Guest Post by Dr. Cindy Lutenbacher, Professor at Morehouse College
This letter first appeared on Maureen Downey’s AJC blog, Get Schooled. The letter is published with the permission of Dr. Lutenbacher.
My name is Dr. Cindy Lutenbacher, and I am a single, white, full-time working mother of two children in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster (DHCC) district, as well as a DeKalb property owner and taxpayer. One daughter just graduated from Druid Hills High School and my other daughter is a current student at Druid Hills Middle School.
I have been a teacher for almost three decades and a parent for 18 years. I have served on the board of the DeKalb charter school the International Community School and on the Board of the tuition-free, private school the Global Village School.
I am writing to express my deep opposition to the possibility of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.
At long last, I have been able to attain information about this conversion charter petition, and I am quite honestly appalled at its brazen attempt to create a privately-run school that is funded with taxpayer dollars. And, at long last, I have taken the hours and hours and hours necessary to review the petition, as well as the 235 requests and rationales for waivers from DCSD standards and policies. I am told that some of this information was made available three weeks before the vote was taken in August. I did not know of that availability and probably would not have been able to review it in time; neither was I able to vote during the narrow voting window. I can only wonder about parents or teachers who have even more limited access to and time for such investigation or voting.
Since that time, I have also learned that the “vote” taken the second day of school was not in violation of the law, but was certainly in violation of ethics. Those running the voting were wearing tee shirts sporting the logo of the DHCC. And I understand that the votes were counted by supporters of the charter. Furthermore, the location of voting was the site most convenient to the supporters of the charter.
The petition “talks the talk” of accountability and adherence to guidelines, laws, and policies, but its absurd list of waiver requests speaks otherwise. It places all power in the hands of its own, self-selected governing body, a body that was theoretically “elected” in that incredibly flawed voting process on the second day of school at Druid Hills High School.
I would like to address only a handful of my concerns.
First of all, the petition contains outright falsehoods. For example, the petition claims that only 5.4% of the students of McLendon Elementary School are ELLs, or English Language Learners. However, the McLendon Elementary website reveals that 46% of its students are in ESOL classes. I wonder what definition the DHCC uses to categorize students as ELLs. Those favoring the charter claim that they used DeKalb County statistics.
The petition also claims that it will follow state and federal laws concerning special needs learners, but its waiver requests demand “flexibility” in fulfilling the needs of students with disabilities. The petition and waiver documents speak to various methods to best serve students with disabilities, but all of the language allows so much “flexibility” that students with special needs could end up warehoused, or pushed into classes of typical learners (which may be a terrible choice for some), or ousted from the school because of “disciplinary issues.” Furthermore, if DHCC can somehow mis-categorize English Language Learners at a school, how can anyone trust it to honestly and authentically label and serve students with special needs?
The DHCC waiver requests include waivers for discipline, claiming to use “positive” disciplinary tactics. That language is all well and good, but when I review the petition and waiver requests, I have deep concern that the DHCC will use its waiver to oust students who do not fit its particular bent, which is clearly toward gifted students. I am concerned that students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students who are ELLs will disproportionately find themselves labeled as “discipline problems,” rather than as children who are true gifts to the world. They will be removed, so that DHCC can boast of its success. The process is called “push-out” and it has a venerable history, especially here in the south. I speak as a lifelong southerner and as a product of public schools in Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia.
The DHCC requests a waiver in terms of class size in order to be “fiscally sustainable.” This waiver request is an absurdly slippery slope, for once the DHCC realizes the inadequacy of its budget, the class sizes for classes that are not gifted, advanced placement, or otherwise geared toward students with higher test scores—will quite likely balloon, in order to allow the gifted programs to remain small and intimate.
Likewise, the DHCC wants to have full authority and autonomy in transportation issues, including salaries of bus drivers, routes, and accessibility. I hear the phrase of “fiscal sustainability” in the background there, and I am acutely aware that transportation could easily suffer from budget concerns and become an issue that excludes working class children from attending schools in the DHCC, even though the children would be zoned into a particular school.
In the same breath that the DHCC requests waivers of all policies relevant to salaries, budget, and personnel, it requests waivers from the DeKalb County School District Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interest policies in order to create its own code of ethics. One need only have his/her eyes open to see that his scenario is clearly a field that is fertile for abuse.
I was not able to find the DHCC budget on its website, for certain links were not functional. But a friend with access to a hard copy read aloud certain sections, and we realized that there are enormous gaps in the budget—gaps such as guidance counselors and other essential personnel. We can only conclude that the DHCC intends such budgetary requirements to come from the DeKalb County School District’s budget.
I find it also instructive that even though the student body of the cluster is comprised of 80% students of color, the governing body of the DHCC has only three members of color, two of whom do not live in the cluster district and one of whom lives in Gwinnett County; the DHCC claims that these members have a vested interest in the charter by virtue of students who are in the schools “by choice.” I cannot help but wonder why the DHCC had to go so far afield to find people of color to support its mission.
The petition also clearly states that only faculty and staff members will be hired or remain in their positions if they support the charter petition. This requirement is abusive and completely contradictory to the ability and rights of teachers and staff members to have open discussion about this important petition. Employees at the affected schools have already reported intimidation and silencing.
All of the waiver requests and the descriptions in the petition rely upon one central idea: trust us. The wording of both documents sounds professional, but the waivers and petition are in fact a sieve of loopholes through which children who do not fit the upper class norm will be excluded and harmed. If the conduct of the DHCC thus far—with its voting procedures that would have been shameful in the worst dictatorships in the world—is any indication of its trustworthiness, then this petition should be quickly and powerfully denied.
The DHCC talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.
This attempt by a primarily upper class group of people to filch taxpayer dollars for an ultimately exclusionary private school endeavor is reprehensible. For the sake of all our children, I urge you to deny this petition.