CharterFolk Contributor Christine Ferris – Small Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Christine Ferris, Executive Director, Highline Academy Charter Schools. Christine provides this vignette from a larger writing project she is completing and would appreciate any feedback CharterFolk would like to provide.

Chris Ferris, Executive Director of Highline Academy Charter Schools in Denver.

I provide Christine’s bio below.

Christine Ferris has been the Executive Director of Highline Academy Charter Schools since 2016. She founded and led Our Community School, a K-8 charter school in Los Angeles CA from 2005 to 2013. She is a writer of personal essays and a memoir about her experience leading Our Community School. She currently lives in Denver CO.

Seven-year-old Bethany would come find me in the middle of the day for hugs because her dad and mine had the same kind of cancer. Ruby’s mom would take my kids home with her afterschool and take care of them until I finished up my work as the school principal. The teachers would come over to my house for dinner. We didn’t only know all our students’ names, we knew who needed extra lunch, who had a new puppy, who had a talent for drawing, and whose mom was out of town. We knew each other like a family. This is the gift of a very small school, to be known wholly in a community of learners.

Major school districts around the country are facing large declines in enrollment in public schools. People have been having fewer children since 2009. People with children are being priced out of cities by gentrification and have moved into surrounding suburbs. The pandemic pushed many people into other options such as home schooling and private school, and they haven’t all returned. All of these things are true. Districts across the country are struggling to decide how small a school can be before it gets closed down. It can be expensive to run under enrolled school buildings. Budget constraints make it impossible to have art, music, a school nurse, and a counselor.

The year we opened our charter school we had 150 students enrolled. They were unevenly spread across grades K-6. We had full classes of Kindergarteners and of first graders and then only half classes of second through fifth grade but a full class of sixth graders. It was a small school, but one we hoped and expected would grow. Some teachers taught split grades to make it work. There was no extra anything. Classroom teachers had to be PE and Art teachers. The office secretary had to be the school nurse and the counselor. As the school leader I was also the substitute teacher, the plumber, and the HR department. We counted every dime spent on phone bills, photocopies, and markers. It seemed like the children ate the markers they disappeared so fast. We asked families to donate Kleenex, pencils, playground balls, and cleaning wipes. We asked families to come in on the weekends and do light repairs and major cleaning projects like repainting a hallway. We rented a shared space from a local church that included a large grass field for the kids to play on and the occasional use of the chapel for school assemblies. We had to lower the movie screen to hide the baptismal tub from view.  

If districts want to keep their small schools open despite low enrollments they will have to borrow some of the flexibilities of charter schools and adjust their expectations for what a good school needs to include. The school may have to make due with part time staff shared with other schools. Students will be unlikely to have art, music, and PE. Teachers may have to teach awkward split grades like 17 third graders and 6 second graders, have fewer breaks in the day, and be responsible for extra duties. The district could find other uses for portions of the school building to bring in funds and then plan for the safety issues that will bring up. Unlike a startup school that is growing, the staff will have to withstand the demoralizing loss of teachers as staff is cut each year to right size the staff to the student enrollment. With the extreme shortage of teachers, that we are also facing across the country, will enough teachers want to work under these conditions? Will parents accept the compromises necessary or will they move their students into other larger schools to find the full array of services?

Running a small school was hard and also beautiful. The students played together across grade levels during recess, and all of them sang the songs our music teacher taught them: If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out, This Land is Your Land. We all shared in each child’s journey like the day shy Kayla spoke in front of the whole school assembly that brought us all to tears and the growth Dylan made in learning to control his temper that gave us hope that each of us is capable of change. Any start up charter can tell a similar story of the exciting, intimate first years when you made it happen all on a shoestring. Sometimes hard things are worth doing and sometimes they are impossible.  Whether small schools should be kept open despite how hard it will be or if they should be closed and absorbed into neighboring schools is a more complicated question than just economies of scale. I can’t say I know the answer, but I hope each district will weigh the worth of deep personal relationships in children’s lives at this moment as part of the equation.

Bats in the Eaves of Public Education | Homecoming on Vouchers

Good day, CharterFolk.

I start today providing a coda to my column in August about Mile High regulation. The school I wrote about in that post, 5280 Freedom School, finally had their charter approved by Denver Public Schools last week.

And so the Rocky Mountain of regulation that was thrown at the school through it’s petition-approval process came down to the school board voting unanimously without comment to approve the charter on one condition:

That the school demonstrate that it has enough kids to open.

