guest perspective

People who say geography means rural areas can’t share in Trump’s school choice vision are wrong. Here’s why

PHOTO: Danielle Scott / Creative Commons

Do some school choice programs make sense in rural America? For students like Paige Knutson, Daniel Lopez Gomez, and Merle Vander Weyst, the answer is certainly yes.

President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education insist that private-school vouchers are a good idea. I strongly disagree. But there are examples across America that show how public school choice options can help rural students and families. Having worked with rural schools for 28 years, I know that geography isn’t an insurmountable hurdle.

These options include district schools-within-schools, alternative and magnet schools, charter schools, distance learning options, and dual high school/college credit programs. With federal support, the best of them should be identified, strengthened and replicated.

Why? Let’s start with Paige, Daniel, and Merle.

Some years ago, Paige Knutson brought Minnesota legislators to tears as she explained how a rural Minnesota alternative school had saved her life. Knutson, an honor student and cheerleader, was the oldest in a large farm family that was in danger of losing their property. When she became pregnant, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the honor society. These weren’t appropriate responses from the school. But they were the reality.

She thought about taking her own life. Fortunately, a friend told her about a nearby alternative school that welcomed her. Her testimony helped convince Minnesota legislators to permit state per-pupil dollars to follow youngsters who attend alternative schools across district lines.

Dozens of communities in rural Minnesota, like Blackduck, Cass Lake, and Redwood Falls, host these alternative schools. One of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. is the annual MAAP STARS conference, where alternative school students perform, display projects, and earn statewide recognition.

Daniel Lopez Gomez is one of them. He came to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota from Guatemala in 2013, speaking little English. But he blossomed at the Worthington Alternative School. He recently was named “MAAP Student of the Year.”

Thousands of Minnesota students, many of them in rural communities, attend schools of choice, including but not limited to alternative public schools for youngsters with whom traditional schools have not succeeded.

Merle Vander Wyste, who attends the online Blue Sky Charter School, represents another form of rural school choice. Online schools, including Blue Sky, aren’t successful with all students. But they work very well for some young people.

In an award-winning essay, Vander Wyste explained:

“I was never popular in school. Because of bullying I suffered from social anxiety and depression. I often had suicidal thoughts. In my own home, I didn’t have other students telling me how I needed to act. I did not have anyone pressuring me to try drugs. No one told me that the brand of clothing I was wearing was inadequate. I was able to experience my own personal growth as a person.

Attending Blue Sky Charter School has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to continue my education in a safe, relaxed setting in my home … I work better at night … and I am able to schedule lessons around work or another activity.”

There are other forms of school choice that work in rural settings. They include:

District schools within schools: One way for rural districts to offer more choices is to innovate within the space they already occupy. Forest Lake, Minnesota features two schools in one building, one of which is Central Montessori Elementary. For many years, International Falls Elementary School did the same — one school had traditional grade-level classrooms, and the other operated more like a one-room schoolhouse, with several grades of students working with each other.

Rural charter schools: Most charter schools aren’t in rural areas. But some are: According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 732 rural charters enrolling nearly 200,000 students in 2014-15 school year. Charisse Gulosino has provided fascinating maps of rural charters located, for example, on rural American Indian reservations. She also noted that rural charters serve a slightly higher percentage of low-income students than the national average. One of the most well-known is in tiny Henderson, Minnesota, where students at the Minnesota New Country School study and contribute to the local community.

Dual-credit programs: Minnesota and Washington allow 11th and 12th graders to spend time on a college campus (or in Minnesota, to take college courses on a campus or online), with state funds following students paying for the tuition. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law also pays for the students’ books and lab fees. Thousands of rural students use these great programs.

I hope that President-elect Trump, DeVos, and Congress will listen to rural, as well as urban and suburban, families that are making great use of these opportunities. Using multiple measures, the federal government can help identify the best of these programs. Then it can help share information, expand and replicate those that are unusually successful.

Joe Nathan has been a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, National Governors Association project coordinator, researcher, advocate and weekly newspaper columnist. He directs the Center for School Change.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.