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Alexander Russo

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Meet the Poster Child for Charter School Burnout

Posted: 09/07/11 04:30 PM ET

A young charter school administrator named Jessica Reid played a small but important role in Steve Brill's book, Class Warfare, both in illustrating how some of the higher-performing charter schools do things and in highlighting the wear and tear that such efforts can create.

What's it been like for her to be part of the book -- her second stint as a character in a nonfiction account of school reform -- and what does she think about key issues such as sustainability, ending LIFO, and unionization? Read the interview below. You might be surprised:

Did you have any idea that you and your career decisions were going to be such a hotly-debated part of debate surrounding the Brill book this summer?

JR: I had no idea. In fact, I didn't really realize that I was going to actually be in Brill's book. He would mention my "narrative" in his story when he was shadowing me, but I just laughed it off. I figured my name may be mentioned in regards to Harlem Success, but I never considered myself to be that extraordinary.

What's it been like for you at work and among friends and colleagues since the book and the WSJ article came out?

JR: The same as always. My closest friends and my entire family know about the WSJ and the book, but no one else really knows. This may be because my maiden name is used in the book. I also don't bring it up unless someone comes to me and says, "So I am reading this book and YOU'RE IN IT."

What's it felt like to read about yourself as the poster girl for charter school burnout?

JR: I am a very open and honest person, so I don't mind sharing my story, especially if my story is part of a greater story that will hopefully play an important part in the struggle to fix education. That being said, leaving Harlem Success Academy was one of the hardest choices I've ever had to make because I cared so much about my teachers and my students. I hold myself to a very high standard and dropping out of the race made me feel, on a personal level, like a failure.

How common is it from your experience for folks to step back from their breakneck speed after a few years?

JR: Very common. I will say, though, that everyone I know who has left education (be it a public or a charter school) has somehow stayed connected to education and is working to make it better.

How involved with or aware of the school reform debate going on have you been up until now?

JR: I am not a political person when it comes to education. When Brill was shadowing me he would share anecdotes about many of the reformers he discusses in his book. Most of the time I had no idea who he was talking about until I went home that night and Googled the names. I share this because prior to reading Brill's book I wasn't thinking about this level of education reform. My version of education reform centered on the children I was teaching and the children my teachers were teaching. I was so consumed with making sure that they were getting the best possible education and that my teachers were prepared to deliver rigorous instruction that I had little time to think about anything else.

What did you make of the book's glorification of reformers and its final conclusion that nonunion charter schools aren't a sustainable / scalable solution?

JR: I don't have an opinion about "the book's glorification of reformers" except to say that I am glad that they are fighting for children and that they are trying to make the system better. When it comes to the book's conclusion, I think that I'm somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, I understand why Brill makes the argument that nonunion charter schools aren't sustainable/scalable. What I think is important to understand, though, is that charters like Harlem Success aren't the model. They are a model. And, more importantly, they are a model that is proving that children can learn and achieve at phenomenally high levels even if they are from under-resourced neighborhoods. We need these models to prove that these kids CAN achieve. The hard work now is figuring out how to create schools that accomplish this and retain talented teachers. This is what I wish more people were talking about.

What do you think needs to be done to create schools that do both, then -- what would that look like and how do we get there?

JR: That is the book I'm going to write, Alexander.

Do you agree with others who think that ending seniority-based layoffs should be a top priority issue?

JR: No. I think the top priority issue is focusing on how to improve the teachers that are in classrooms NOW regardless of how old or young they are.

How about publishing teachers' value-added ratings -- is that also something you think needs being done ASAP?

JR: I believe the top priority is focusing on how to improve teacher efficacy so that we can close the achievement gap ASAP.

What's it been like switching from a nonunion work environment to a unionized one -- lots of things you can't do, or not that much of a difference?

JR: In any profession there are those who work hard and those who don't. The same can be said of schools whether they are public or charter. As an assistant principal at a charter school, I could really only make an impact when a teacher was open to learning and willing to work hard to improve his craft and thus improve student outcomes. In my current capacity, I am supporting public school teachers and principals. My experience is essentially the same because what it really comes down to is how hard a person is willing to work to push his students, not whether or not that person is a member of the union.

How has this experience of being in the Brill book been different, if at all, from being in The Lottery?

JR: This experience has been a lot different than The Lottery because I feel many people are trying to use my story to justify their side of a very complex argument. Specifically, they want me to blame my decision to leave on the charter system, therefore justifying their prejudice against charter schools. I still believe in charters like Harlem Success because I've seen firsthand the amazing things they are doing for children. My bottom line is the kids and I'm going to support any teacher and any school that is working to make sure kids are getting the best possible education.

Cross-posted from This Week In Education. Previous posts on this subject:

Steve Brill's School Reform Sustainability Problem

Brill: Time's Up For "Race" Laggards (Like NY & HI)

 
 
 

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