Guest Voices: Maatie Alcindor on NorthStar Academy

Maatie Alcindor is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has been a New Jersey resident for the past 16 years.  For the past 15 years, she’s been working in the pharmaceutical industry.  She is the single mother of one 20 year old son and of “Bob da Dog.”  I first encountered Maatie in a local issues discussion group on Facebook, as we live in the same town.  The subject of charter schools had come up, and in her posts in that group, Maatie told some of the story she tells here today.  We have never actually met in person, but I was so moved by her story in the discussion group, that I messaged her to ask if she’d be willing to write her story up for wider distribution via my blog and beyond.  She agreed.  Below is Maatie’s story — as she tells it — about her son’s middle school experience at a NorthStar Academy charter school in Newark, New Jersey (part of the Uncommon Schools charter network):  

We were residents of East Orange, NJ the spring before my only child started the 5th grade.   At the time, my son was attending fourth grade at the East Orange Charter School and we loved it. Unfortunately for us East Orange Charter only went up to the 4th grade. Through the NJ State Education web page I found out that the highly touted North Star Academy (NSA) Charter School in Newark was opening a middle school in North Newark not far from my East Orange home!  Soon after, some friends and I attended the prospective parents meeting for the new North Star Academy Middle School.

And that is where the trouble began. From the very first meeting I knew something was not right. I did not like the way we were spoken to but I thought to myself… give them a chance. The successive meetings did not change my initial uneasy feeling toward the administration. We were given application packets and advised that we the parents had to drop off the completed forms. If not, the application would not be accepted. It was explained to us that if we were serious about our children’s education we would make the time to submit the applications ourselves. No other people would be allowed to deliver the packets for us. Even when parents explained that due to their work schedules it would be a problem to bring in the forms, NSA said no accommodations would be made. Imagine my irritation when I arrived at the downtown Newark location to submit my application and was told to just drop it in a bin (no one was there to confirm the submission). There was no reason to force parents to take time from work to simply drop an envelope in a tray; it was just a test of our commitment to follow the schools rules.

We were told to expect 2-3 hours of homework per night and extensive homework packets during weekends and vacations. I expressed concern that the amount of work seemed a lot for an 11 year old child and left no time for other activities or family time.  It was basically inferred that if I cared about my son’s future I would follow their program or find another school and watch him fail. Rules of conduct while in school were even more concerning. Throughout their day the students would get in trouble for such things as talking in the hallway, missing or incomplete homework, uniform pants not being the right shade of beige and the dreaded “not tracking the speaker with your eyes.” Yes, the children would get in trouble for not looking directly at the teacher during their lesson. Even during lunch there were more opportunities to get detention including talking too loud and talking when the principal entered the lunch room. They were expected to stop talking if the principal walked into the lunch room!!!!! Detention was usually an hour meaning that during the winter months the kids that were let out around 4:30 or 5:00 pm which left them to navigate home in the streets of Newark alone by either walking or public transportation after dark.

Though the Vice Principal came across genuine and caring; I found the Principal to be indifferent to parental concerns. The school’s Parents Council was viewed as a “social group” by the school administration and did not influence school policy in any way.  The school secretary habitually did not answer the office phone and was apathetic to parents’ requests to pass information to our children.  Messages for children about changes in pickups or where they were to go after school were routinely responded with “If I see ‘em I’ll tell ‘em” (a lot of times she didn’t “see ‘em”).   We were expected to trust their every action without question. For example, the 5th grade class trip was to Florida Everglades. When I asked which airline they would be flying with I was repeatedly told to just drop my son off at the school and that he would be traveling to the airport with the group. When I went to the Principal directly and asked for the flight information… his reply was that I was having separation anxiety and that I had all the information that I needed to know. I did not allow my son to go on that trip. The following years the Vice Principal and some of the teachers did their best to keep me informed of trip details.

