Horror Inside: A No Excuses Charter School #SCW
It’s school choice week! Today Cloaking Inequity has an exclusive story written by Jennifer Ventimiglia, a veteran charter school teacher. She describes the “no excuses” practices and teacher quality issues plaguing the first charter school established in Oakland.
The story has two parts. Tomorrow I will run the conclusion.
When I agreed to work at Oakland Charter Academy (OCA) this past fall, I had no idea I would be agreeing to submit to an archaic and punitive belief system authored and directed by a man who calls himself the “The King”
OCA first opened as Jingletown Charter in 1993. Jingletown was the first charter school granted in Oakland and one of the first in California. It sought to create a safe alternative for neighborhood kids with a vision based on community involvement, multiculturalism, and bilingualism. As The King tells it, however, when he went to visit the school before a job interview in 2004, “Kids were running around like fools,” and “It was the biggest crock of shit” he had ever seen in his life.
Only having recently relocated to the Bay Area myself, I cannot attest to what the school was like at this time, however, I can speak to what this charter school has become.
On the first day of school about 200, 6th-8th graders nervously gathered in the cafeteria, huddled together around long benches. There was a low, excited murmur as the new Site Director stood to address the student body. “Shut up! Shut up!” were his first words, screamed across the cafeteria to launch the start of a new school year. Teachers were then instructed to line up their students and lead them to their classrooms, hands behind their backs, walking to the right of a blue, dotted line painted on the hallway’s floor.
Alone with my students in my classroom, I quickly forgot the unsettling start to the school day and dove into teambuilding activities and lessons on growth mindset and goal setting.
It was not until the end of the day, as I was sitting at a staff meeting, when the question, “Did any students receive a detention today?” was met with an affirmative response and a subsequent roaring applause, that I was reminded that something was amiss here.
This was just the beginning of a disheartening series of events that introduced me to the methods of The King’s empire.
Although the “AMPS (Amethod Public Schools) Way” is supposedly based on high expectations for students [no excuses], like many schools in low-income areas, the idea of high expectations for behavior is confused with controlling students’ every move so they are only motivated by a system of punishments and rewards. Instead of teaching students how to succeed within parameters of freedom and choice that they will actually need to navigate while in college and life, punitive policies such as those outlined in the “AMPS: Methods Manual” only prepare students for a system of deference that they would only be likely to encounter in prison.
Consider an example on page 17 of the handbook, “If a student gets up to sharpen a pencil, and the teacher does nothing to reinforce the procedures or discipline, that student might throw the pencil at someone one day, and whose fault will it really be?”
Similarly, the Dean of Students said of one 6th grade teacher’s classrooms, “A student was walking around the room twirling scissors in his hand. A student who does that is not going to succeed as an adult.”
During an AMPS-wide classroom management training led by The King himself, an elementary school teacher shared how she uses conflict sticks in her classroom to teach students how to independently solve problems. “That sounds like a waste of time,” replied The King.
Swearing at students, yelling, and threatening are common and even expected practices. Teaching collaboration and conflict resolution, however, are not considered valid strategies.
When a 6th grade student returned to school right before a long holiday to retrieve a book he had left in his classroom, the Site Director told him, “You are not very bright.” Another favorite saying of the school’s Site Director when addressing female students is, “Girls are prettier when their mouths are closed.” For boys who find themselves on the Site Director’s bad side his go to line is, “You have made my life hell so now I am going to make your life hell.”
While The King urges that it is necessary to sweat the “small stuff,” somehow “the big stuff” is being greatly overlooked. Most shockingly as of December in the 2015-2016 school year, there were no special educators on staff to meet the needs of OCA’s special education students. Tutors, several of whom have not yet earned a college degree, pull out the most struggling students, including special education students, to meet their IEP hours in math and reading. Three of the seven classroom teachers were not certified teachers although they have the enormous responsibility of teaching Math, English, Science, and Social Studies classes to their 6th, 7th, or 8th grade students.
Young and inexperienced teachers, tutors, and administrators are often hired because they are more likely to go along with the AMPS way. It is against AMPS policy to “question the higher ups” and if one does make suggestions or recommendations they are fired.
By a fluke, I was hired at the last minute, the night before that first day of school, when a 7th grade teacher resigned and AMPS needed to quickly fill the position. Unlike most AMPS teachers, I was bringing with me over 10 years of experience in education as a teacher and educational coach.
My questioning of AMPS policies and leadership led to a “frisking,” the AMPS term given to “an official warning” that your job is on the line. This is common practice within AMPS, when, for example, 3 administrators were fired during the 2014-2015 school year at OCA and only 3 of 7 teachers returned the following year.
Early in the 2015-2016 school year one tutor was fired just after expressing his concerns that he and the other tutors were not trained for the enormous responsibility of lesson planning and teaching the school’s highest need students.
After being vocal about the lack of services for SPED and EL students, the disrespectful language the Site Director uses with students, and the unprofessional manner that the Site Director and Dean of Students use when interacting with staff, I received my “frisking” by the Site Director and one of the “higher ups” at AMPS. I was told that I had to “get in line with AMPS policies.”
Since I had no luck communicating my concerns with OCA administration, I sought out help from the Office of Charter Schools at the Oakland Unified School District. First, I wrote an email highlighting my concerns and then one of the directors followed up with a phone conversation.
After school on Friday, the day before winter break, I was called into the Site Director’s office… TO BE CONTINUED
So about that charter “innovation”… The original 1993 vision for Jingletown was “a safe alternative for neighborhood kids with a vision based on community involvement, multiculturalism, and bilingualism.” Who could not love that mission? Now, decades later, the evolution of the charter school has apparently taken a disturbing turn.
I think this is an important meta question for our society, where will charters be in ten years? As we lose democratic control of our neighborhood public schools and move towards a system of privately controlled (and profit making) corporate charter schools… will charters evolve into a separate and unequal system often entrenched with a punitive and penitentiary approaches to the education of (primarily) students of color? (See also Review of Journeys: Are @KIPP charter schools pathological?)
Stay tuned. Jennifer’s story will be completed tomorrow on Cloaking Inequity.
For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on charter schools click here.
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