Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reversing the Tide

It is the beginning of spring and the end of long and brutal winter. The mind of everyone in a high school, teacher's and student's alike, drifts toward pleasanter times, and, inevitably, toward graduation. City on a Hill's graduation is held in the majestic Faneuil Hall, but despite the nice weather and the suitable pageantry, most look toward to Graduation for representing the too often unattained culmination of American achievement and democratic ideals. There is little controversy in the goal of a high school graduation.
Similarly, my high school graduation speech was not very controversial. It told that clich├ęd story of the old man, walking at dawn along an expansive section of low-tide shoreline, tossing doomed and desiccated starfish into the surf. An observer calls out that the man’s work is futile; he cannot possibly save all the starfish.
“You’re wasting your time,” he says. “There’s miles of shore, and the tide will roll in before lunch time. Why are you doing this if it won’t make a difference for all of them?”
“Well,” the old man said, hucking another starfish into the sea. “I made a difference for that one.”
My job as a tutor, when I explain it to friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, fellow-travelers of the MBTA, and anyone else foolish enough to ask me “...and what do you do?” is also not controversial: I teach minority, low-income inner-city students skills in math and English in order to get them ready for college. There are very few people on any point of the political spectrum opposed to this description of my day-to-day work. Yet charter schools remain a flashpoint of debate for various reasons. In the complex political world of urban education and education reform, I am transformed from an educator into an activist by the very nature of my employment.
In my desire to teach math and English skills to low-income minority students, I did not court controversy. I simply felt it my duty to help those most excluded from the so-called American meritocracy achieve the skills they need in order to join the ranks of decision-makers. My day-to-day work is apolitical – few ideologies are opposed to Shakespeare and fewer still to the quadratic equation. Yet our school’s overall mission is based on premises both appealing and appalling to various political orientations. At City on a Hill, we emphasize the importance of hard work and we stress decorum and civility. However, we also acknowledge structural biases and vestigial racism. Most importantly, we maintain high standards: our students dress conservatively, interject appropriately, question probingly, debate academically, compete ferociously and achieve competitively.
Anyone reading this blog is likely familiar with the myriad of arguments against charter schools and the controversy they can create. The most persuasive argument against charter schools I have yet found is the fear that we are neither replicable nor sustainable. City on a Hill boasts an impressive 4:1 student to faculty ratio and consistently manages to recruit an all-star roster of absurdly dedicated young educators. It does not seem imminently likely that America’s education system can be reformed in such a way that every low-income urban high school student can have access to a system like ours. To me, this is not an argument against charter schools. This is an argument against the status quo, and what it means that our most talented young educators are not welcome in our traditional public school system. If more schools were like City on a Hill, I have no doubt that more and more graduates from our most prestigious universities would invest time in closing the achievement gap.
The tide is rolling in. For years, we were forced to deny more and more middle-schoolers a spot at City on a Hill. The number of potential students who wanted what we offer increased, but the number of seats we could legally offer remained constant. For years, our lotteries were painful ceremonies where families had a roughly 1 in 10 chance of receiving our unique education. In February, helped by the recommendation of Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts has tripled the amount of students City on a Hill might access, by accepting our application to replicate our charter once in New Bedford and once again in Boston.
According to the internationally recognized magazine The Economist, Massachusetts “has had excellent results [because] it is strict about the schools it allows to operate.” The only problem they find with our Commonwealth’s system is that the mandated “caps on the number of charters in a state drag down performance...and discourage investment.” Our potential donors, on whom we depend due to state funding policies, are hesitant to invest heavily in an organization that has legally constricted barriers to growth. Now that the Commonwealth has recognized the stifling nature of the limit on charter school seats, I hope sincerely that more interested parties will support the efforts of non-traditional educational organizations with demonstrated success.

As a tutor, I only work with 12 students. My fellow tutors only teach 12 students each, and my colleagues who teach full classrooms reach no more than twice that many per class. Yet there are enough of us that we can work with 280 students. 280 students is less than .05% of the humans in Boston, less than .5% of the students in Boston Public Schools, and yet 100% of our graduates get accepted to a college that is right for them. When I look at these numbers, the only outrage I feel, and the only controversy I see, is that the number of young adults we help get to college is so small. We know what we’re doing and we know how to help our population, yet the Commonwealth, which used to only let us help 280 students, now will let us help merely 840. The facts are clear and I wish the desire to help ever more students – even minority students from historically low-performing school districts – was not controversial. Even with the generous recognition of the DESE, the problem is real and the effects are enormous, but the rising tide is reversible.

Matthew Lawrence is a CoaHCORPS Lead Tutor, currently in his 2nd year at City on a Hill. He attended Brandeis University and graduated in 2010 with a degree in History. While he loves exploring his new home in Boston, he is originally from Vermont and visits as often as possible.

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