My feelings for charter schools in general are a little more ambiguous. I hated the North Star model but I think if done right there may be a place for charter schools. North Star’s main issue was lack of engagement with the community. It was a school in the community but not of the community. To be honest it felt very racist though I do not think they thought of themselves as racists. The principal took on the air of an overseer, our children were no longer our own but property of NSA to be raised by their rules of behavior. On several occasions I witnessed the surreal scenes of all white “board members” that would come to visit the school smile as the children would beat the African Style drums to call every one to morning circle. The board members seemed very pleased to watch the call and response exercise as the white Principal walked around to check the uniforms of the school’s all black and Hispanic students. Later I asked the Principal why as American citizens the children didn’t just do the Pledge of Allegiance as in any other school? I was told mockingly, that since we were African Americans, the drums represented our history. I advised him that I went to school with predominantly Irish Americans and we never started the day with Celtic music or Toe Dancing.  With only one black teacher on staff at the time I wondered who gave them their ideas.

Parents and students who questioned the school’s methods were seen as discipline problems and were treated accordingly. The work load was assigned as a way to take up their free time. Parents desperate not to have their children end up in the gang infested neighborhood schools were willing to compromise their authority and hand their kids over to NSA with the promise of college dangled continuously in front of them. Those who went on to the NSA Preparatory High School found more of the same heavy handed tactics as before. Most of the male students left for other schools before making it to 12th grade.

The idea of Charter school was appealing to me. We had such a great experience his fourth grade year at East Orange Charter School and we wanted more.  North Star Academy was a nightmare and a decision I will always regret. In 2009, my son was part of the first eighth grade class to graduate from North Star Academy Middle School. That fall we moved to a different town but his four years at North Star had done its damage.  My son’s freshman year in high school was very hard for him. In spite of the hours upon hours of homework that he endured at North Star Academy he did not have any real study or note taking skills. North Star normally gave them their notes and study sheets but did not allow for any independent thinking.  For several years he had trouble engaging in class due to North Star’s passive learning style of teaching. Where North Star allowed for him to repeatedly take the same test over and over in order for them to record the most acceptable score, he was frustrated by the fact this was not the case at his new school. My son is now in his third year of college and he is on track to graduate with his Master’s Degree in Environmental Science in two years. It is a shame that he thinks so poorly of those middle school years and usually uses an expletive to describe his experience. My feeling is mutual. 



The Reality Television Paradigm of All-Charter School Systems

Today, the New York Times  Sunday Review published an Op-Ed about the farce that is the so-called “New Orleans” charter school miracle.  You should go read it.  A quote:

“There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.”

The quote is absolutely on target.  Further, let’s talk about the logical results of how even a properly functioning (according to the charter cheerleaders) all-charter school district would work.  By definition, a charter school is one that is intended to trade results for regulation: that is, We the Public eschew traditional regulation over watching how our public dollars are spent by the charter (which is governed by a private board, usually impervious to OPRA/FOIA requests and the like) in exchange for producing “results” — i.e., high scores on standardized tests from its students.  If a particular charter school isn’t producing results by the end of its initial charter period, in theory the state and/or the chartering entity should be shutting that school down.

But the logical conclusion of that paradigm is a two-tiered system of charter schools.  The so-called “high-performing charter schools” (e.g., the KIPPs, the Uncommon Schools, the Success Academies, the Green Dots, etc.) will figure out the formula for magically skimming-off as many of the high-performing kids as possible, and so their test scores will reflect the “results” the charter authorizers demand.  But the rest of the charter schools, the B-squad charter schools of virtual charters, for-profits, mom and pop charters, less savvy charters, etc. — they are far less likely to have figured out, or, if they’re ethically run, to have wanted to figure out, the secret-sauce for creaming off those most likely to perform well on the standardized tests and quickly counseling out the rest.  And so, instead, if the all-charter system functions as it is supposed to, after 3 years or 5 years or whatever, the B-squad charters schools will be shut down.

