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How Peninsula Charter Schools Succeed

Charter School advocates and union leaders discuss their take on the contentious issue of charter schools and specifically how to evaluate teachers.

As the school year fast approaches, many parents and their children are anxiously awaiting word on whether they were accepted off the waiting list to some of the Peninsula’s top charter schools.

Schools such as and the East Palo Alto Charter School are known for low drop-out rates and boast far higher college acceptance numbers than their public school counterparts.

In the much spoken-about 2010 , non-union charter schools are portrayed as the end-all, be-all solution to the issues of underperforming schools.

Patch set out this week to talk to charter school advocates and union leaders about the pros and cons of charter schools and how best to develop them.

Todd Dickson, the former Executive Director of Summit Prep, one of the schools featured in “Waiting for Superman”, described charter schools as having greater autonomy than most schools, giving them the flexibility to try innovative approaches.

Dickson, who is currently working to develop several new charter schools in Nashville, said that one misconception about charter schools is that they do not have to teach all students. Admission is done by process of a random selection lottery.

Another benefit Dickson sees of charter schools is the fact that they have “great control over the hiring and firing of teachers.”

Though Dickson does not see himself as having ‘anti-union’ views, he expressed concern that many unionized public school teachers are judged solely on seniority when it comes to salary increases.

Salary increases, Dickson said, should come from improved performance.

“Public schools give salary increases even if there’s no evidence a teacher is improving,” said Dickson.

Teachers’ salaries at public schools in California can go up to $100,000 per year for senior teachers.

Dickson professed no objection to improving salary with experience, however, he stressed that the more experienced teachers should be required to illustrate how their experience has improved their teaching.

“As you’re a 15 or 17 year teacher making more, I would expect that you demonstrate your value and that the outcomes of your kids are so much better than those of younger teachers,” said Dickson.

Redwood City Teachers Union Head Brett Baird insisted that Teachers Unions have no objections to charter schools provided that they are staffed with unionized teachers.

“I’m all for parents doing right by their kids,” said Baird.

California Teachers Association Spokesperson Mike Myslinsky also expressed no specific objection to charter schools, but voiced skepticism about many of their practices.

In terms of teacher pay, Myslinsky said that teachers’ unions oppose performance based pay because performance is often based on students’ test scores.

“We oppose using standardized test scores when measuring ability,” said Myslinsky, who added that he believed seniority often corresponds with performance.

When it comes to the process by which teachers are held accountable for poor performance, Myslinsky stressed that while teachers unions are also concerned about poor quality teachers, they do not believe the ‘at-will’ employment contracts at non-unionized charter schools will fix that problem.

“Many teachers are dismissed at the whim of a charter school owner without just cause,” said Myslinsky.

But for some charter school principals such as East Palo Alto Charter School’s Sharon Johnson, unions are not needed because teachers’ points-of-view are listened to and often put into practice by the administration.

“Teachers have a voice directly here in decisions,” said Johnson, whose graduating classes have a 100% acceptance rate to colleges.

Johnson added that teacher pay at East Palo Alto Charter School is competitive with other schools in the region, and that the mostly young teaching staff is given ample opportunity to develop more teaching skills throughout their tenure.

For the California Teachers Association, however, teacher compensation is as much about preserving a middle class lifestyle as it is about rewarding performance.

“Teachers should be able to afford to live in the districts they teach in,” said Myslinsky.

“There are many teachers in Palo Alto or San Mateo or Burlingame who cannot afford to live there.”

Editor's Note: The original article included North Star Academy--and noted it was a magnet school--in this article. However, it was removed due to the inaccurate inclusion as a charter school.

Glen Jones August 08, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Until someone comes up with a statistical valid and fair way to assess teachers no progress will be made. Start there. It is a very difficult problem or would be solved already. The models from private businesses do not work well.
Miriam Finder (Editor) August 08, 2012 at 10:14 PM
I agree that assessing teachers is a very real and hard problem. My mother and older sister are both teachers and often debate the best way to assess success. Any teachers out there care to chime in?
Jeni August 30, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Just my two cents: charter schools succeed because they're often allowed to make their own rules and decide on the curriculum and school policies. Second, any "discipline problem" kid is automatically allowed to enroll in the school for which he is zoned, and the school is legally obligated to accept him. No parent is willing to admit that THEIR kid is the one who all of the teachers and administrators want to avoid and not have to deal with. Charter schools, however, have the right to dis-enroll any student who is a disruption, if their charter states their policy on behavior. Also, many charter schools have lengthy and in-depth enrollment procedures. This helps weed out many of the students who have severe behavior problems and their parents. Students who are discipline cases are not going to be willing to go through all of the steps and procedures to apply for a charter school. Hence, many charter schools frequently get mostly good kids whose parents were willing to fill out the paperwork and do all that it takes to get their child enrolled, including showing up for the lottery.
Andrew Peceimer August 30, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Jeni, Sounds like less government regulation with schools is a winning formula. Similar as to why eye sugery costs have gone down. Free markets and competition are always good. Obama Care is a great exmpale of a of lose lose program. Costs go up and service will go down.
Jeni August 30, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Mr. Peceimer, I understand that you have a conservative agenda and would like to use any and every forum to convince others to vote Republican. I further understand that you are unhappy with Obama's policies and feel that it trickles down into the schools. However, this Patch article is not politically-inclined, nor is it claiming that due to politics or the government, public schools are failing. The title is "How Charter Schools Succeed." I feel that the article focuses on strategies and policy implementation that allows charter schools to run things how they wish. It's cause and effect: charter schools often care more about the needs of its students and taking care of its teachers. As a result, the number of teachers who apply for positions at charter schools far outnumbers the number of candidates applying for teaching jobs in public schools. Why would an educator want to work in a public school where she has to "teach to the test," put up with kids who are severe discipline problems with parents who accept no responsibility for their behavior, and receive no benefit or reward (merit pay) for increasing test scores? There's a reason why Summit was featured in Waiting for Superman and why many charter schools have long waiting lists of students yearning to get in. Charter schools create their own rules and policies and have a lengthy admission process. The result is higher-achieving students who WANT to be there!
Glen Jones August 30, 2012 at 02:19 AM
A little generalization here, but should we have segregation in schools based on parents wanting them to be in that school? I actually think it isn't a bad idea, but politically delicate. Why shouldn't we group the highest achieving students together and let them excel at their own pace. Teachers are often so busy in a public school with discipline with 4 or 5 students that a lot of teaching time is lost. I do think a good model would be having high achievers work with low achievers that are motivated and supported to raise levels for all, but I do think there is also a place for students who have no desire to learn and are just disruptive.

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