I have been thinking a great deal about the inequality between public school and private school, along with the ever-increasing cost of college these days. Last week all across America, students went back to school, and 10 percent of them went to private schools. A significant number went to well-supported suburban public schools. And masses of children from low-income, working-class urban homes will go to schools that struggle. This weekend, like many summer-wearied parents, I did a bit of overdue reading. I started with Allison Benedikt's self-proclaimed manifesto in Slate titled "If You Send Your kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person," with her 7,500 Facebook shares and 2,900 tweets, followed by the National Review's Jonah Goldberg's post called "No Exit." While Benedikt's title surmises her plot, Goldberg argues that we have a right to exit a system that doesn't work. He writes, "The ability to leave, vote with your feet, opt-out, march to your own drummer, quit this taco stand, stay home, etc., is one of the trickiest rights we have. Americans have always been conflicted about that."
I love Benedikt's dream (I was born and bred in Canada, so you can imagine where I stand on many issues including education for all) but her great experiment won't happen because Goldberg is correct to say American's and democracy allow one the right to exit something that isn't working for them or at least find alternatives called home schooling, charter schools and private schools. One of the things I love about America is the individual right to have a voice. So who is going to fix our urban public schools?
Meet Michelle Boyers, former COO of Boston urban school Orchard Gardens School, who has a proven blueprint for changing public schools. In three years, she and principal Andrew Bott turned one of Boston's worst-performing urban schools into a beehive of learning using a combination of federal and state funding, rich people's money that has poured into a myriad of nonprofits for public schools in the past decade, and autonomy for the proven leaders brought in to get it right.
Michelle walked out of the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School first working alongside Teach For America, Citizen Schools and Teach Plus that the wealthy, many of whom use private schooling, have set up to help the ailing public schools and once she had a handle on the landscape, she was handpicked by principal Bott to come and help him turn the school around as COO, writing grants, coordinating federal and nonprofit efforts and hiring a new team of leadership teachers.
Boyers claims to now have a blueprint that will change the education game and she wants legislation behind it. In it they address to basic problems: What do we do with 1:30 dismissals? You bring in the nonprofits to help and pay a stipend to leadership teachers who will stay longer.
Last year the White House awarded Orchard Gardens the Turnaround Arts Initiative and educators and policy makers from around the country have come to tour the turnaround school. But how do they sustain it?
Orchard Gardens K-8 School serves more than 850 students, nearly all of whom live below the federal poverty line and more than 50 percent of whom are learning English. Orchard Gardens was one of the five lowest performing schools in Massachusetts, part of the redevelopment of a formerly notorious, run-down housing project with a reputation for drugs, high crime rates and gang violence. In a 2009 survey, 50 percent of Orchard Garden students reported that they expected to be bullied at school. Fifty of the kids at any given time are homeless or in transitional housing. Learning often took a back seat to behavior management and adult issues. The student failure rate on the MCAS exam was one of the highest in the Commonwealth. Only 6 percent of Orchard Gardens' students were proficient in math and only 13 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. They have students who are roughly 40 percent black and 60 percent Hispanic. Inside the classrooms, there are 50 students with autism.
Boyers argued that it's not only the social injustice of it all but bad for our economy to ignore the lost potential for talent. Two years later with the turnaround effort, Orchard Gardens School had the highest growth, in combined ELA and math, of any middle school in the state. The percent gains were close to 75 percent growth in ELA and 115 percent in math.
As a parent at a private school, I feel great guilt when I see the disparity between private education and inner-city schools. And while most kids who roam the public hallways (count me as one) likely end up with more perseverance and grit when they graduate than those with private fields, those are not arguments for why it is acceptable and tolerable that America's urban education system is such a mess.
I asked Boyers how we, the entire American public regardless of where we send our kids to school, could make a difference.
• Become a Citizen teacher. Twice a week between 2:30 and 5:30 teams come in from companies like Verizon and Google and teach kids about engineering or robotics.
• Encourage your own kids to take a gap year and do City Year service work in public schools.
• Or encourage kids to join Teach For America and learn what it's really like to be a teacher in a high-poverty urban school or rural district that is often ignored and underfunded.
• Write to your congressional and senate representatives to support urban schools.
• Donate to the nonprofits focused on these issues like Teach for America and Teach Plus.
There are groups like Stand For Children that are convening and organizing broader parent communities to lobby for this kind of legislative action.
You can also learn more about Orchard Gardens on its website.
Now that's autonomy!