But what happens to the children who attended those B-squad now-shut-down charter schools, and/or those who are pushed out of the high-performing charters?  Well, their educations are disrupted, over and over again, as they are shuffled from low-performing school to low-performing school. Their former schools shut their doors, over and over again.  But new low-performing charter schools will continue to open in the wake of those that keeping closing: after all, until they drop out, the students of the low-performing charter schools need to be housed somewhere.  For those relegated to the low-performing charter network, their chances to build communities around their schools are low, as even their schools are transient: heck, even if they do manage to graduate, many of their alumni won’t even have a school in which to hold a reunion ten or twenty years from now, because the iterations of the schools they attended will no longer exist.  And that disruption, that lack of community, that being shunted around from low-performing school to low-performing school, that will make them less likely to graduate, less likely to be able to overcome the already-substantial long odds that accidents of demographics, the dark side of poverty, have placed in their way.

As evidenced by this article, an all-charter school system is a way to write-off our most challenging children, the ones that each and every one of us should look at and say that as citizens of this country, it is truly our moral responsibility to make sure that these children have every opportunity we can give them to break the cycle of poverty, because the American Dream is truly dead if a significant subset of our community has no way to succeed.  But the way to keep the American Dream alive is to ensure that We the People provide our most vulnerable children with opportunities to attend well-resourced, integrated, stable schools that won’t disappear on them, sometimes mid-school year.  It is not to keep pulling the educational rug out from under these children, every two, three, or five years.

But the charter cheerleaders, they say that closing down the low-performing charters, that’s evidence of success, because closing down low-performing charters is how the charter system is supposed to work: that’s how you hold the poorly performing schools accountable, by shutting their doors when they don’t perform.  The charter cheerleaders, however, don’t realize, if they’re naive, and don’t care, if they’re cynical, that closing down one low-performing charter means opening another one in its place.  After all, the low-performing students of the low-performing charters are those who aren’t savvy enough to game and navigate the incredibly complicated systems privatization brings.  Instead, intentionally or not, they are shunted around from one substandard education experience to another until they simply give up and drop out, or, if they do graduate, graduate with substandard skills and substandard opportunities.  The narrative that shutting down low-performing schools works is a narrative that is either incredibly naive or incredibly cynical.  What that narrative isn’t, however, is a narrative that serves kids — all of our kids — well.

That narrative is, however, as Michael Petrilli over at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute implicitly admitted last winter, a narrative that distinguishes between our country’s deserving students, the deserving poor, and the un-deserving poor, who, at best, deserve, according to Petrilli and his allies, to be housed in a substandard world of alternative schools until they are eventually released from the system, likely into also-privatized prisons.  Petrilli’s vision is one that reflects the worst values of the Industrial Age we thought we had left behind, the “Hard Times” of a Dickensian dystopia in which some children are stuffed full of “facts, facts, facts, nothing but facts, ma’am,” and slated for success, and the others, well, the others simply aren’t our concern.

All of our children deserve better than this.  All of our children deserve access to stable, caring, well-resourced, community schools that aren’t going to disappear on them at the whim of some bureaucrat, whether or not they “perform” on the asinine boondoggles that are today’s high-stakes standardized tests.

I, for one, say no thank you to the logical consequences of an all-charter school system, as any moral citizen of this country should agree.  That isn’t to say that our truly public school systems can’t do better.  Certainly, in many of our communities they can and should (especially if We the People actually provide them with the resources they need in an equitable fashion). But the answers to the real problems of poverty and deprivation are not privatization and prison.  Or, to put it another way, publicly-funded education shouldn’t be a real-life version of reality tv in which those who are savvier win the immunity challenges, and the less-savvy are voted off the island.

Yesterday, Power Spoke Truth

Since Sunday, I’ve been at the National Association of Women and Minority Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) convention. It’s been an interesting and long couple of days here in Philadelphia, and to be honest, by late yesterday afternoon, I was ready for a break. But I’m a litigation nerd, so I decided to push through to attend a presentation regarding diversity on the federal bench.

