In which the Q begins to go tour and meet with as many schools in the nabe as possible within the next year or so. Explore's up first, and here's why...happenstance.
The pesky thing about being a curious blogger who writes about things he's curious about is that every time said blogger learns about something, he wants to know more about it, but given the limited hours in the day he starts to feel like he's only skimming the surface of every issue, and maybe that's just how it is - only PhD's ever get the opportunity to truly understand something, and even then, they end up kickin' up more questions than they answer. And so it is with education, and in particular, the schools situation in the immediate vicinity. Lots to learn. Lots of questions. And a lot of counter-intuitive surprises.
When the Q wrote
about the recently relocated Explore Charter School on Parkside Avenue and how it was taking applications for its upcoming lottery after moving from its old digs on Snyder, I got more and more curiouser about the school and its leader Morty Ballen, since he's the sort of rip-up-the-playbooks kinda guy that folks in the reform movement seem to be looking for. Then, out of the blue, Morty shoots me a note and says hi. Guess he saw the post. And we made a date to meet...at the school. So I got a tour and a talk with the founder and head of the Explore Network
- all for writing a silly blog post. How awesome is that? And I thought I was just keeping a stupid journal...
Morty's great. You'd like him instantly. Informal. Genuine. No B.S. He loves helping kids learn, and he's created a positively quaint little school on the 4th Floor of a building that initially didn't exactly welcome him
. You can thank the teacher's union for that. Charters rub the union the wrong way, since most charter schools are non-union, and they often compete with other public schools for space. I'll expound more on unions in a bit, but let's just say that Morty and Explore's current principal Trace Rebe have created a very comfortable medium-sized K-8 school that's teeming with smiles and good vibes. They favor co-teaching with classes of 30 so they can split up by level or have one teacher up front and the other supporting. The "office" is small too; just a couple of stern-but-sweet women who know all the kids names and probably all the parents to boot. I'm betting if you matriculated at the school you'd know everybody's name in a week-and-a-half. There's about 60 kids per grade; there's a music teacher and an art teacher. They share a decent gym and cafeteria with their co-habitater school. Some complain about how much testing kids do these days, but on the day I visited kids were happily taking individualized computer tests that had cool graphics tracked how far they'd gotten and it looked pretty much like standard in-class work to me, with a digital flair. The staff was fairly young, idealistic like the charter network itself, and Ballen stresses things like balance in teacher's lives. Probably not a bad place to work, though work they clearly do.
So what's going on here? Is it a "revolution" in education? Far from it, says Ballen. It was refreshing to hear him say that there aren't a lot of BIG new ideas in teaching. I've heard it said that great ideas get co-opted and used immediately across a spectrum of teachers, schools and leaders - it's hard to keep secrets; when something works, it gets used. Is the population at Explore different than the other public schools around here? No, not really, though you do have to have the wherewithal to sign up for the District 17-favored lottery (which happens next week) so you might end up with a slightly more motivated parent body. Students are predominantly children of children of the islands, much like the neighborhood around it. I didn't see any Asian or white kids, if that's the sort of thing that matters to you. Actually, you know who it DID matter to? There was a writer, Sonny "N.R." Kleinfeld of the NY Times who was doing a piece on the school, and he and I chatted for awhile and all he wanted to talk about was how segregated the school system was, far worse than the South pre-busing. I was shocked that someone from the Old Gray Lady would actually find this to be "news," but he seemed honestly outraged that most schools are all minority when the neighborhoods around them have been fully or partly gentrified. (I guess he's never heard of private schools? Or lying about where you live? Or hypocrisy? Or rather, he must not have kids methinks...nice guy though.)
No, no revolution happening at Explore or its sister charters. Unless by revolution you mean giving smart committed teachers the tools and support they need to succeed. During Morty's teaching days, he saw and resented the apathy and bloat that clogs the system. He was even naive enough to think that if he could start a school un-tethered to the Union's perverse systems he could just hire great teachers and press go. But in fact, a school is like a business, and it needs leadership, incentives, love (tough and soft) and even professional support in order to thrive. That's why all of the back office functions of Explore and its sister schools are handled centrally, outside the school buildings. Teachers therefore have resources - need supplies or new curriculum tools? Call headquarters. Got some cool new ideas you want to try out? Share them with the network. Need money for a new program? Call the fundraisers. Etc. Teamwork. Incentives. Flexibility. A school system WITHIN a school system.
Bottom line...go check it out for yourself. Don't rely on the Q, or Insideschools.com, or word of mouth. There's simply too much bad or parroted information out there about schools, and I for one would LOVE to have people write in to the Q with their personal experiences with schools so we can really share honestly, rather than the grab bag of quotes one hears again and again about schools, principals, teachers and the cultures that may or not still apply. Personally, I think competition is great for the massive NYC educational boondoggle. But I will say that using a lottery rather than simple neighborhood zones for the Charters has created a perverse luck element that runs counter to the idea of creating quality schools close to home, especially in troubled nabes. Districts are big! And if you want your kid to go to a school within walking distance, with his/her friends from the neighborhood, you can't count on getting in to this charter or any other, and if you do you may have to take a bus past a number of closer schools to get to your "lucky" charter. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that charters should accept locals first, perhaps from a smaller "zone", no lottery, then open it up. Not like anyone's asking me, but...the luck thing bugs me.
Then of course there are many arguments pro and con about Charter Schools, but the one argument I buy hook line and sinker is that the unions - for all the good they may provide for teachers as workers
- have not been particularly good at helping make schools better for the kids. The Q's a good union-loving liberal like the rest of you, but after years of hearing teachers I trust say they too are super-frustrated with the union, you gotta wonder. When rank and file thinks the union protects bad teachers and stifles innovation, I'm thinking the union is actually working at cross-purposes. Where it gets tricky is that teachers unions, unlike, say, the Teamsters, are charged with serving a very intense deeply intimate interpersonal function in the lives of our future citizens. And they're asked to be truly creative and flexible and compassionate at every step of the way. All day every day they're helping mold the next generation, and interacting with families, sometimes in a very intense manner. So while the Teamsters Union has made life easier and more humane for the Teamsters themselves, most people don't care about the stuff of the trade - the trucks, dollies, log sheets and equipment - the way they do their own kids, who are the "stuff" of the union. Am I making any sense? I hope so, because I've been looking at this problem from a lot of angles now for quite a while, even sitting on an unsuccessful charter school board and learning the ins and outs of school budgets, curricula and work rules. I'm no expert, but I'm starting to see things a bit clearer.
What teachers need is SUPPORT, and not just like those back-saving belts that go around a UPS guy's waist. Ballen et al seem to have their focus on all the right things. The school's not too rigid, nor is it too loosey-goosey. It puts a huge emphasis on parental involvement, and it rewards teachers who show great skill and creativity. It's small enough to feel like a community, and it's facilities are reasonably sufficient to the task. Check it out. The Q is curious (as always) to hear what you think. And if you or someone you know attends the school - please share your experiences. Night, night...