Charter schools will help at-risk students

March 24, 2014 

I recently retired from a 30-year teaching career with a smile and a sense of satisfaction, a job I thought well done.

During the following weeks and months, I spent a considerable amount of time sifting through what I called my happy drawer full of letters and cards sent to me throughout my years of teaching from both current and former students — my successes. What I couldn’t find in my drawer but did remain in my memory were the students that still haunted me, the lost students.

I have no drawer for these students, just faces that periodically flicker through my mind like a light show blinking across a screen. After many years, I can still pull from these files tucked away in my memory the pictures of these lost children. I always wonder if their outcome would have been different had charter schools been an option during their formative years of education.

I close my eyes and vividly recall the picture of the Native American boy who could always make me laugh with his mischievous sense of humor and a smile that lit up the room. I tutored him for the last three months of his eighth grade year at the Tribal Center because he was too disruptive to keep in the classroom. Counseling and special education classes had already failed him.

I remember vividly the cute, vivacious, curly redheaded girl in one of my language arts classes. Full of energy and personality, she found it difficult to sit still or be quiet in any of her classes.

Her father was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. She missed him terribly and talked about him incessantly. Not surprisingly she had difficulty focusing on her schoolwork, placing her in the at-risk category.

Then there was the quiet, soft-spoken Hispanic student who was still struggling with the English language. He found writing a full-page essay tortuous. When he finally completed a successful composition and read it aloud, the class applauded his achievement.

The image of the pride that filled his face is permanently burned in my memory. Unfortunately this was not enough to successfully carry him through to high school graduation.

In the state of Washington, 22.8 percent of high school students didn’t graduate on time in the 2011-2012 school year. The majority of students who make up this grouping fall into the following three categories: low income, minority and special education students. (See Report to the Legislature: SPI’s Graduation and Dropout Statistics Annual Report 2011-12).

Yet a portion of our society fights the opportunity to provide these struggling students with the alternatives offered by charter schools that, according to the 2013 National Charter School Study completed by Stanford University, especially benefit this population of students.

Teachers continue to present educational programs that provide outstanding results under what has become increasing pressure to perform. Our teachers are dedicated, hard-working individuals who donate time and effort far beyond their contracted hours.

For 30 years I had the privilege to stand beside my coworkers and watch with awe at their perseverance to set and reach goals for their students. Their work compelled me to follow their guidelines, to keep pace. Current rising improvement in test scores document their efforts.

And yet in spite of their hard work, there are still those children left behind.

Choice and diversity define our free society. When students leave high school, they can choose a state or private college, a liberal arts school or a college that specializes in vocational education and everything in-between. They can opt to skip college altogether and become an apprentice in a vocation or receive training in another work setting, or become the future entrepreneurs of our society.

These choices depend upon a supportive educational system whose foundation is built upon diversity and creativity. Charter schools help to meet this demand. As Assistant Attorney General Dave Stolier said in his recent argument to the King County Superior Court, “the charter does exactly what the Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to do: continue to innovate and change to meet the needs of Washington children.”

Of the eight charter schools in Washington that have to date completed their applications and been approved for operation, six focus on at-risk students. Hurray for positive change.

Cathy Smith is a retired public school teacher and a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at scathy04@gmail.com.

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