Why the DeKalb County School Board Should Turn Down the Charter Cluster

This post was published last year, and I’m republishing it in light of the Driud Hills Charter Cluster’s second attempt at absconding nearly a half dozen DeKalb schools. Dr. Lutenbacher provides academic and personal experiences and reaches a convincing conclusion.

If the Druid Hills Charter Cluster decides to apply to the State Charter School Commission for charter status, Dr. Lutenbacher’s will serve as evidence why the State should turn them down.

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.

Brazenness

mailAt 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.

Falsehoods

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.

Budgetary Ethics

arrow-downIn 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.

Odd Demographics

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.

Filching Taxpayers

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.

Druid Hills Charter Cluster Should Be Rejected Again

Latest Story

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster has raised its nasty head again and is trying to convince the DeKalb County School Board to give a non-elected private group 5000 students, seven school campuses, and hundreds of teachers.

I support Superintendent Michael Thurmond’s decision to oppose the Charter Cluster proposal.

Here is what I wrote a year ago about this idea. Nothing has changed, even though Matt Lewis, the cluster self appointed chai, tells us differently.

On August 13, about  eleven-hundred citizens from the Druid Hills area of DeKalb County, Georgia voted on a petition to create the Druid Hills Charter Cluster (DHCC).  The cluster consist of seven schools, five elementary, one middle, and Druid Hills High School.  The purpose of the charter is raise student achievement by creating a cluster of charter schools.

A few miles further to the north, a group of “concerned parents” is working on a petition to form the Dunwoody High School Charter Cluster.  According to one report, the organizing parental group decided to put off a letter of intent to the DeKalb County Board of Education until next year.

Figure 1. Druid Hills Charter Cluster Dome: Image Source: CBS News

So, in DeKalb County, Georgia, there are two efforts underway to create charter clusters, or what I am calling charter schools “Under the Dome” (Special thanks to Cita Cook for suggesting the notion of a dome in this context).   These domed neighborhoods will have autonomy from the county board of education, and will have complete and comprehensive power to work out its own business plan, establish curriculum, and hire teachers that meet its own criteria.

The document describing the petition (75 pages and appendices) outlines the rationale and goals of the DHCC.  School choice, teacher policy, high-stakes testing and academic achievement dominate the DHCC.

Druid Hills Dome

I know the Druid Hills Dome very well.  I lived there for ten years, but for more than 30 years I worked with schools, teachers and administrators in all DeKalb County.  Indeed, one of the schools that I had a twenty year relationship with was Dunwoody High School.  Dunwoody was a partner school with Georgia State University’s Global Thinking Project, and under the principalship of Dr. Jenny Springer, Dunwoody participated in more than ten student and teacher exchanges with partner schools in Russia.

Druid Hills High School and Dunwoody High School are outstanding schools, and for years have been important to their respective communities.   Why would this group of parents want to segregate the schools in each cluster from the rest of the DeKalb Schools?  Yes, there is a new school board, and an interim Superintendent, and the county has had problems.  Is now the time to break up the district?

Convincing the board of education to let a group take away schools and land to form their school system is unbelievable.  Imagine.  You get a group of like-minded parents together (mostly white) and decide that creating your own cluster of schools would be in the best interests of all the parents and students under the dome.  It’s a real deal.  Not only do you set up a power-based structure, but you take over school properties owned by DeKalb County.  And it doesn’t cost you a dime.  The Druid Hills Charter Cluster, Inc., is a Georgia non-profit corporation, and as such, has already begun a campaign of raising money through its  href=”https://sites.google.com/site/druidhillscc/”>website. The current officer of the DHCC and chair of the Druid Hills High School Council is Mathew S. Lewis.  Mr. Lewis will also become a member of the charter board of directors of the DHCC.

Location of Schools in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.  View as a larger map.
Figure 2. Location of Schools in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster. View as a larger map.

So in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster “under the dome,” some residents have banded together to try and form their own mini-school district, essentially cut off from the larger public school district. When you read the DHCC petition, it is clearly stated that this group seeks academic autonomy, including their own hired staffs, food service, transportation, and financial independence.  Now keep in mind, that the funds to support the DHCC will come from DeKalb County and the state of Georgia.  It is also possible that venture capital will find its way into the dome, and most likely out-of-state investors and “school” reform organizations such as the Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundations will appear.

In time, there will be huge problems when teachers realize that their jobs are at risk. They will discover that in the long run it will be more cost effective for the DHCC to partner up with Teach for America who will supply inexpensive teachers who will leave after two years.

