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“Waiting For Superman” — A Call to Action

Dear Charter Community,

I want to encourage all of you to take the time to go see Waiting For Superman. As an educator and school leader of a highly successful public charter school within the public charter school movement, it was shocking to bear witness to what children have to endure to attain a reasonable education in many parts of our country.  Sitting through this movie helped me to remember why it is that we started Charter Learning Center seventeen years ago, and how many of the traits that highly successful charter schools have also apply to SCCLC and how lucky we are to be a part of a larger community that supports and cares about all of its schools.   I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts and reflections from the documentary.

Even though spending per pupil has doubled (in most states—not California) over the last fifteen years, outcomes for student achievement in both Math and Reading remain flat.  Compared to 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25/30 in Math and 23 out of 30 in Science.  Interestingly, our kids also scored first in self-confidence.  In states like Mississippi and Alabama, about 15% of students are proficient in Reading or Math.  And, the same is true in states across the country.  In New England, Connecticut and New York, only about 30% are proficient in reading and 35% proficient in Math.  In California, the numbers are closer to 25% for both subjects.  In Pennsylvania, 68% of their state inmates are high school dropouts.  We spend almost twice as much money keeping prisoners in jail than we do educating our kids.

Rather than harp on the problems associated with why schools cannot improve, the producer (Davis Guggenheim) of the documentary, Waiting For Superman, poses an interesting and credible thesis: In the past, the conventional wisdom has been that failing neighborhoods (breakdown of the family, community, etc) are the cause of the failing neighborhood schools across our country.  The new reformers are posing a different hypothesis.  Their hypothesis is that failing schools within our communities are the cause for our failing neighborhoods. It is a lie that disadvantaged kids cannot learn.

Guggenheim makes a compelling argument by focusing on those reformers that are not only making great strides in educating kids in those neighborhoods deemed “lost” by the local and state educational systems, but also showing how these reformers have been able to successfully replicate their program to reach hundreds of thousands of students around the country.

Guggenheim’s final comments at the end of the documentary drive home the point of the level of success of the current national charter school reform movement:

In top performing charter schools, kids improve their achievement.  Not just the poor kids, but all kids improve achievement.  All of the successful charter schools evaluated shared the same common traits:

  1. High Quality Teachers  (Deemed Most Important in any school—public or private)
  2. More class time than the traditional school hours each day and schools days per year
  3. School leaders willing to break down barriers in order to act and support high quality teaching and learning
  4. School Culture that promotes high expectations
  5. School Culture that Asks for Real Accountability for kids, teachers and for School Leaders
  6. World class standards for school achievement
  7. Families Committed to supporting a strong school community
  8. The Very Best Teachers in the classroom  (Cannot hurt to state it twice–it is that important)

Waiting For Superman illustrates in painful detail what is happening in today’s public schools.  It can be uncomfortable to watch as Guggenheim puts a mirror in front of us (and himself) and shows us what is happening to children in public schools around the country and how it appears that whether or not a child benefits from a good education is almost dependent upon what neighborhood your family resides.   But, there are beacons of hope in our neighborhoods and in our cities.  In the past, education reformers were identified as “one hit wonders” who could transform a school just by their force of personality.  But, it would be impossible to replicate their efforts on a larger scale.  However, this new crop of educational reformers is making a difference and they are showing great success in replicating these models:

  1. Harlem Success Academy: Geoffrey Canada is the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone. He has made it his mission to transform the upper borough of Manhattan with a Toddler – Grade 12 charter school program that will support children and their families from the very earliest ages all the way through college.  Every student who is behind in reading will have a 1:1 tutor to support them until they catch up with their reading skills.  This program is documenting outstanding achievement for kids in the poorest district in the state of New York.  More than 90% of their children live below the poverty line.
  2. KIPP Academies: Kip Levin and David Feinberg started their middle school charter organization in Houston on the idea that kids needed a longer school day and school year and a focused academic program.  Today, there are KIPP Academies in multiple states around the country making huge gains in student achievement.  More than 85% of their children live below the poverty line.
  3. Summit Prep Schools: Locally, Summit Prep offers a no frills academic program that has shown incredible success with its students.  Each year, more than 96% of their students go on to four-year colleges.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, Summit has a student body that reflects the demographics of their schools district.
  4. SEEDS Boarding Schools in Washington DC: This charter school organization started in 1997.  One of the founders, Rajiv Vinnakota, posed his own hypothesis: By taking children from their neighborhoods and housing and educating them, all within the same ten mile radius from their home, we can realize high achievement from even the most disadvantaged student. Students at SEEDS boarding schools (paid for through public monies) have demonstrated remarkable progress and growth over the last ten years.  It has been so successful that Maryland politicians changed their education laws to allow for public funding for public boarding schools.
  5. Aspire Schools: Founded by Don Shalvey and is one of the largest and most successful charter school organizations in the state of California.
  6. Green Dot Schools: Founded by Steve Barr.  This is also a large and very successful charter school organization focused mostly in Southern California.  But, it is my hope that they will make a presence in the SF area sometime soon.

This documentary does focus on charter schools as laboratories of innovation and their documented success.  And, like all large scale reform movements, some charter schools are clearly better than others.  And, there are many examples all around us of charter schools not performing well.  However, Guggenheim makes a strong case that this time around, the public charter school movement is a reform for public education that is truly transforming the quality of education for many of our children across this country because these reformers are able to replicate on a large scale.

The top ten percent of all charter schools have more than 90% of their kids attending four year colleges.  At these same high achieving  public charter schools, student achievement in reading jumps from the 30th percentile to the 80th percentile.  In math, student achievement jumps from 32nd percentile to the 78th percentile.  At Harlem Success Academies, 90% of all students score proficient in math.   This is extraordinary data given that the vast majority of these charter schools are planted in some of the most poor and chronically disadvantaged neighborhoods all around our country.

Please take the time to watch this documentary.  It inspires me in our work as leaders in both the local and the State of California Charter School Movement.

Christopher Mahoney

Director, San Carlos Charter Learning Center


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