A completely reasonable condition.

No one wants to see a school open that hasn’t recruited enough families to be viable.

So now we will see what happens next fall.

If only all new charter considerations could keep a similar focus, rather than heaping on developers thousands of pages of nonsense having absolutely nothing to do with serving students and families well.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

Bats in the Eaves of Public Education

This weekend I was at a gathering of ed reformers. Back home it was homecoming weekend. A couple hours before the scheduled Saturday evening dance, a text came in from Quentin saying that he wasn’t going after all.

A story in the paper the next morning confirmed the reason:

Bats were found in the gym.

It’s a story that went viral across the nation.

At least it’s nice for Davis to be famous for something other than NIMBYism.

But for those of us interested in ed reform, the image of the postponed dance is emblematic of the broader challenge that we face.

Bats have been shown to be hanging in the eaves of public education.

And yet, we struggle to come forward with new policy ideas that would address the issues that have been lurking in the dark.

Part of it, as I wrote last Tuesday, stems from a lack of creativity.

Another part of it, I wrote on Thursday, comes from a reticence among some to think of ourselves as being part of something bigger.

Still another part grows out of being limited by our own ideologies.

When someone breaks ranks, like a Democratic gubernatorial candidate speaking in favor of vouchers …

… we don’t know what to make of it.

Though our adversaries certainly do.

But it’s not just vouchers.

In recent months, I’ve heard CharterFolk say similar things about proposals to expand cross-attendance-boundary and cross-school-district choice for parents.

Sentiments I’ve heard resemble the following:

“Why would we take a position on that? What’s it got to do with charter schools?”

And of course, in many contexts, expressing support for any additional form of pressure on status quo interests only subjects us to even harsher blowback, inclining many of us to keep our heads even lower.

Which in my view is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.

It just cedes more space to the bats to swoop through.

In my view, where we come down on matters such as these will ultimately determine who we are.

It will reveal whether we end up being the equivalent of just some big trade association concerned only with our own parochial self interests, or whether we end up being understood to be a movement making a contribution to a noble effort far larger than ourselves.

If our orientation ends up being that we don’t support parents having any choices except those allowing them to send their kids to our very own schools, well, we’ll have demonstrated ourselves to have become a trade association.

But if we prove able to support parents and students getting to a broad range of new choices, some of which but not all being opportunities to attend our own schools – then we will have shown ourselves to be something far more.

The question then becomes, what are the kinds of choices that align with our collective values?

Do we support open enrollment laws like California’s that give school districts the right to screen out the very kids who need better education most?

Here’s how I described it in a post from last October.

Were we to allow such openly discriminatory laws to spread even further across our country, it would only serve to lengthen the fangs of that which hangs in the eaves of public education.

A Homecoming on Vouchers

Meanwhile, voucher programs, depending upon their design …

… can offer schooling that is greatly more public …

… than that which is offered by many so-called public schools …

… even if those parties who should most recognize their value, sadly can’t or won’t.

At the same time, it is certainly possible to conceive of voucher programs whose design would be so antithetical to what we would consider greatly more public education that we should never be in support of them.

It’s why, in my view, it’s incumbent upon us in the next chapter of our shared work to come home on these issues.

Not saying that we are going to oppose all vouchers programs simply because they are voucher programs, but finally articulating the design characteristics of voucher and other choice programs that align with our quest to bring greatly more public education to all students.

Things like:

  • Ensuring that low income students and other historically underserved students are given priority:
  • Ensuring that vouchers are means-tested to provide additional resources to lower income families;
  • Ensuring that receiving schools may not use selective admissions that screen out kids by race and class;
  • And ensuring that academic achievement at receiving schools is being monitored so that underperforming schools may be held appropriately accountable.

To name but a few.

And I know in this era of the Supreme Court likely insisting upon the inclusion of religiously affiliated schools in choice programs that the issues we will have to contend with are only going to get more complicated and contentious in the future.

But grappling with these conundrums, I believe, is exactly where CharterFolk are needed most.

Not that we’ll ever make advancing broader school choice proposals as much of an advocacy priority as ones assisting charter schools.

But a balance.

Returning to where I think we would have always been if blood politics in many contexts hadn’t dislodged us from where we’re supposed to be.

A homecoming.

Postponed perhaps.

But, ultimately, right where we’re supposed to be.