I had the privilege of watching one of my eighth-graders play in the All Philadelphia Middle School Orchestra last week, and as I listened to him play, my mind wandered to the School Reform Commission's "plan" for Philadelphia public schools, and I tried to imagine where this young man (I'll call him Xavier) would be under a plan like the one the SRC wants to implement. The SRC plan calls for privatizing many "seats" in Philadelphia public school--giving them over to charters and allowing charters (as they do now) to pick off the most motivated families and students in the district. This would leave the students with unmotivated (or simply overwhelmed) families to the actual, true public schools.
Why would an obviously talented student like Xavier (he made the All City Orchestra, after all) be left behind under the SRC's new plan? Who wouldn't want a student who plays three instruments? Well, I'll tell you: no charter in this city would have accepted Xavier--they never would have had a chance to work with him and discover his talents. WHY? First of all, Xavier has a significant physical disability. Most charters in this city (and elsewhere) are not known for their eagerness to accept special-education students. Second, Xavier's guardian is an older, over-burdened family member who very rarely comes to meetings or even answers the phone! His basic needs are taken care of, but nothing truly over and above the basics gets done for him. Xavier's family loves him, but the work of bringing up a child as a senior citizen is hard. Charters are notorious for the hoops parents must jump through to even obtain an application, and Xavier's family simply would not expend the energy to get him in a special school. A charter operator was asked at an SRC meeting recently why the application for his school was not online--he flat-out admitted that his school wants to select "motivated families". Well, who wouldn't? The reality is that true public schools are supposed to educate ALL students, not just the ones with motivated families. Xavier was assigned to our public school because we had the capability to work with his particular disability--it was our duty to educate him no matter how difficult that task proved to be. Xavier could be a challenge in many ways, and--if our school had had a choice--there would have been times when we would have gladly "counseled him out" like many charters routinely do. Luckily, for him--and for us--it is not very easy for a regular public school to jettison a student. We were stuck with Xavier--and he with us--so our staff worked together to help him be successful. This required teachers, administrators, counselors, therapists, special education teachers, etc.... If our budgets are more severely cut to open additional charter schools, will we have the personnel to help the students who need it most, the students the charters (who will siphon off needed monies) will refuse to educate? I fear not. Because our school has an instrumental music program, and Xavier expressed interest, he was able to nurture his musical abilities to become the young man he is now: A performer who had a goal, was taught and encouraged by his music teacher, modified his behavior in required classes so he could attend music classes, and realized that goal. Xavier learned--in a regular North Philly public school--that he could be successful. Will our school be able to afford an instrumental music program next year? I am not a music teacher, but I appreciate the good our music program does for our students and our school. I appreciate what our school can do for a student like Xavier, and I appreciate what a student like Xavier can do for our school--we have helped each other grow and be better students, teachers, and people. Will the Xaviers of Philadelphia even get a chance under the SRC's plan? With management groups and charter operators in charge, will anyone take the time to nurture the difficult kids, the special education kids, the kids with overwhelmed or abusive families? Or will those kids truly become the "unwanted"--put together in under-funded schools without the resources to help them realize their potential? I truly hope not.