The panelists were impressive:

This panel was legal nerd heaven, and it was moving that every single panelist was a person of color. People of color in positions of power in the legal profession remain all too rare, especially serving as federal judges or federal prosecutors.

But then the introductions ended and substantive discussion began. The first question the moderator asked the panel was something along the lines of, “It’s been sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education was decided. What do you think has been Brown’s legacy?”

The question was thoughtful, but I was expecting platitudes for answers: four jurists and two federal attorneys talking about the opportunities they’d had because of Brown. In particular, I expected the judges to avoid real discussion, because judges are generally careful not to express policy opinions, as they don’t want to disturb their veneers of neutrality. I could not have been more wrong. In this case, the judges were most opinionated: perhaps this is an example of how actual life tenure works (under the Constitution, an Article III judge can only be involuntarily removed by a Congressional impeachment process, which even Campbell Brown or the Vergara plaintiffs would admit is far more protection than unionized public school teachers are afforded).

Chief Judge Tucker went first. I could have jumped out of the audience and kissed her when she responded passionately with something along the lines of, “We need a new Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).  We need to walk back resegregation of our schools over the past decades, and we need new law to again start integrating — and equitably fund — our public schools” (I was not taking notes, and I do not have anything approaching an exact transcript, but that was the gist of it). All five of the Philadelphia based panelists then agreed and added their insights about the destruction of Brown’s impact in recent decades, and described the tragedy that’s been unfolding in Philadelphia with the defunding of its public schools. Judge McKee spoke about the inequity created by not requiring desegregation of private schools, Judge Wells spoke about her conclusion that charter schools exacerbate the problem, despite her previous service on the board of a charter school, and the panelists also spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline and clarified that teachers are not to blame, as they continue to produce extraordinary results, especially given that their resources and funding are non-existent.

The panelists, who were power, spoke truth. They didn’t parrot the education reform talking points. They discussed the impact of charter schools on the process of decimating Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, the hypocrisy they as Philadelphia parents felt when they send their kids to private Quaker schools to escape the destruction of the public school system, the insanity of property-tax base school funding systems, and the need to reboot the legal framework for desegregation by overruling Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974), which held (very generally speaking) that school districts are not required to desegregate across school town lines (i.e., the suburban public school districts surrounding Detroit could not be forced to participate in a desegregation plan for the benefit of Detroit students).

Philadelphians are on the front lines, watching the destruction of their public school system before their eyes.  And these federal jurists, this federal prosecutor, and this federal defender, at least, see through the slick PR machine and hype of the well-heeled reform crowd. No one claimed that charter schools and the education reform movement are the civil rights movement of our time. Philadelphia schools have suffered from the problems common to large urban school districts for many years, but the solution is not to starve them into submission. Yesterday afternoon, three federal judges spoke truth — and their truth was that inequitable funding and the self-perpetuating cycle of the haves fleeing the Philadelphia Public Schools by any means possible are the causes of the problem, and that the education reformers’ “solutions” of charter schools and teacher blaming are only compounding the structural inequities.

I ran up afterwards to shake their hands, which is something I virtually never do. But this was a panel of rock stars, and a completely unexpected reward after two days of legal panels and speakers.

P.S. I have no training as a journalist, and I was not taking notes or recording the session in any way. My reconstruction of the discussion is the best I can do under the circumstances, but the most I can promise is that I did my best to faithfully capture the gist of it.

How I Almost Became an Education Reformer

by Sarah Blaine

By 2011, I’d been practicing law for about six years. That spring, I hit a watershed moment in my practice. I was put on a crazy project that culminated in the one and only time I billed over 300 hours in a month. During that month, I never saw my children awake for more than a few stress filled moments in the morning, and I worried that my “Mommy always comes back” mantra was appearing less and less true in my three year old daughter’s eyes. I had no idea what was going on in my seven year old’s life.  At the culmination of the project that forced my 300+ hour month, one of the partners I worked for came into my office to praise my efforts. She told me that I should keep doing what I’d been doing. G-d forbid.

