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McGrath: Charter schools squeeze wallets, kids’ futures

Updated: April 26, 2012 8:18AM



During my first week of teaching at a Chicago high school, I was nervous and a bit intimidated. It was an old building in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and there were not enough desks for all the students in my sophomore English class.

After the bell rang, I stood behind an antique oak podium and surveyed the group. The teenagers seated at their desks, and 10 more standing in the last row in front of the windows, stared back at me.

“This morning’s agenda consists of orientation, along with some Q&A with respect to our behavioral objectives,” I said. Silence.

“Man, speak English,” said a tall young man standing in the back.

Laughter.

“Mister, I gotta pee,” said someone seated in the middle.

Bedlam.

Thus began nearly 10 weeks of constant talking, noise and general chaos.

I was only five or six years older than my students, but the difference might just as well have been 50. In spite of all I wanted to teach them, I spent most of each class vainly trying to establish order. After weeks of cajoling and shouting, I was desperate.

So I resorted to general and individual threats, declaring that passing English II would be tied to abiding by a set of classroom rules. I announced I would deduct grade points for every minor infraction. Tardy to class, minus 10 points. Speaking out of turn, minus 20. Standing before the bell rang, minus 15.

Ultimately, my plan was a disaster. Before too long, my students were on their way to amassing hundreds of point deductions because rather than an effective disciplinary measure, the plan was a self-perpetuating cascade of punishment. It failed to improve behavior while causing the students to be more resentful and angry.

I am reminded of my earliest teaching debacle by the recent revelation that the Noble Network Charter Schools in Chicago have been fining their students for every minor infraction, from bringing potato chips to school to improperly tying their shoelaces.

In the past four years, Noble has pocketed nearly $400,000 in punitive charges from its pupils. Noble Network officials defend the practice by maintaining that charging for minor infractions will deter graver breaches of conduct.

Critics complain that excessive fines have forced out so-called undesirables, leaving a more select class of enrollees that boosts average test scores and graduation rates to assure Noble Network’s continued existence. And education experts contend that Noble is using unsound pedagogical methods that hurt schoolchildren.

Indeed, levying fines is the worst kind of teaching because it starts and ends with negative reinforcement that demoralizes students, forcing some to leave, while generating bonus funds for the profiteering Noble Network franchise. The fines have no relation to student academic improvement and cause financial hardship for urban families.

Nonetheless, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board continue to allow Noble Network to extort Chicago’s schoolchildren and their parents in his undeclared war against the Chicago Teachers Union and its roughly 21,000 members.

In addition to licensing non-union charter schools such as Nobel Network, which have been proved by independent university studies to be no more effective than traditional public schools, Emanuel has employed a divide-and-conquer strategy this school year — bribing individual schools and their teachers to break from the union to allow a longer day at their schools. He has also hired as schools’ superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard, previously known for two things: battling unions and for alienating the community with failed attempts at reform in Rochester, N.Y., where he was the schools chief before coming to Chicago.

It’s clear to most observers that Emanuel is emulating the efforts of the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio to disable teacher unions, regardless of the potential harm to our most valuable resource, our children.

After a period of trial and error as a beginning teacher, I gained experience, knowledge and, most importantly, confidence. I learned how to motivate and teach by forging a professional but also human contract with students to achieve education goals, including measures to make students acutely aware that their teacher is their ally. This thinking is in direct opposition to Noble Network’s us-versus-them mentality.

My students received both care and trust to become upstanding citizens in the classroom, with a real desire to contribute positively to our group. I could even leave my room without worrying about them stopping their work or engaging in mischief because the positive dynamic that was in place did not depend on my constant presence.

An entire faculty at a school, under the direction of a good principal, can harness student energy and creativity to create a climate of mutual respect. In contrast, an institution like Nobel Network, relying on citing children with ticky-tack fines, is placing its interests and survival as a business ahead of the long-term needs of the children.

David McGrath, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage, taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 19 years.

He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com



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