Julia Steiny: Determined Parents Start a School for Atypical Kids
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The school opened in 2010, in semi-rural West Greenwich, Rhode Island. But its conception took place easily 10, 12 years earlier. The Pratts, two veterinarians, run an animal hospital and clinic. Pet-owning clients often gathered at the table in the break room to chit chat, which often included sharing their frustrations with their children's schools. If only, they repeatedly mused together, if only they could start one of their own.
The universal complaint? The schools were maddeningly non-responsive. They didn't seem to care. Often they flat-out ignored parents' concerns. "No" came way too easily. For example, Pratt's son is deaf in one ear. While the condition has its complications, enhanced sound systems and staff accommodations to the deaf ear are neither expensive nor unreasonable. But somehow the solutions were always partial. The final straw was a middle school official forwarding Pratt a note from the administrators that said, "Tell the mother that that's what she gets." What? And if it's not enough or doesn't work? "That's what she gets?"
Other of the unhappy parents had special-needs issues, but many didn't. Some kids struggled academically or socially. Andrews' break-point was when her oldest son hit the wall of his middle schools' competitive, cliquey social scene. With four kids, she couldn't be battling every day just to get them to school. She searched for alternatives. There were none.
Interestingly, the private schools provided these women little relief. Pratt snatched her young son from one of the priciest schools in RI when she found that the administration never told the teachers about the deaf ear.
And Andrews says, "I went to private schools when I was young. I didn't want my kids in that (rarified) atmosphere. But I didn't want them bored or isolated either."
It was thus the charter-school movement itself was born.
In 1992, the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, after a 1991 law made it possible to open schools relative free of the oppressive regulations that still make it hard for schools to be responsive to the kids in front of them. Now, about 4.6 percent of America's public-school kids attend charters. Charters aren't perfect, but they're more accountable to parents because if they're not responsive, they wither and die.
Not unreasonably, most charter laws mandate interested parents to partner with institutions or educators. But in practical fact, Greene is very unusual because few charters actually result from parent groups. Kids mature, move on; parents often do too. Starting a school from scratch is a monstrous task. Recently, "parent-trigger" laws help parents transform their regular public school into a charter, but these schools already have buildings, equipment, staff and infrastructure. And often parents bring in a Charter Management Organizations (CMO), like KIPP and Achievement First, because as educational franchisers, they're equipped with a business plan that quickly gets a school up-and-running. Parents get an alternative, but have no say in the planning.
It was love at first sight.
By the fall of 2007, Greene had the makings of a rag-tag Board, who'd been educating themselves about educational alternatives. The RI League of Charters and the state Department of Education were as supportive as they could be. The state had a temporary moratorium on opening new charters and zero money to help start-ups. Still, one fateful afternoon, hopeful parents and official allies gathered to hear folks give a pitch about Expeditionary Learning (EL). EL is an educational approach, not a CMO. They work with school communities to help them build educational responses to their needs.
When the pitch was done, no one moved or spoke. At last they looked at each other and for the first time said confidently, "We can do this."
I'll discuss Expeditionary Learning and this remarkable school in coming weeks, but for today the message is: Parents shouldn't have to work so hard to find school staff who "own" their kids.
Yes, some parents are unreasonably demanding. Many blame the school for their kids' lack of discipline. Public schools have no way to hold parents accountable for supporting their kids' education. Private schools just chuck such kids and parents out, further burdening the public system. Parents can be hard.
But they would be less hard if they had plenty of public choices.
By the time Greene finally opened in 2010, Pratt's son was finishing up at a private high school, which had been an onerous daily schleep for the Pratts. "Throughout it all, I retained a 10 percent illusion that this school would be for him." And it is, sort of. It's a living monument to him and to parents' powerful needs to spare such kids from battling to be heard and addressed. Parents and kids deserve better.
Related Slideshow: RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education
On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."
Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.
"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.
Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students. This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."
"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."
"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."
"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula. With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not. Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"
"Issue one is quality. Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code. And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."
"Issue two is equality. In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K. In Pawtucket it's $12.9. What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding. A difference of $3000 per pupil? We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case. An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."
"Issue three is Infrastructure. A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction. If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained. These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."
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