We decided to tell a story–it even has a sequel. The facts are there, but the story is about high expectations and false hopes. It is about how dreams go wrong. It is a true story.
A Charter Implodes: Part I
This time, the teacher just lost it. The class was unruly, and he picked up a chair and threw it, letting out a string of expletives as it sailed across the room. No one was hurt; some were frightened. The principal was nearby and came in the room. She lined up some children facing the wall and dismissed others. One by one she questioned them. One child panicked; some cried. Then, the incident was over.
Except, it was not. Parents were angry and upset. They took sides. Charges of abuse were made, and Children’s Services was called. An investigation ensued. A mediation was scheduled to help parents resolve the issues.
Now this school should have been a haven for children. It focused on the arts. The students earned an ‘A’ grade on achievement tests. How could things go so wrong? Was it the teacher, the students, parents, or the administration who was at fault? This is not a trick question, but the answer is not obvious.
What happened next? The newspaper published the story. The school district was contacted. Some parents were even more angry. You see, it was a charter school, and some were afraid the district might close it. Others were concerned that nothing would happen, and next time things could be worse. The teacher was only part of the problem. He was counseled to take an anger management class.
This story was not only about an angry teacher. His incident was just the tip of the iceberg. The school had been running things its own way for years. Rules were bent; some would say broken. Parents could opt in or leave if they did not like what happened. When the teacher blew up, some parents did not want to leave. They wanted to fix the problem but what was it? The fur flew. Nasty grams were sent.
When charters have problems, parents should turn to their governing boards for guidance. This school’s board was not around much. Their meeting notices and minutes for over a year were not posted on the website until after this incident occurred. All of a sudden some board members resigned. One of them is married to the board chairman.
Parents tried to create order. A meeting was held. New board members were simply and suddenly announced. People shouted. Charges and counter charges were made. What was revealed was worrisome. Admission to the school was supposed to be by lottery, but parents were required to write essays. The children admitted were much more similar than one might expect in a diverse community. All of a sudden it seemed they were also supposed to think alike. They were divided over school procedures.
Letters were sent each year requesting money to pay for part time teachers for music and the arts, instructional materials and school supplies. Fees are illegal, but these were called donations, large ones. Specific amounts were indicated. The principal said nothing happened if parents did not pay. So, collecting the money was O.K.
Changing how decisions were made at the school proved to be difficult. The teacher who threw the chair had been living with the principal for many years. They were not married legally, but they had a child together. The Vice Principal was the principal’s daughter. You already know that two board members were married. They ran another charter school and had had their own problems with their schools.
Parents turned to the local district for help. Staff made a visit; the books balanced; the children were not in danger. Problems were noted. The charter board was left to make things right. Five of eight teachers and the principal resigned. The board chair said he would hire the principal as a consultant at her school. Evidently, he is paid as a consultant for the charter school he founded. The errant teacher remains; he had already been elevated from a part time drama teacher to a full time teacher. The Vice Principal just hired her boyfriend. Some parents have left.
A Local Charter Implodes: Part II will describe what the parents learned about running a charter school. Are charters really public schools? What can a parent do when things go wrong? What can the local school district do? What should the Florida legislature do?