not, in essence, manage day-to-day operations, Cole-Gutierrez said, but what has come out of the charter movement – which this district has the highest number of than any other in the nation – is offering choice to parents.

The district now offers magnet, pilot and smaller learning communities to its students and the district now has “the competition we need at all schools. We need to compete and give better choices,” he explained.

“We continue to be committed to high quality choices, providing charter schools with the autonomy allowed under the law and the accountability for which they are responsible,” the administrator emailed me.

David Kooper, the chief of staff for LAUSD Board Member Richard Vladovic, agreed and said the district will move toward forming small schools to compete against charters.

The small schools, which may reside on currently large campuses, will have their own counseling office and administration.

“We’ve decided to go with smaller schools and help them establish their own identity,”

This is good news – because like most of education’s ills, charters are only a part of the solution.  

(Diana L. Chapman was a journalist for 15 years with the Daily Breeze and the San Diego Union. She can be reached

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