Charter or District? Whatever Works

A pupil holds up an arm to ask a question to a teacher in a classroom at the elementary school on September 4, 2012 in Paris,
A pupil holds up an arm to ask a question to a teacher in a classroom at the elementary school on September 4, 2012 in Paris, after the start of the new school year. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GettyImages)

By Carl Finer

I am a teacher who is sick of being caught in the middle of the debate between district and charter schools.

All eight years of my teaching career have landed me within a 25-block radius of the same South Los Angeles neighborhood. It's a neighborhood I am deeply invested in. As a teacher, I've pushed English language learners towards mainstream English classes. I've challenged students to write about their personal experiences and seen them earn merits in the state Scholastic writing contest. I've trained over 100 kids to finish marathons, and led them on trips to San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

But last year, after seven years in traditional LAUSD middle schools, I switched to a local charter school.

Why? It's not that I didn't care about my students and the community I worked in: I did, and still do. I care about my profession, too. But I worked at a school that did not serve any of us well, and was given the opportunity to be a part of a school that just might work for all of us. So I jumped at that chance.

I didn't care what kind of school it was or who ran it. I cared about what went on inside.

A recent report, "The Irreplaceables," released by the teacher quality nonprofit TNTP, outlines the critical reasons good teachers leave their schools. The report shows that high-performing teachers are likely to be driven away from schools with weak instructional cultures and working conditions, places where mutual trust and respect are lacking and where low performers are treated the same as high performers.

Everything that the report identifies rings true for me. In my first few years at my old school, the school wasn't physically or emotionally safe. A student of mine, while in the classroom across the hall, got his arm slit with a razor blade. I spent nearly every passing period breaking up fights. One colleague called his English learners stupid for not knowing English, and another let her students play Guitar Hero for an entire week. These teachers were accorded exactly the same treatment by the administration as their colleagues who worked hard every day to provide students with challenging, positive learning experiences.

Still, I tried to make it work. I worked hard, got better at my craft, did extra. I attended conferences, joined professional organizations, even went back to school and wrote my thesis on teacher collaboration. But it didn't matter. Next period, or next year, there was a good chance my students would go to a class where they weren't learning anything.

After three years, a new principal came on board, who pushed to improve our school culture. But even her well-intentioned efforts weren't enough, and eventually, I began considering a move elsewhere. I was introduced to the leader of a new neighborhood charter school, found we shared a vision, and applied for a teaching position. In the midst of the application process, I learned that my current school was going to be "reconstituted" by the district, and we were all made to reapply for our jobs.

Even through the chaos of that unsettled time, against the odds my students had shown above-average academic growth, and I'd been the school's nominee for USC's Teacher of the Year award. But after a ten-minute interview with a parent, outside teacher, and outside administrator that gave no consideration to data or classroom observations, I was not rehired. I never received an explanation.

It was fortuitous that I had already begun the process of finding a school that was a better fit for me. Today, I work in a school that is putting into practice TNTP's recommendations for retaining effective teachers. My school creates high expectations for students and teachers alike, and provides opportunities for growth and leadership. The administration has the skills and ability to foster a rigorous instructional vision and positive school culture where everyone feels genuinely valued and respected.

It's a school that makes me feel proud to be a teacher. We serve our students well. Teachers collaborate, review data and make changes together in response to students' needs. I have a chance to grow into leadership roles based on my interests and strengths. Besides continuing to coach running, I serve as Department Chair and on organization-wide advisory panels on curriculum, teacher development and evaluation.

The fact that my move was from a district school to a charter school was not a major consideration. For me, the move was about which neighborhood school was treating teachers and students with the respect we all deserved. But since I've made the switch, I have frequently been challenged for choosing to leave a traditional school to join a charter. I've been alternately praised for being part of a "reform movement" and called out for joining a system that has been critiqued for being selective in student enrollment and for fragmenting public education.

But I am not beholden to a particular type of school governance. I don't claim to represent charter or traditional schools. I have seen successful and failing schools under both models. And I don't believe the traits of a successful school are the exclusive province of one kind of school or another.

When LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy gave the keynote address at my charter organization's annual full staff convening, he told us, "People who have this construction of charters versus public have really no idea about what it takes to educate every single solitary youth in Los Angeles. It's about a single team of many partners... No one teacher, no one school, meets every youth's needs... There is no difference in the mission whatsoever."

The students in my neighborhood and in yours, all of them, deserve functional, adaptive schools full of strong, caring teachers that meet their needs. They don't care what kind of school it is, they just care that it works for them. We need more opportunities for collaboration across school models, to learn from each other, to remember our shared public mission, and to improve our communities together.

Carl Finer teaches middle school English in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Teach Plus Network.