Churchill: Charter schools and school choice give poor children a … – Times Union

Students at the new Destine Preparatory Charter School at 530 Franklin St. in Schenectady.
SCHENECTADY — Student test scores aren’t everything. They don’t tell us all that’s important about a school or its teachers. They don’t say whether a school is nurturing, for example, or whether its students are happy.
But when we read that only 12 percent of Schenectady public school students, including just four percent of the district’s Black children, passed the state math test given in grades three through eight, we should take those alarming results seriously. They represent stunted potential. They illustrate failure. 
“This is truly a wake-up call if there is one,” Arianne Craig Jolla said to Times Union education reporter Kathleen Moore. 
Jolla, an education expert who founded a private school in New Orleans, isn’t wrong. But in truth, we’ve been sleeping through the struggles of the poorer kids who predominate in districts like Schenectady for generations. We shrug our shoulders. We stick with the status quo. Ho-hum. What else is new?
Given the problems in Schenectady, which this year had the worst math results for Black students among the 40 high-needs districts in New York, the city should welcome any new option for its students with a parade and fireworks. It should ring church bells and festoon buildings with bunting. But, no.
Before it even opened, the new Destine Preparatory Charter School was denounced by two area politicians, Phil Steck and Angelo Santabarbara. In a joint statement issued when the school was seeking approval from the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, the Assemblymembers derided Destine Prep as a burden and a diversion.
“Schenectady has the most diverse school board in the history of the city,” said Steck and Santabarbara, who live in Loudonville and Rotterdam, respectively. “We have confidence that the school board will ensure a fair and equitable education for all students so that Schenectady will once again be a leader among all public schools in the nation, as it was years ago.”
It’s great that Steck and Santabarbara have such confidence, but there’s no reason anybody else should. Poor families in cities like Schenectady have been waiting for change for generations and yet it never arrives, creating repeating cycles of poverty. Wealthier families can move or send their children to private schools; poor kids are stuck.
How dare Steck and Santabarbara reject a choice for those kids?
Of course, both men are members of a Democratic Party that walks in lockstep with teachers’ unions. And those unions regard charter schools and other shocks to the established order as existential threats. But isn’t a shock exactly what low test scores and dismal graduation rates demand?
While Schenectady and other struggling districts have great and caring teachers — and students who succeed — the system as it exists isn’t working for too many kids. Many teachers admit that, privately. Why can’t we accept that if a school district fails to educate students, they deserve a chance to go elsewhere?
To my mind, Democrats are to education what Republicans are to health care. They know the existing framework leaves too many people behind and yet they have a knee-jerk reaction against change. They offer few answers that don’t involve doubling down on the status quo.
“Charter schools are an idea that did not pan out,” Steck and Santabarbara claimed without evidence in their statement.
That will be news to staff and students at the Albany Leadership Charter School for Girls, which graduates 91 percent of its students within four years, according to state data, and claims a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Nearly all its students come from economically disadvantaged homes.
It would likewise surprise the folks at Green Tech High Charter School, also in Albany, which has an 88 percent four-year graduation rate and similarly sends a high percentage of its students to college. Nearly 70 percent of its students are poor, the state says, and 96 percent are Black, Latino or multi-racial.
How does it succeed? Teresa Haig Nicol, the school’s acting principal, said Green Tech demands standards and accountability, focuses on social and emotional growth, and is quick to intervene when kids fall short.
“We have a culture that says this is how you live in this building,” she told me, later adding: “We’ve wrapped our arms around each and every one of our students, and they know they count.”
Though Nicol said many new students initially resist Green Tech’s demands, it might be true that charter schools succeed in part because they attract parents who are atypically committed to education. That’s a common knock against charters, used to downplay their successes. Though they receive taxpayer money, they just aren’t like traditional public schools.
OK, but are we to believe that the many struggling students in Schenectady all have apathetic parents who wouldn’t choose something different if they could? I don’t buy it.
That brings us back to Destine Prep, Schenectady’s only charter school, which for now offers kindergarten and first-grade classes but intends to expand. The downtown school isn’t off to an easy start.
Destine Prep was OK’d to open by the city’s planning commission only weeks ahead of the school year due to lingering questions about its traffic, and officials continue to spar with the school over details of its operation. At a recent meeting, one commission member upbraided the school for paving and striping its parking lot without approval. The nerve!
Yes, the city is within its rights to want a safe traffic plan, but, given the latest test scores, I can’t help but wonder if the planning commission is missing the forest for the trees. Its approach seems antagonistic, as if Destine Prep is an unwanted interloper in a city where everything is going swimmingly.
In an interview, Destine Prep founder Re’Shawn Rogers credited the city school district for working cooperatively with the charter but said the response from much of city government has been chilly. He noted that hardly any Schenectady officials, including the mayor, have bothered to visit, though City Hall is but a block away.
“Our opening is a feat for the city, not just us,” Rogers said. “But I don’t get the feeling that people feel that way.”
The point here isn’t to suggest that charter schools are the solution for every student, in Schenectady or elsewhere. And Destine Prep might not succeed. Part of the beauty of charters is that, unlike traditional public schools, they close when they don’t live up to expectations.
But the school is, at least, a challenge to a status quo that we should consider intolerable. Destine Prep is giving some Schenectady parents a choice, and perhaps giving their children a better chance.
[email protected] ■ 518-454-5442 ■ @chris_churchill
Churchill is one of the most well-known names, and faces, at the Times Union. His columns – published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays – are shared heavily on social media and have won several awards. Churchill studied English and history at the University of Texas before beginning his journalism career at small weeklies in Maine, later working at the Biddeford Journal Tribune, Waterville Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal newspapers. He started at the Times Union as a business writer in 2007 and became a columnist in 2012. Reach him at [email protected] or 518-454-5442.

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