Friday, December 16, 2016

Debacle: How a Charter School Failed – Capital & Main

Debacle: How a Promising Charter School Failed – Capital & Main:

Debacle: How a Promising Charter School Failed

Student Empowerment Academy's first and last home. (Photo by Svgperson)
In 2014, when teachers at Los Angeles’ Jefferson High School opened their own charter school, the Student Empowerment Academy, they hoped to bring the larger world into their classrooms. They wanted to show kids opportunities outside of their neighborhood, where academics often took a back seat to economic survival. Kids would learn science, math and social studies by solving real-world problems in teams, just as they would in the work-force, while teachers would have autonomy and genuine decision-making authority.

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But faculty members soon found themselves facing one real-world problem they hadn’t bargained on — a tug of war for power with administrators and board members. Conflicts reached a boiling point in 2015, with staff leaving en masse – either fired, pushed out or stressed beyond their limits. The school also ran afoul of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which oversees the city’s charter schools, for financial mismanagement and other shortcomings. With enrollment dwindling, Jefferson announced that SEA would have to move to another facility for the 2017-18 academic year. If these obstacles weren’t enough, in its last year the fledgling charter school was led by a former professional football player with no teaching background and little administrative experience, and who, along with the academy’s board of directors, would throw the academy and students under the school bus once the going got tough.
SEA’s story highlights the precarious nature of small independent charter schools, and brings to light the fact that charter boards of directors are largely independent and don’t always have to account to parents, teachers and communities for decisions that affect students. In the end, the academy’s board of directors concluded that SEA faced problems that were so intractable that the only solution was to shut it down, and last June, two weeks after classes ended for summer break, the directors voted for permanent closure.
Teachers and parents were left reeling. Parents demanded to know what happened to the public funds that created the school, and where their kids would attend classes the next year. Teachers argued that more could have been done to save the school.
Jefferson High sits in a South L.A. neighborhood where corner stores, modest homes and ramshackle apartments huddle cheek by jowl with small factories, all in the shadow of downtown’s skyline. Alumni include diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first African American Nobel laureate, choreographer Alvin Ailey, jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon and singer Etta James. About a decade ago Jefferson became notorious for massive brawls that erupted on campus. Television news reports blamed racial tensions, but more-in-depth accounts noted that nearly 4,000 kids were crammed into a school built for a third that many.
Six years ago in response, the school created small learning communities to break down the anonymity of the giant high school. One of those initiatives was the New Tech High School for Student Empowerment Academy, a sort of school within a school. When, in 2013, administrators announced staff cuts and larger class sizes, faculty member Linda Rahardjo was one of several teachers who designed the 300-student independent charter version of SEA to carry on the work they had begun.
Rahardjo told Capital & Main the decision to go charter was an ultimately futile attempt to preserve what the faculty had originally built. The teachers who formed SEA were a closely-knit group who came to school early and stayed late to create a safe place where students could learn to study and think. “Being able to pass their classes became the in-thing,” she noted, adding that the students had begun to put brains above brawn, especially where disputes were involved. “They’d step back [from a fight] and say, ‘That’s not what we do here.’” It was a cultural shift at Jefferson.
SEA’s troubles began in earnest with a perfect storm of problems that included its coming expulsion from the Jefferson High Debacle: How a Promising Charter School Failed – Capital & Main:

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