This partner happened to be a single mother who’d moved a kid sized desk and kid sized folded couch into her office so that her preschooler could sit, headphones engaged, for hours watching videos on a portable DVD player until she passed out asleep on the fold out couch, as mom juggled conference calls. Being a single mom cannot be easy, and in between the 300+ hour months, partner-mom took plenty of vacations with her daughter, and for some of her work binges, she shipped her daughter out to her parents for some actual attention (and presumably less screen time). Nevertheless, while her work-life balance choices seemed to satisfy her, the model she presented did not inspire me. I didn’t want to disappear from my kids’ lives for months at a time. Big law partnership looked more and more like a booby prize. One month at a pace of over 300 hours was problematic enough for my marriage and my children: as fun as the work challenges and accomplishments it had brought had been, it was not an experience I cared to repeat on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t aspire to it as a permanent state of being.

And while the work was intellectually challenging, it was not fulfilling. Helping hedge fund principals and private equity gurus achieve their litigation goals did not leave me feeling that I’d done the world a solid. The intellectual challenge was not enough, since I felt that I was using my brain to leave the world a little worse off. A little less fair. And I watched, from the inside, as the scales of justice continued, in my estimation, to tip a little further away from the have-nots.

As a result, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that partnership at a large law firm was not a future I wanted for myself. I would happily spend the rest of my life driving Mazdas rather than Mercedes in return for a job that would allow me to make plans with my family and friends. My ideal job would let me, on balance, get paid a living wage to leave a positive mark on the world. I no longer dreamed of riches; I simply dreamed of enough.

So I wanted out. As I considered next steps, I began thinking about actually doing what my law school essay said I’d applied to law school to do: to marry my old career with my new one by putting my legal education to use helping students, especially disadvantaged students like the ones I’d taught a decade before in rural Maine.

But still. We had, like so many others, bought our house at the height of the housing boom, and our hefty mortgage payment loomed each month, without hope of a refi. A few more years of preschool tuition loomed, and there was only so much expense reduction we could manage. Leaving my community was not an option. So poverty wages were not an option.

As I considered my future, I started coming across programs. Interesting programs. Financially lucrative programs. Programs and jobs that paid wages I could live on. All I needed to do was to buy into the education reform agenda.

For instance, The Broad Residency helped mid-career professionals transition to jobs in education. And education jobs must mean doing good for the world. Along with annual salaries of $90,000 – $100,000. For jobs in education. Doing good. That sounded like something I could live with. Education Pioneers offered a similar career path. Less money. But still, it had possibilities. Maybe I could earn a comfortable wage and do some good.

So I started applying. I vaguely knew that the programs supported “education reform,” but I’d left teaching a decade earlier, so I had little idea of what that meant beyond support for charter schools. For the chance to do some good (and a comfortable wage), I could probably support the charter movement. Although I had some reservations, I wasn’t in the trenches or up to date on the latest education reform policy wars, and the reformers’ slogans sounded appealing. After all, they wanted to put students first, close the achievement gap, and accept no excuses. That all sounded good to me. As the misery of my big law career dragged on, I desperately wanted to find some work that would allow me to see my family and feed my soul. The education reform organizations sounded more and more tempting. As I revamped my resume for these fellowship opportunities, I conveniently forgot to mention my experience as a volunteer member of the contract negotiations team for my local teacher’s union up in Maine. I hadn’t done a lot of research, but I’d figured out that much.

So I applied. For the fellowships, and other jobs at charter schools and reform-oriented organizations. Luckily, I was not their ideal candidate. Looking back, I suspect that I was too much of an unknown quantity: yes, I had only a few years of teaching experience, but that experience was in an unknown rural public school, and I’d gotten into teaching by a traditional method (i.e., obtaining a traditional teaching certification by earning a Master of Arts in teaching degree at an actual university). My experience mirrored that of TFA students, but my preparation for teaching far exceeded TFA’s summer training. And my teaching experience predated No Child Left Behind. I might actually believe in portfolio assessments. Or project-based learning. Or that class size matters.

