CharterFolk Contributor Sonia Park – Playground Politics

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am pleased to share with you a Contributor Column from Sonia Park, Executive Director of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition.

I provide an excerpt of her biography from the DCSC website:

Sonia’s been working in education reform for over 20 years.  Prior to DCSC she served under Secretary John King at the US Department of Education as a Senior Policy Advisor and also was the Executive Director of Charter Schools Accountability and Support in the NYC Department of Education under Chancellor Denis Walcott. In addition to leading Manhattan Charter Schools, a two-school charter network located in lower Manhattan, her work experiences include the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, NY Charter Schools Resource Center, NY Charter Schools Association, and Edison Schools.

Sonia’s piece grew out of a recent conversation where we talked about the importance of providing better coaching to people who find themselves in conversations where they are challenged for their support of charter schools. There’s a lot of smart thinking in this post along those lines. Many thanks to Sonia for sharing it with us.


Playground Politics

“Why would you do that?”

Thus began another conversation at Carroll Park, one of the playgrounds in our Brooklyn neighborhood.  The question came from a Mom Friend as we watched our 4-year old sons run and climb.  We were discussing schools, THE top-of-mind topic among our playdate group. This question was in reaction to my saying that in addition to our zoned school and my son taking the gifted and talented test, we were also applying to charter schools.  

That question of WHY a charter school reflected some of the common misconceptions held by my liberal neighbors: charters ‘picked’ students, pushed out students, were draconian in discipline policies and programming, and were for ‘those’ students whose parents couldn’t figure out a way to get into a ‘good’ school.  When it came to school choice, it was somehow okay to be savvy enough to navigate one’s way to a ‘good’ school yet making choice universal and open, like applying to a charter school, was problematic. That Saturday morning, I was in Mom mode, but always close to the surface was my charter advocate.  Here was another opportunity to talk about charters, choice, and access.

Most of my career has been in the charter sector as a developer, authorizer, advocate, and parent.  Being open to this type of conversation is a part of advocacy.  I was willing to be that conduit to charter schools for the playground parents. This step often makes more of an impact than mailers or advertisements. Parents talk and listen to other parents. 

That friend was genuinely curious, and just a touch dubious.  Our conversations about schools reflected our socioeconomic status as middle class parents living in Brownstone Brooklyn with all schools and programmatic options on the table: district, Gifted and Talented, dual language, independent, parochial, and charter.  In the complicated educational landscape of New York City, there are 32 community school districts (CSD) under one overarching New York City District.  And within each CSD are the zoned schools with boundaries that bring some families into a neighborhood, sometimes pricing others out.  

At that time, over 12 years ago in CSD 15, there were over 25 different zoned elementary schools, a few dual-language programs (including French), three G & T programs, four independent schools, two parochial schools, and three charter schools.  

The playground moms knew which schools were deemed desirable based on academic performance, racial composition, and economic status.  Diversity was great, as long as it was palatable but not overwhelming, i.e., including disadvantaged students of color from our immediate neighborhood but not to the extent of CSD 15 overall. Basically, more white and middle class.  Even school buildings that looked more diverse were internally segregated based on test-in programs like G & T and dual language.  (CSD 15 is where the podcast Nice White Parents takes place.)

Though our district is among the most diverse in NYC in regards to race and socioeconomic status, the schools are not. The sought after schools, district or independent, had populations that were, and still are, more white and wealthy.  

Some families I knew did what they thought was necessary to get the ‘right seat’, including renting a separate apartment within a desired attendance zone, paying for private tutors for the G & T and ISEE (independent school) tests, practicing mock interviews with their children, and hiring caregivers that are bilingual. Not all people in the neighborhood could afford to do such things; but in the world of Brownstone Brooklyn, these extremes were normalized.  Equity was an infrequent topic; access (getting as much of it as possible) was the focus. 

This focus on access hoarding is one that I keenly felt.  As a child of immigrants, I moved frequently because of our family’s financial status. I experienced firsthand the possibilities and limitations that being in a certain zoned school can confer.  Who was in my class, who was in front of the class, and the resources we had were directly impacted by that zone.  I experienced schools as de facto segregated spaces. Looking back, I see that those invisible barriers were a default mechanism that segregated students along lines of race and economic status.  As a parent with my own child, I was experiencing this again, but this time from the position of now being able to circumvent those barriers and make another choice. 

That Curious Mom on the playground was doing everything that she could for her son.  She was sending him to a tutor for the G & T exam, had gone on interviews for private schools, and was contemplating ‘redshirting’ him (holding him back a year before starting kindergarten).  

My response was to question back: What are you looking for in a school?  

Mom: Okay, but how do you get in?

Me: Via application and lottery.

Mom: Don’t we have to qualify for free lunch to apply? Don’t a lot of Black and Brown kids go to charters (not that this is a problem…)? 

Me:  Glad it’s not a problem for you.  Lots of kids go to charter schools.  They offer a choice to families that in some neighborhoods may be the only alternative to a failing school.  You don’t have to qualify for FRL.  There are no entrance exams, no interviews, or mandated school tours.  Preference is given if you’re in the same CSD and for siblings.  Sometimes the lottery is weighted in favor of students considered at-risk but you aren’t barred from applying. 

Mom: That’s it?  But really, don’t I have to talk to the principal or know someone who works there to get in?  

Me: Nope.  Fill out an application for an available seat.  

Our conversation continued and I had several more with other parents.  The prospect of a high quality school being available – for free and without an exam – pulled people in.  And the realization that one couldn’t put a thumb on the scale in their favor made them uncomfortable.  School choice for everyone?  When equity is applied across the board, it can be a shock to those that expect to use relationships, status and wealth to gain access. 

The number of charters available in CSDs 13 and 15 has grown to 21.  The newer charters offer a range of programs and designs (e.g. international baccalaureate at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School; dual language Spanish at LEEP Academy Charter School; student-centered, project-based learning at Brooklyn Urban Gardens Charter School) and also seek to serve students that truly reflect their communities.  By founding a charter school, these leaders believe in choice for families; and many of them also believe in putting equity and access at their core of their schools. The vision that all students should be able to learn together to live together has led to the growth of intentionally integrated charter schools in Brooklyn and across the country.  

The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, the organization I lead, is a member-created coalition that supports, expands, and promotes the work of diverse-by-design leaders and schools.  Our vision is that an ever-growing number of American public schools, including many charter schools, will embody the diversity of our nation’s people – across race, socioeconomic status, language and abilities – while preparing the children in their care to pursue higher education, meaningful and sustainable work in a global economy, and an equal role in a more cohesive and connected participatory democracy.

In the end, many of the playdate parents applied to charter schools as a “might as well.” Some of them were offered seats and a few of them actually accepted. My Mom Friend got her son into a citywide G & T K-8 program and was thrilled. We got pulled off the waitlist at Manhattan Charter School and spent K-5 there very happy.  

Within a few years after attending the citywide G & T school, my Mom Friend ended up being dissatisfied. She realized that her school dealt with race and inequity by ignoring it. The belief was that since students all tested in, they were all the same.  

She asked me what I knew about Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and its philosophy that families shouldn’t have to choose between strong academics and a diverse and inclusive community. She heard on the playground that it’s a good school. 

She applied.