For example, after Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans schools were converted to charter schools, with thousands of employees fired, and then replaced by recruits from Teach for America who have a 5-week program to learn how to teach.  Instead of innovation (I use this word because it is used in the DHCC petition), New Orleans schools were set up to be managed by data and numbers, not critical thinking, inquiry and problem solving.  The DHCC will follow the same path.  The DHCC will test the daylights out of students, and will use data in unsubstantiated ways to evaluate teachers.  This is clearly a set up.  Teachers will be replaced on the basis of faulty data and fraudulent assessment methods.  Indeed one of the tests included in the lineup of formative assessments is MAP (Measure of Academic Progress), the same test that teachers in Washington refused to administer to their students because it was unrelated to their curriculum.  And it goes on and on.  Summative assessments are no different.  There is complete line up of end of course and criterion referenced tests.

Will this be the future for the DHCC?

Is the DHCC a Parent Trigger in Disguise?

Another question I have is this.  Is the DHCC using the “parent trigger” strategy disguised as a cluster of conversion charters?

Under Georgia law, a group can petition to create a conversion or start-up charter school.  Unfortunately, most of the laws on the books were really not written with Georgia students, parents and teachers in mind.  In fact, I asked last year, Why don’t our elected representatives write their own legislation?  Well, it’s because ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) writes them, brings like minded (mostly Republicans) together, and passes out “model bills” that our elected ones take back to the legislature, put their names on them, and submit them as a bill.  The charter bill that passed in the last session was written by ALEC, and in fact you can go here to read the bill.  Notice that the bill is written so that all that our elected officials have to do is fill in the blanks (with their names, dates, etc.).  That bill was used to strike down a Georgia Supreme Court Decision in the previous year that ruled unconstitutional, a statewide charter authorizer.  The commission on charter schools was reinstated.

In the last legislative session, the Parent Trigger Bill (which would enable disgruntled parents of low-performing schools to fire teacher and administrative staff and turn the school over to for-profit management company paid with district funds) made its way through the House, but was held up in the Senate after some very courageous citizens of Georgia (Empowered Georgia) said, enough is enough.  The people behind the Parent Trigger simply imported the same ALEC bill that had been floating around in California, Florida and Oklahoma.  It comes in many names, one of which the Parent Empowerment Act.  There is no parent empowerment.  The parents are pawns in a shifty business deal in which failing schools can be replaced with charter schools. Now, if you think parents at the local level will set up the charter school, I’ll sell you a bridge.

But here is the problem with the Druid Hill Charter Cluster.  It is being submitted under the law which defines the nature of conversion charters.  It smells like its a parent trigger.  When independent reporters attended the polling site for the DHCC, most of those in attendance where white, and by all estimates, very few teachers were there.  Yet only 18% of the students in the Druid Hills Dome are white, while 61% are African-American, 10% Asian, and 7% Hispanic/Latino.

Is a Charter Cluster the Answer?

Well, that depends upon the question.  In the present age, the question is how can we make American students more competitive in the global market place and how can we improve the academic scores of students on yearly national and international tests (TIMSS and PISA)?  That is the question that most charter petitions use to claim that their approach will exceed the expectations of regular public school students.  Charter schools actually do worse than regular public schools on end-of-year or other benchmark tests used for national assessments.

Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.
Figure 3. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.

Professor Michael Marder at the University of Texas has looked at the type of school, charter vs regular public school, he found the results to be quite dramatic.  If you look at Figure 3, there are 140 charter schools in Texas with 11th grade data.  As you can see in Figure 3, most of the charters form a flat line at the bottom of the graph indicating that except for 7 charters off the flat line, the rest of the charters are doing worse than the regular public schools. Dr. Marder has analyzed data from California, New York, and New Jersey and found that charter schools do not do better than regular public schools in any of these states.

Georgia has opened the door to the charter management world, and there is no doubt that the DHCC is capitalizing on this moment in history.

If you listen to the politicians and owners of a charter schools, public schools do not know how to meet the divergent needs of Georgia students.  You often hear, “one size does not fit all.”  Professional educators know this instinctively.  Furthermore, teachers in public schools (and independent schools, by the way) have worked with researchers who are on the cutting edge of the learning sciences.  This two-way interaction between teachers who have experiential knowledge of the classroom and students, and researchers who take themselves out of the ivory tower to work with teachers to seek answers to questions about how students learn is much more powerful way to improve schooling.

The managers of charter schools do not have the interests of parents or students in mind.  They make the false claim that charters will put schooling back into the hands of parents, when in fact the charter school movement has led to putting taxpayer money in the accounts and hands of charter management companies.  Parents and students are being used to secure this end.

