Article published in The Richmond Times Dispatch
Stewards of public schools tend to recoil from proposals to make greater use of private providers in rescuing struggling students. Granted, years of free-marketeer’ rhetoric about “government
Schools” and privatizing all education may have rendered them gun-shy.
There is something to be said for attempting to scare educrats out of their fondness for the status quo. However, every now and then, public-versus-private combatants in the education wars ought to pause, like the farmer and the rancher, and repair to middle ground where they can agree on actually helping real children. They could lower their blood pressure and do civic good at the same time.
A special charter school that is being gift-wrapped and presented to Richmond courtesy of a federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) grant and bipartisan cooperation between Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder and House Speaker Bill Howell provides just such an opportunity. (Say this for the much-cussed NCLB: It does encourage corrective action — whether via private tutoring, public school choice, or charter schools — when standards and tests identify weaknesses.)
In general, charter schools are public schools that are independently run, usually by boards of teachers, parents, and area residents. They must meet their promises to perform, or the public chartering authority can close them down. Students attend them by choice.
The charter school model coming to Richmond from the successful operators of Park Place School in Norfolk provides private help for public education in a distinctly non-threatening way. Wilder aide Paul Goldman nailed it when he called this approach “an additive, another way to reach students and maximize their potential.”
Since opening in 2000 in donated church property, Park Place has accepted inner-city kids who are considered to be learning-disabled but whose diagnostic tests scores are not quite low enough to qualify them for special education. In short, these are non-readers about to fall through the tiny cracks of a large public system.
Park Place School has taken these kids at the third grade, given them three years of intensive small-group educational therapy, and returned them to public schools at the sixth grade as up-to-par achievers – or better. All members of the first class to go through the full three-year intervention tested at or above the sixth-grade level in reading and math. Four students improved by four grade levels in just two years.
Sitting in on an 80-minute therapy session last fall, this writer kept recalling the “tough love” exemplified by Sidney Poitier in his 1967 portrayal of a novice teacher (“To Sir With Love”). The teacher’s concern and love for the Park Place students shone through. But much was expected — indeed demanded — of each of the four students by way of confronting their skill deficits head on.
Using techniques developed by the National Institute for Learning Disabilities, Park Place teachers focus on strengthening students’ weak skills rather than finding ways to help work around them (the infamous ‘coping skills’). It’s get it right, get it right, get it right — with lots of repetition for emphasis.
In one session, students used a buzzer to tap out words while using Morse Code, then broke down the words by syllables, dissected words according to their phonetic blendings, discussed the meanings of each word, and wrote a sentences using the words while taking great care to start each sentence with a capital letter and to indent for paragraphs.
Veteran teacher Ken Dahm has likened the system to athletic training: “We stimulate their deficiencies, the same way a physical trainer would. You tell the trainer, “I can’t do push-ups,’ and he says ‘we’re doing more push-ups — do more push-ups.'”
Dahm says he has a tender place in his heart for inner-city kids, but adds that his role often is to be the tough taskmaster because “sometimes being kind and being nice is not being nice. Lots of these kids really need discipline. They need to learn that certain decisions have consequences and they’re doing that. They’re learning strategies for life.”
Before graduating from Park Place, student Drashawn Hagans explained concisely why the school makes a difference: “They pay attention to us.” (Now back in public school, Drashawn passed the seventh grade, made the honor roll several times, and was on the wrestling team.)
Like the vast majority of the nation’s 3,400 charter schools, Park Place School is run by a diverse group of community-spirited citizens, not by a profit-making company. Because Park Place School marshals private resources in support of public education, subsidized charter status is appropriate. Public funding will help many more children receive the benefits of early intervention.
In Richmond, the name will be Leading Edge Academy, if the city School Board approves. This could be the leading edge of something very good.
Nationally, charter schools enjoy political support ranging the spectrum from George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton. But in Virginia, they have been championed mainly by conservatives and resisted by the education establishment. The breakthrough in Richmond under a reform-minded Democratic Mayor may make it clear, finally, that children benefit from private/public cooperation.
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