Lawrence O’Donnell, the political pundit and overpaid TV writer, screamed at me last year on Dennis Miller’s talk show when I doubted O’Donnell’s claim that every single teacher at his daughter’s public charter elementary school was, as he loudly insisted, “GREAT!” (And maybe all the children there were above average?) That’s why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity was waning, O’Donnell yelled, figuratively patting himself on the back, “because of public-school parents like me.”
Because charter schools operate independently of the public-school system (while still being technically part of it), they allow faux man-of-the-people types like O’Donnell to pretend they’re participating in public education as most families experience it, and therefore to imagine they don’t lead completely coddled and isolated lives. But as veteran education journalist Joanne Jacobs shows in her remarkable new book Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds, charters can serve a far more important function–to rescue failing kids from a failing system.
The public-education establishment generally looks askance at charters, which, as Jacobs notes, unlike public schools don’t get more money when they fail–they close down instead. “But,” she writes, “the unions don’t dislike charters as much as they hate vouchers, which give parents total say about how to spend tax dollars to educate their children.”
So that’s how, in San Jose, California a few years ago, two dedicated and idealistic teachers named Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz opened a new charter high school called Downtown College Prep. Its mission: To prepare kids from poor, mostly Hispanic immigrant families to succeed at four-year universities. Probably not Stanford or UCLA, but (with a little luck and a lot of work) Cal State San Jose, or, for the high-school’s top students, a lesser UC like Riverside or Santa Cruz.
This may not seem very impressive to most upper middle-class parents, who this time of year are often wringing their hands because their kids “only” got into, say, Johns Hopkins or UC Irvine and not Brown or Duke or Harvard. I myself am not one of the hand-wringers. The Los Angeles Times op-ed I wrote this spring about my daughter getting into UC San Diego sans benefit of expensive private tutoring (or much obsession on my part) inspired much angry response from fellow parents. To which one of my blog readers responded:
Privileged parents can become so wrapped up in this process they forget what school is like for most people. The typical Our School student starts 9th-grade with 5th-grade reading and math skills, and comes from a home where, as Jacobs reports, “the TV was blaring all day, and nobody ever read a book or had a conversation.” So realistically, high school is probably too late for most to catch up completely, and the Ivy League or a top UC are most likely out of the question.
When I started grad school this fall, there were parents in every line I stood in–registration, financial aid, ID photos. Sometimes just holding a spot, but often doing all the forms, etc. Seriously. STEP AWAY FROM THE KID.
Still, Our School tells a moving and pretty amazing story, of determined students and teachers who really do transform D and F grades to passing and above–once the students put their minds to it and their parents understand that “F no es fabuloso” (as one actually assumed), and also that they really shouldn’t make their children miss school and finals for month-long trips visiting family in Mexico.
Just what the teachers are up against is revealed in a chapter about how the students learn to analyze and interpret a simple sentence: Why didn’t a star basketball player named Kisha play in the championship game? Some answers: “She found out she was pregnant.” “She was run over the day before.” “She was embarrassed to play in front of her boyfriend.” “Her daughter graduated.” “She punched the coach in the nose.” “She forgot to shave her legs.”
Yet many have a strong work ethic and inherent sense of fairness. Downtown College Prep’s Critical Thinking teacher, for instance, is surprised at her students’ reaction to a social problem she’s asked them to analyze: Should a landlord who hasn’t raised rent in years evict a single-mother tenant who hasn’t paid rent in months? Yes, say the students, the deadbeat tenant should move to a cheaper place and pay at least half the back rent.
The kids also have less sympathy than their teachers about local panhandlers. “Most of San Jose’s poor are working poor: janitors, warehouse workers, laborers, gardeners, fast-food cooks, retail cooks,” Jacobs explains. “DCP students believe everyone should work for a living. They’d like to get enough education to qualify for a decent job.”
And by the end of the book, some have indeed improved so much they will qualify for much better jobs than they ever could have hoped for had they not enrolled in this charter school. One boy whose reading skills were originally so poor that he read the sentence “ride the carousel” as “ride the carrot salad,” ended up taking AP and honors classes and heading to Cal State Monterey Bay. That may not be Princeton or Harvard, but considering where he started, it’s a pretty big achievement.
<title>Our School, by Joanne Jacobs</title>