Democratic Schools?

Last week I published Dr. Chip Carey’s report on the Druid Hills Charter Cluster election.  In Dr. Carey’s words:

In all the elections that I have observed around the world, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Pakistan, Romania and the Philippines, I have never seen such a sham election within a polling area.

If the election was a sham, then this is evidence that a bogus attempt to manipulate the law, and set up a collection of conversion charter schools using the parent trigger strategy is being made.

What we are observing in DHCC is an un-democratic activity that purports to represent the opinions and needs of thousands of parents and children.  If there is not a broad cross-section of constituents involved in the DHCC, then what we are witnessing is simply another attempt by school choice advocates to privatize public education.

Unless the election is investigated to find out if democratic voting rights were in place for all citizens, then how can a small group of advocates claim to represent, and then later control education in this corner of DeKalb County. A new bureaucracy will be established managed by the DHCC, Inc, with the real decision makers being at the bottom of the hierarchy.

One More Thing

The notion of a charter school, when originally conceived 20 years ago, was an innovative idea.  It was a teacher led initiative which resulted in creative and new approaches to teaching and learning.  The idea was hijacked by corporations who saw the charter school provision as back door into local public schools.  Coupled with the support of conservative politicians and their corporate allies to privatize government agencies and activities, schools have become the target of this effort.  Charter schools are seen as a way to privatize education, and devastate public education as we know it.

The thing is that charter schools do not nearly do as well as regular public schools.  The research reported in this post casts a vague eye on the efficacy of charter schools in fulfilling the promise that charters, because they can run more flexibly than their public school counterparts, will create environments where students will not only do as well as public school students, but out do them on achievement tests. The massive amount of data that has been analyzed by Dr. Marder’s team at the University of Texas, and the results of charter school performance in 16 states does not paint a very pretty picture of charter schools.

In a major study done at Stanford University, the researchers concluded that the majority of students attending charter schools would have fared better if they are gone to a public school.

Yet, most of our legislators in the Georgia House and Senate refuse to look at the research that clearly shows that public schools should be supported even more than they are now because they not only do a better job in the academic department, but they work with all students.  All families.  Regardless.

I hope that the DeKalb Board of Education reads this post, and questions the legitimacy of the DHCC, Inc. to establish a schools “under the dome.”

Fernbank Science Center Might Be Shut Down!

Fernbank Science Center, a decades old institution owned and operated by the DeKalb County public schools is in danger of being closed due to a budget shortfall of $73 million.  The annual cost of operating Fernbank is about $4.7 million, and it is on the list of  cuts that the DeKalb school board is considering.

Fernbank was one of the first science education centers that I visited when I first came to Atlanta as an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University in 1969.  Fernbank is a remarkable institution having its own planetarium, and a staff of scientists, and science teachers who provided professional development programs for teachers, instruction for students, and programs for the DeKalb and surrounding communities.  And its a public school institution.

It should not be shut down.

Also on the cutting block are 25 media specialists in school libraries, 70 central office staff, $8 million from the transportation budget, 52 magnet school teachers, 28 Montessori teachers, cutting over 200 teacher positions resulting in large class sizes.

Any of these cuts are difficult to make.  School districts around the state are faced with similar problems, although DeKalb County’s budget problems appear to larger than other districts.

An article in the Athens Patch, written by the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective, called for the continued investment in media centers, and not to consider them for budget cutting.  As the authors pointed out in their article Invest in Media Centers, Invest in Society: The Work of a Media Center Paraprofessional, cutting media specialists is risky business.  It would result in diminished time that students would receive for hand-on contact.

In case facing the Fernbank Science Center, school board members will be faced with shutting down one of the best science education programs in the Southeast.  Fernbank has always been staffed with the finest of teachers, and they have provided a first-rate science education program for the public schools, as well as its community.

But a deeper issue here is the effects of the standards-based high-stakes testing movement that running havoc on school districts.  Some advocates of cutting Fernbank simply look at the cost of supporting Fernbank.  Nothing is said about what it is, and how it could help teachers in the district.  But because the focus is on student achievement scores, and teaching to the test, the approaches to discovery and inquiry which are at the heart of Fernbank, is put in the back seat—although now, a powerful part of the DeKalb public school system might be thrown out.

Informal Learning

Media centers and Fernbank Science Center are environments that support informal learning.  Research on  Informal learning shows that students are highly motivated, and that experiences in informal settings contribute positively to students affect, which has been shown to be connected to cognitive learning.  Like art, music, and recess, informal learning is unfortunately is not valued as much as the traditional academic subjects.