Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kryptonite Revealed: How One City Intends to Defeat "Superman"

This past Friday, the movie Waiting for Superman debuted in selected cities. The documentary follows five students that had negative experiences in public schools and thus turned their attention toward the world of charter schools. The movie is already being met by both praise and criticism, hardly a shock to anyone who has seen how divided our country has become in the past few years. Proponents of the film view it as a realistic showcase of public schooling and its failures. Opponents see the film as unfairly representing public schools and being overly generous toward charter schools. Regardless, there is no denying that there is a great battle taking place between public and private schools today. I know. I'm part of that battle.

I currently am employed at a first-year charter high school in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego. We are the product of Dr. Coleman Furr, the founder of the local Coleman University. Dr. Furr wished to start a charter high school in San Diego that would echo what Coleman University stands for: that is, small class sizes, group interactions, and using the latest technology to prepare students for the outside world. The school's charter was approved in early June leaving the leadership team a mere three months to not only recruit students, but also to make sure we had a workable building that was up to code and ready to house up to 120 freshmen and sophomores. By mid-August the staff had been finalized and the team of ten administrators and teachers were brought together and began embarking on the establishment of a brand new charter high school. Despite well-designed marketing and local television appearances, the student enrollment was to only be roughly 35 students. However, these small class sizes combined with a laptop upon entry would give students a unique learning opportunity not available anywhere else in the county.

Then, the shit hit the fan.

The day before Labor Day we were called in for a late afternoon staff meeting. It was revealed that despite doing everything asked of us and going through the proper channels, the city planning office had suddenly deemed our building unfit to house students. This was despite the fact that we teachers had been in the building for over three weeks and had never once questioned the building's safety. Our administrators met with our board members and held an emergency parent meeting. It was decided to start school a week and a half later in hopes that we could get our building up to "code." This "code" required the installation of an interconnected fire alarm system as well as the removal of all classroom doors and hinges. Apparently doors that open inward are not a fire hazard in the business world but are a hazard in the education world. Who knew?

As all this was going on we made contingency plans. Our first day of school involved us being off-campus at a charter school roughly 45 minutes away because you have to open school in a building approved for education and education only. The next day we went on a field trip. On Friday, our computing teacher brought his wireless router on the bus and students collectively wrote a letter to San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, making him aware of our situation. We then showed up unannounced to the mayor's office and presented the letter. One of the mayor's assistants met with our assistant principal and we were given assurances that the mayor's office had our support. Would Mayor Sanders stay true to his word? Only time would tell.

This past week, we still did not have the needed permit to enter our building and so our "mobile classroom" continued. Each day we scheduled an appointment with city planners but on more than one occasion they refused to see us. Yes, you read that correctly. City planners refused to see a school that needed its approval to let students into the doors. Apparently free, public education is not a priority of the San Diego city planners. We again adapted by going on field trips and providing students with meaningful work on the bus and at home. Friday was a teacher work day to see where we stood in terms of our building permit. As we came in, our assistant principal looked glum. We found out why. The city had thrown a new set of rules and regulations at us before we could open our building. This latest set of guidelines relates to a law that will be enacted in December of 2010. However, they feel that with lag time needed to process all the paperwork, our school should be up to these guidelines. I guess city planners think that they're Superman and can magically rotate the Earth forward to make it three months from now. Mayor Sanders is nowhere to be found.

Our last resort is to now have an independent study for our students for the next three weeks. We will use building space at Coleman University and will work with our students twice a week for individual instruction. We have already lost a few students. We have a building with four ActivBoards, a digital media lounge with a flat screen television, and multiple classrooms ready for use. We have seven teachers who have been working furiously for six weeks to prepare our ever-evolving curricula. We have an administrative team who has gone to bat for us multiple times including our Director of Student Services driving to and from Sacramento in a 24 hour span to demand that the Department of Justice allow her teachers to be fingerprinted so that we would be allowed to teach our students. We have nearly 30 students who have become disillusioned by traditional education and want a place to call their home. They have a home waiting for them on Aero Drive. One that the city of San Diego will not let them enter.

So why the resistance? Who has a vendetta against our school? Why are we being held to a standard that nobody associated with the school has seen in nearly forty years of public education? The answer relates back to the inherent battle of charter versus public school. Our school is a threat to traditional public schools and thus a battle of epic proportions is being waged against us. The fact is, if we are allowed to survive we open up the floodgates to other charter schools who want to convert office buildings to school buildings. San Diego public schools are hurting big time right now. The entire district is in year two improvement. If scores don't dramatically improve (and odds are they won't) then the possibility exists that as many as one-third of the failing schools will have to be converted to charter schools. The district would lose a third of its schools and thus a third of its income. Our little school has become a microcosm for the problems that are plaguing the country's eighth largest school district.

So this is how the Lex Luthor's of public education defeat the Superman charter schools: With kryptonite. The kryptonite in this case is the one unforeseen weakness that we never saw coming: fine print. Legality. Or in our case, non-existent legality. Made up rules. The city planners of San Diego are playing hardball with us. However, they are just pawns in this game. The forces that be are behind them and are those with powerful connections that would lose a lot if we are allowed to succeed. They are proponents of public schools who see the charter movement as a fringe movement. They are firmly entrenched into the ideals and values of their teacher's union. They represent the status quo, something that the very nature of the charter school movement threatens. These are the same people who will inevitably stand outside the theater when Waiting for Superman comes to San Diego. I, for one, will be in line with these people. I will talk to them. I will ask them one question: Is it worth ruining the education of 40 dedicated students and staff members to prove a point?

I can't wait to see how they respond.