If you want to experience what low morale in a school feels like, walk into any Minneapolis Public Schools building during the month of March. This is when, each year, educators—deprived of sunlight and desperately struggling to hold the attention of students whose minds have already departed for spring break—are informed of their school’s budget for the following year. The forecast is rarely sunny.
As a non-tenured, second-year high school English teacher in a district that seems to be continually treading in red ink, I have always had a precarious hold on my position. Last March, it was reduced from full-time to 0.8. This year, that shrunk to 0.6. At the same time, projected class sizes flirted with 40, support staff were eliminated, and my principal had to fight tooth and nail for bare necessities like security personnel and a secretary. No teacher—let alone child—should have to tolerate these conditions, and yet, that’s exactly what the district’s cuts mandate. I love my students, but I also love my sanity, and having a full head of hair. Faced with these headwinds, I did not see any way that I could be successful at my job in my building next year.
The employment prospects elsewhere in the district were equally bleak. Without exception, every site was asked to cut both broad and deep. Schools felt the pain in different ways: some lost discretionary funds for updating curriculum, others lost Title I dollars, nearly all eliminated valuable personnel. While I would have preferred to stay within MPS, there would be few (if any) openings, and those that were available would quickly be claimed by tenured teachers higher up in the district’s pecking order. Even if I did decide to pursue a role within the district, I would need to wait weeks for its internal interview and selection process, and sit on the sidelines while charters and neighboring districts recruited for the following year.
That was a dice I was not willing to roll.
Ultimately, I found a new job at Hiawatha Collegiate High School, a public charter in South Minneapolis. Its doors are open, tuition-free, to all students. HCHS seems to be driving impressive results serving students from communities impacted by racism and poverty. Eighty-five percent of its students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, 99% are students of color, and 60% are English Language Learners. Among these groups, HCHS far outperforms MPS not only on standardized measures of Reading, Math, and Science, but also on student attendance, family satisfaction, and attendance at parent conferences. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
But while I am thrilled to join their team, my decision was made with great ambivalence. Because teaching is my second career, I still consider myself a newcomer to education—too green to have formed an ideological stance on the Great Charter Debate, and under-equipped to mine and interpret the endless, opaque troves of research on the topic.
On the one hand, I worry that joining a charter school simply magnifies the budget crisis currently ravaging MPS and districts like it across the country by draining their enrollment and the coveted money that accompanies students from school to school. I worry about the school’s emphasis on standardized testing, and that promising performance numbers are more indicative of selection bias than instructional excellence. While researching the school, I came across a review that referred to it as “a Betsy DeVos dream school,” and—though anonymous internet reviews may not be the most reliable source of information—the network it belongs to indeed recently received a million-dollar windfall of federal money as part of a larger investment in Minnesota’s school choice efforts.
The school itself may be bearing fruit, but I worry what other plants its roots might be strangling beneath the soil.
But on the other hand, I did not see an option to teach within the district. With my position severely reduced, a paper-thin probability that another would open up, and a hiring window that required an appetite for risk I did not possess, I made a decision that was consistent with my values: to teach kids of color in poverty-impacted communities; to be part of a school that coupled high expectations with high supports; and to serve in the community in which I live.
I still feel conflicted about my decision to leave a traditional public school district to teach in a charter school, but where some view ambivalence as a lack of conviction, I view it as an admission that I don’t yet have all of the answers to some very difficult questions, and I likely never will. I may be new to teaching, but I do know that very rarely do we have the luxury to simply act in accordance with a single value; instead, we are more frequently called to make imperfect decisions about what to do when our values conflict. That is what I did, and what I suspect I will continue doing for a long time to come.
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