Ten years ago, we were in the midst of opening a charter school in south Los Angeles- Environmental Charter High School. We worked day and night for two years to secure the charter, prepare the facility, recruit students and staff, and develop the curriculum. Our friends wondered why we had gotten ourselves into such a mess, but we knew why. It was because of our years of attempting school reform within large, comprehensive schools entrenched in tradition, and too slow to respond to kids' needs. Despite some well intentioned teachers, many students did not even make it to graduation, and of those who did, most graduated without a connection to the wider world, without a sense of their own purpose to guide their future. This is why we started Environmental Charter High School.
The biggest challenge in those early years was forging the path between the vision of the school we wanted and the on-the-ground reality of where we were starting. While we had dreamt of a school that promoted personal responsibility over rules, we soon came to realize that responsibility had to be taught and that students could not learn in chaos. While we had envisioned a school managed by consensus, we came to accept that the leader sometimes has to make decisions and that keeping everyone happy was neither possible nor desirable. While we had hoped for a school that went "beyond the classroom walls" and allowed students to learn by doing, we had to make our peace with textbooks, standardized exams, and classroom lectures. We worked hard to maintain the vision, while figuring out how to make it a reality.
The learning curve was steep, but we didn't fall off. Today, Environmental Charter High School is a thriving green oasis in the concrete jungle of south Los Angeles County. When someone steps onto the campus, they know that this school is different. Students compost, make bio diesel, repair bicycles, harvest rain water, do field research, and teach local community members how to do all of this. While they start out as ninth graders more than two years below their grade level, by 11th grade, they have caught up to or surpassed their grade level. Last year, 92 percent of graduates were accepted to four-year colleges. Nearly all of our students come from households below the poverty line and from families who have never attended college.
Lately, there has been much attention paid to the idea of charter schools as a response to turn around the lowest performing schools. We both applaud and cringe when we hear about proposals to dramatically increase the number of charter schools. Converting a low performing school to a charter will not magically cure its ills. There must be a long-term commitment to implement a research-based vision; it will take time and lots of hard work. We worry about the trendiness of charter schools and the politicians who promote them as quick fixes -- and who may abandon them when it is politically popular to do so.
We used to think of our school as a "place where magic happened," but we've come to re-think that notion. There is nothing magical about the phenomenal results that our school and students have achieved; they are the result of hard work. On November 6, Environmental Charter Schools will celebrate its 10 year anniversary at its Rethink Green Event. In the meantime, stay tuned for our next blog where we will get down to the details of how we turned our vision into reality at ECHS and how we're helping other schools to do the same.
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