First Person

Voices: A cautionary charter school tale

Nick Avila, chief operating officer at the PODER Academy, says critics unfairly targeted the charter school and it deserves another chance in Westminster. 

In August of 2007, Marcos Martinez opened a charter school in the Adams 50 School District that served a community of children who were primarily lower-income and Latino.

Students playing chess at PODER Academy.

The school had a unique curriculum that focused on tennis and chess, in addition to the other core academic areas like reading, writing and math. Students would attend an extended day from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and were given an hour of homework every day. Parents were required to sign off on their child’s homework and students would lose privileges if homework was not complete, regardless of the reason.

The Ricardo Flóres Magon Academy became a model in the community as one of the few to achieve an A- on a statewide report card system and was placed in the top 8 percent of schools based on its standardized test scores. The chess team won several trophies that were displayed in a glass case by the school’s entrance, along with a variety of press clippings that told stories about defying the odds.

I decided to accept a job at the school managing a unique program where students received tennis lessons year-round as part of their school day. They would not only become some of the best tennis players in the state but would also benefit academically from the self-reliance and focus they developed in the process.

School embroiled in controversy

In the spring of 2012, a showdown would ignite that would turn the school upside down. A group of parents had grown frustrated with Martinez and began circulating a petition outside of the school doors outlining complaints about how children were being bullied by abusive teachers and how the school was overly militant.

The situation came to a boil when a story appeared in Westword as told through the eyes of employees who had been fired over the past five years. The former employees gave accounts of how they were mistreated and exploited by a tyrannical leader who promoted an environment of fear. Soon the school was engulfed in a flood of accusations that grew increasingly sensational as time went on.

Martinez drew criticism for being unapologetic when it came to firing teachers he felt were uncooperative or incapable of achieving results and for holding students back in grade who were falling behind academically. He had a stubborn management style and was dismissive of criticism from parents who didn’t agree with the school’s policies.

The ensuing firestorm would eventually prompt the school’s Board of Trustees to take action. In a drastic and questionable move midway through the school year, they put Martinez and two other staff on leave until they were able to sort out the situation. This led to a hostile conflict between parent groups that spilled into the school hallways forcing the Board of Trustees to hire security guards.

Meanwhile, the wheels had come off inside the school, which was now severely short-staffed and reduced to utter confusion. The remaining staff struggled to keep things operating as communication broke down amongst the teachers who were now divided. The once structured student culture in the school was coming apart.

The nasty and divisive ordeal overshadowed much of the work we were doing inside of the school. Neither Martinez nor the two other employees placed on leave were given a chance to respond to the accusations and Martinez would eventually part ways with the school he created.

Support for the school overshadowed

Many questions remain that were never resolved. Questions like, why would more than 300 parents send their children to a school if it wasn’t in their best interest? Why would teachers and staff continue to work at a school that was abusive and dysfunctional? At least 75 percent of the students were returning students, some of whom had been there since the school doors opened. A majority of the faculty and staff had been there for three years or more. The situation inside the school was nowhere near as bad as the Westword article made it seem, but the fallout had already run its course.

The school’s pattern of high test scores that continued even after Martinez resigned were subject to ongoing suggestions of fraud, despite the fact that the Charter School Institute was present to monitor testing on at least two separate occasions and that student scores matched those on other similar tests taken quarterly.

Nevertheless, Martinez was determined to pick up the pieces and try again about 100 miles up north in Cheyenne, Wyo. The town’s school board approved his application to open the district’s first charter school and I signed on once again, this time in a management capacity. We both saw an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made the first time in order to build something even stronger.

PODER Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2012 and is now in full operation with more than 100 students in grades kindergarten through third. The school operates on the same model that brought success in Westminster. We recently submitted a proposal to the Adams 50 School Board to open another location in Westminster with more than 200 applications from parents, many of whom were familiar faces from the school we left behind. Yet the school board dismissed our application because of an association with the Magon Academy, along with the same mountain of unproven allegations that followed Martinez.

We are now considering an appeal to the Colorado State Board of Education.

While the next chapter of this story has yet to be written, I can say that I’m excited to be at the forefront of one of the hottest issues right now in the U.S. Charter schools will continue to grow in number and are capable of producing some of the world’s brightest scholars and athletes. If, of course, adults in the room can play nice.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.