Charter School Offers Freedom for Students and Teachers

The ProJo had an excellent piece over the weekend on the Learning Community charter school in Central Falls. It showed the sort of problems faced by today’s educators in an urban community and also highlighted the sort of innovative thinking it takes to get results. And that’s all that most parents want: results. If the current system were working, I suspect most of us would be satisfied with the current industrial education model. But it isn’t working and throwing more money to fund the same broken system isn’t the answer.

“I can tell you what the difference is between the Learning Community and regular public schools,” says Fran Gallo, superintendent of the Central Falls School Department, who sends administrators and teachers to visit the charter school. “They are child focused while the public system is adult focused. We are not doing our children justice with a system that does not promote who they are and address their needs. At the Learning Community, you see that fully in play every day. Children first. That’s the difference.”

I don’t think that the majority of public school teachers actually place themselves ahead of their students, but the system they are working in has evolved to effectively work that way.
That’s why charter schools and other non-traditional methods of education (like mayoral academies) need to be expanded in the state. In the case of the Learning Community, it has been more successful–both educationally and fiscally–than nearby public schools:

The school’s budget — a mixture of federal, state, local funds and some private donations — is about $3.7 million a year. Its per-pupil cost is approximately $11,600. That’s far lower than in Providence ($15,000), Central Falls ($14,900) and Pawtucket ($12,800), all of which have more students with severe learning disabilities, who cost more to educate.
The Learning Community outperformed those three districts on the latest round of state testing, with 59 percent proficient in reading and 54 percent in math.

Besides helping the individuals enrolled in those types of schools–and probably more importantly–these schools develop new and successful methods that can be evaluated to determine if they are transferable to our public school system. Yet, there are still those systemic barriers in our public school system that don’t allow that sort of private-to-public feedback loop to function.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In a related story, teachers at the Learning Community explain the difference:

Kate Smith came to the Learning Community two years ago, after having worked in traditional public schools in Newport and Washington, D.C.
A relatively new teacher, she says the Central Falls charter school immediately felt different to her…. “There’s a lot more freedom in terms of what you can teach, and you work with a lot of passionate educators,” Smith, 27, says. “It’s also a lot of work, but in a good way….I feel like every single teacher here works as hard as the next person.”
…Smith says the biggest difference she’s found at the charter school is how seriously teachers’ concerns are taken and how quickly the small school is able to respond.
“There is so much freedom in the curriculum,” she says. “When you walk into a regular public school, you are given the curriculum the school uses whether you like it or not. Here, we design our curriculum, taking into account the state standards.”

Smith isn’t unique among teachers, whether they teach in private, public or charter schools. But she is allowed to implement innovation at the classroom level and can throw out a “plan” if it doesn’t work. It is that sort of flexibility and “buy-in” that we need to encourage–and allow–in our public schools. But we need to be willing to make the fundamental change required to do so.

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