Kindergarten Chronicles Part I: Charters, Choice, and Community

Matthew Wesley Williams

I walked into the media center of the school library, my sweaty palm holding the hand of my daughter, my firstborn – my new kindergarten student.  In we walked into the new student orientation at her school in the metropolitan Atlanta area.  We were on time but we could hardly find a seat.  These new parents had packed the place out mid-day in the middle of the week.  The intense look on everyone’s faces let me know clearly these parents mean business.

When the principal began to speak it was easy to understand why this throng had gathered early for this mandatory orientation.  She took center stage in that sea of petrified parents and delivered an address that confirmed what we believed when we entered the lottery to enroll our children. We believed that were signing our children up for an excellent educational experience; Project based education, higher order thinking, an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. Here, high achievement is the norm.  Ethical behavior is both expected and enforced.   Interestingly enough, here in a public school, in the metro area at the epicenter of national scandals about high stakes testing, this principal mentioned nothing about standardized tests.

Incidentally, this school consistently exceeds standards with some of the highest test scores in the county, region, and state.  Here’s the thing.  They understand two things that the high stakes testing tyrants should acknowledge: 1. Shaping education around a test that measures minimal basic skills prepares students for minimal achievement in life.  (Standardized tests like the CRCT and Iowa Test measure minimum basic skill.); and 2. Students will never fail to rise or stoop to the expectations that are embedded in the structure of a school’s culture and curriculum.

As I left the orientation I found myself wondering what makes this school possible. There are a few things that come to mind.  The first is a motto that appears at the bottom of the school’s documents, “The School Cannot Live Apart From the Community.”  This public school binds families to a contract that includes service hours, PTA membership and participation, providing supplies and uniforms, and other forms of support for the students and the school.  The school also enjoys significant support from community partners- businesses, donors, foundations, churches and other entities.   They are clear that they could not hold and stick to their high standards of achievement if family and community involvement was not a part of the package.  Isolation is not an option.

Second, my daughter attends a “theme school.”   Established before the charter boom of recent years this school provides another educational option for parents in South Dekalb County, one of the highest income- earning African American communities in the country.   But like many Charter schools today, my daughter was only able to enter this school through a lottery system.  She was randomly chosen and we will now enjoy the good fortune of a high quality education close to home.  But what would have happened to my daughter if the lottery had not fallen in our favor?  What is happening now to thousands of children in this county who are “zoned” for underperforming schools that do not have the kind of support that her school has?

Third, there is a correlation between socioeconomic status and ability to take advantage of school choice.  In our case, that correlation came down to some basic things.  In order to even get my child in the lottery I had to navigate an unwieldy unfriendly user system of online and in person requirements.  In spite of this, here are a few things that helped us get her in the lottery:

  • a supportive spouse to share the responsibility of meeting deadlines, completing and delivering documents required to register my daughter in the system,
  • literacy for reading detailed instructions and interpreting confusing documents designed to guide parents through extensive processes,
  • access to a working computer,
  • internet savvy for navigating a horribly designed online system,
  • access  to a car or bus line to hand deliver registration documents to the county board of education,
  • ability to use my hour long lunch break to hand deliver the documents and ask clarifying questions of persons I could not reach by phone during business/ work hours.

Some of these things seem like no-brainers in 21st century America.  Everyone has these things, right?  Unfortunately these skills, possessions, and privileges that provide access to “school choice” are economically based, reserved largely for middle and upper class families.

So my kindergartener and other children are likely to benefit from this system of unequal educational choices.  But my family is not an island.  If our community, our region, state and nation is to be a place where my children can thrive, every child must have access to education that holds high order thinking, achievement, and problem solving as the baseline of what we provide.


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