Last night I attended the Camden School District’s latest town hall, part of a series of meetings specifically designed to familiarize Camden residents with the new charter groups that will be “turning around” schools in the fall. It was inspirational to see education professionals committed to their students and parents. It was also only half a conversation. By not releasing the names of the schools that will be “turned around,” the Camden School District has assured that parents and community members hear from charters, but not from traditional schools slated to be replaced.
As more teachers have pulled me aside or written to me, I’ve been inspired by the remarkable work that goes on in their classrooms. There is something powerful about hearing life-long educators share their passion for their work. Sadly, because we don’t know what schools are being turned into charters, it is impossible to allow teachers and schools to share these stories and defend their schools. Camden teachers, administrators and students, who have long done thankless work under difficult circumstances, won’t have the same courtesy extended to them as was extended to Mastery and Uncommon Schools. There is no town hall for Camden teachers and schools to tell us of their good work before their schools are taken over.
Inky reporter Julia Terruso rightly described these town halls by saying they “took on the feel of two marketing groups pitching brands to customers.” I left the town hall wondering what it would look like if we had a school district that went to the same lengths to give our traditional schools and teachers that opportunity.
But they were not, and so the night was filled with half a conversation. Mastery and Uncommon presented their plans to replace schools, while doing their best to avoid talking about the (unannounced) schools they would replace.
The mask only slipped once that I saw (the meeting had the “pitches” from the charters, then split into four separate small groups, so I couldn’t watch everything). Mastery’s Erin Trent, the Director of Community Engagement and Public Affairs, stated, “the vast majority of children are not learning at schools.” It seemed a tremendously unfair statement, given that the school district still hasn’t announced which schools will be “turned around,” and that these schools weren’t given the same opportunity to defend themselves, and highlight their accomplishments, as Mastery and Uncommon Schools were.
Blaming schools (and teachers) for low-test scores ignores the basic consensus of educational research, which shows test scores are a far better reflection of demographics and socio-economic factors than school or teacher quality. It also ignores Camden’s specific history, where the very system they lament as “failing” already has quite a few charters, and has seen at least one nationally recognized charter (KIPP) have a school struggle only to have KIPP pull its name from the school rather than try to right the ship. Improving education in Camden isn’t as simple as bringing in a new group of people and starting over, something parents made clear when they emphasized the benefits of having teachers and role-models from their communities (and, in fairness, something that is reflected in other parts of the Camden Commitment strategy).
The saddest piece to this whole thing is that we should be embracing our current teachers and schools, not alienating them. Their firsthand knowledge of Camden and Camden’s history are great assets in the ongoing mission to improve our schools. Instead, that was the voice missing from the town hall, and teachers are left in limbo to wonder what will happen to their sick days, their relationships with students, and their jobs while new schools are already recruiting new teachers.
Teachers who have chosen to work in Camden shouldn’t be left in the dark, without the opportunity to defend their schools or plan for their futures. Until Camden’s teachers and community members are afforded full information and given the opportunity to make the same case for their schools and their work as Uncommon Schools and Mastery make for theirs, we are only having half a conversation.