Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Life after death at ACT Charter School

You want to think of it kind of like a food court.

In my second year of high school teaching at the Academy of Communications and Technology (ACT) Charter school, I was wondering about the long term vision the ACT board had for this place I had come to love. The place where I felt like I finally had a place to grow as a teacher. There was talk amongst the teachers of starting a union, but an administrator was explaining to me how this action wouldn't fit with the new dominant paradigm at ACT. No longer was my school simply a school; it could be best understood as a food court.

As one of the longest standing charter schools in the city, ACT was uniquely positioned because they had the ability to "self-replicate" or create more "campuses" without having to get additional charters from the city. As charter management organizations chomp at the bit to dive into the Chicago public education racket, our school, as unsuccessful as it was considered by some, was extremely valuable.

With a friendly, mustachioed-smile, my administrator used his hands as visual cues to draw out the familiar layout of a food court.

Let's say you have Burger King over here. Pizza Hut in the corner. Maybe a Taco Bell. All of those restaurants are going to rent space in your food court. But they are only going to feel comfortable in certain types of food courts. If you have a union in your school than the other franchises aren't going to want to move in. 

Dread bloomed in my chest as I realized how shady and ill-conceived the plan sounded. My fear was compounded by the earnestness of my administrator. He was carefully explaining the strategy like my apprehension was due to a lack of comprehension. No matter how he shifted his hands around and talked about "the best interests of our students," I couldn't arrest the thought that the whole thing was educationally unsound, and slightly immoral, but it also just seemed like a dumb idea. 

After we were told that unionizing might cause members of the support staff to lose their jobs, we decided to cease unionizing. Instead we agreed to investigate an alternative teacher bargaining structure that is used in some of the state's top schools. But by the time February came around, we got word: the ACT board was pulling the plug on our operation. 

A community meeting was held in the church next door. I had previously visited the pews for graduation or the day they let the students watch Obama's inauguration, but the poorly lit basement gave a funerary sense to the event. It smelled like melted funeral candles and cut flowers. Milling near the entrance were two large men in vanilla cream suits, smiling and handing out fliers for Hope Academy charter school. Their lack of ironic self-awareness was terrifying.

My administrator thanked everyone for coming out and reassured us that everyone would get to speak, but said that he would also be "respectful of people's time". Students, parents, and teachers lined up in a neat row to speak loudly and passionately about the school. About the children they had sent there. About the things they had learned at the school. About the family they felt they had there. About the few educational options there were on the west side of Chicago. About how little control they felt over a decision that affected them most of all. And there were a lot of questions. Some of them answered, some not. When the board spoke, all of the members drew from the same word bank: Student's best interests. Tough choices. Appreciation. Reality. Options. Achievement. Funding. Suspension.

The students left angrily before the board completed its ceremony. My administrator raised his hands skyward and pleaded with the children to show respect, but they were gone. The vanilla cream men rushed to dispense their recruitment fliers to the departing stampede. Shortly afterward, Bruce Rauner, the chairman of the board, the gavel was struck and the decision was official.

And that was supposed to be the end. Well, the end--not considering the long painful demise that was the Spring semester at ACT. Local charters scavenged the school for students, teachers, computers, books, desks, even our building. Once we left, we thought that would be the end of our school.

Until about a month ago.

Buried in a Chicago Tribune story about a school board update about "district reorganization" was this note:

The district also is furthering its long-standing practice of merging underused or underperforming schools into facilities occupied by existing schools. CPS proposes:
Moving the Academy of Communications and Technology into a shared building with Nash Elementary. ACT is a charter school that was closed last year because of academic and financial concerns, but it is reopening next year under the management of KIPP, a nationally recognized charter operator.
In the words of Bernie Mack: Sommamaabiiich

What that means is the school will open again in the Fall under KIPP, a national charter management group. If ACT holds true to its food court dictate than the new school will likely have little in common with the structure and culture of its namesake. The only thing that is sure to survive is the entity's ability to self-replicate. 

Although I loved my school, it was by no means perfect. Maybe it was best that the school closed if there wasn't enough money or we weren't helping students achieve up to expectations. But something feels downright sinister about the reopening. During the closing meeting, all the people in suits kept using the word suspension to describe what was going on. Like they had already moved on to plan B, which didn't involve most of the people in the room.

And that's the way public education is being transformed now. It's people in suits, armed with word banks and multi-colored graphs, making decisions for communities that have little to no voice in the matter. Without that input, these new/old schools will be doomed to replicate the failures that came before them.

**Bruce Rauner Update: It's worth mentioning that Bruce Rauner was the Chairman of the Board of ACT school. In exchange for a donation to the school, he took a controlling stake in the fate of the school. After he deemed the school untenable, he made the decision to close the school.


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Douglas van Dyke said...

I can't believe I'm only finding this post now, 5 years later. I could always count on you to keep us all honest, quietly and earnestly speaking truth to power with only the kids' best interests at heart. And even as you did so, never letting us doubt that we were still on the same side. I miss working with you. I hope you're thriving, my friend.