Similarly, I’d attended an elite undergraduate university, but I’d earned my advanced degrees from (much cheaper) public universities. I’d graduated from law school with high honors, but it was Rutgers, not Harvard. And pedigree seems to matter to the education reformers.

I was parent of a public school student in a town with a reputation for socio-economic diversity that resulted in our public schools never making the top rankings in NJ Monthly magazine.

My pro bono legal experience including partnering with the Education Law Center on impact litigation intended to increase the access students with disabilities had to inclusive classrooms.

I simply did not appear malleable enough.

I got to the final round of interviews with one of the education reform fellowships, but looking back, I am sure that I tanked myself in the group activity when I suggested taking parents’ and teachers’ concerns seriously and advocating obtaining buy-in from all stakeholders rather than ramrodding my hypothetical superintendent’s agenda down resistant parents’ and teachers’ throats.

I did get out of big law. Here I am: a parent who eats dinner with my husband and kids almost every night, a practicing attorney at a small firm that does not do education law, but also does not expect me to aspire to bill 300 — or even 200 — hours in a month. I am an occasional education blogger, and a volunteer in my children’s schools when the stars align between job responsibilities and school volunteer opportunities.  My paid work is not particularly fulfilling, but my colleagues are lovely and it could be worse.  It’s not a bad life.  And I put my kids to bed every night.

My ambition is still to find an opportunity that would allow me to actually manage to do what I went to law school to do: that is, to combine my legal and teaching backgrounds to improve our education system. Or maybe, just maybe, if the opportunity was right, to go back to teaching. Because after all these years, I still miss students. I miss the classroom. And I miss the knowledge that I’ve made a difference in children’s lives. This time, however, it would be Social Studies. If anyone is even teaching that anymore.

But in the meantime, I try.

And I intend to try more.

And, when I can, I intend to write more, so that I can reach an audience beyond my indulgent neighbors.

I try to educate those around me concerning why due process rights matter for public school teachers.

I try to suggest that while teachers’ unions certainly could benefit from reform (and a revamp of their communications operations), they are not inherently evil.

I try to explain the pernicious insidiousness of attaching high-stakes decisions to standardized test results.

I try to be an ambassador for the teachers who were once my colleagues, as they are maligned in the media and beyond.

I try to explain what I learned about the unique problems of rural schools, and why one-size-fits-all education solutions don’t work for a country as diverse as ours.

I try to explain why I am a true believer in the Supreme Court’s mandate requiring schools to provide students with special needs access to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

I try to be an effective advocate for my own kids within our local school system.

I try to explain that while technology can be a valuable tool, it is not a panacea that will cure all that ails education. That data, while valuable, is just another tool.

I try to explain why poverty matters.

I try to explain the distinction between educating future citizens versus training future cogs for our economic engine.

And I try to keep educating myself, and to keep measuring my own knowledge and assumptions against research, experience, and common sense.

And in all of that trying, I try most of all to remember that I flirted with the land of education reform. If I’d appeared a little more malleable, perhaps I would have ended up a bona fide reformer. I am sure that many of the so-called reformers were once in my shoes. Many of them, I am sure, also wanted out from careers they found unfulfilling. Many of them wanted jobs where they felt that they could make a difference. And The Broad Residency, and Education Pioneers, and the charter schools, and the other reform organizations: they promised those opportunities. The chance to make a difference. To put students first. And to make good salaries. Really good salaries. The job boards tell the stories.

The education reform world is tempting, particularly to those who feel trapped by golden handcuffs. So I try not to demonize the Education Reformers, because I know how easily I might have ended up one of them.

But instead, I am just me. So I will continue to try to add my spin to the policy discussions. And maybe, there will come an opportunity that will allow me to marry my teaching background, legal expertise and writing skills. Someday.