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Guest Blogger Mike Klonsky: The Small Schools Movement Meets the Ownership Society

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We're well into Small Schools 2.0, which makes it an opportune time to reflect on the similarities and differences between the two small school reform waves. Joining us to discuss this issue is Mike Klonsky, author of a new book on small school reform and the blog Small Talk.

Thanks to Eduwonkette for inviting me in as a guest blogger to talk about our new book, Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. She hasn’t told me yet how much $$$ I have to kick back her way. Just put it on my tab, 'Kette.

Susan Klonsky and I write from the perspective of long-time educators and school activists who were heavily influenced by democratic schooling (and de-schooling) movements in the ‘60s, including the Freedom Schools and Citizenship Schools that were central to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in the ‘60s.

The early small schools efforts in New York, Philly, and Chicago were filled with much of the same transformational spirit and sense of purpose. Mainly created by rebel teachers and supported by community-based organizations, the early small schools, beginning with Deb Meier’s Central Park East in 1974, had the potential to be much more than replicable models of corporate-type restructuring (in the Starbucks sense). For us, they were primarily ways to engage whole school communities in the education of children.

Many of the new small schools were democratically run and focused on making kids more visible and on building a professional community of teachers. Even the early charter schools that followed, pioneered by progressive thinkers like Ted Kolderie, Ted Sizer, Joe Nathan, Albert Shanker and Ray Budde, looked nothing like today’s chains of Edison and KIPP schools. Words like autonomy and choice didn’t mean what they mean now under the Bloomberg/Klein reforms in N.Y. or Daley/Duncan Renaissance 2010 in Chicago. Autonomy meant teachers would have more power over their teaching/learning environments and be freed up from stupid rules, while choice meant expanding choices and options within local schools for students with diverse interests and ways of learning.

Our book tells the story about what happened when that movement ran head-long into the "Ownership Society" (to use George Bush’s own campaign slogan) with its penchant for eroding public space in favor on shock-and-awe privatization, standardization, and school closings. The early small schools visionaries couldn’t have imagined their efforts to create a critical and innovative force within public education being taken over by corporate-type school operators and program vendors. They wouldn’t have dreamed of chains of small schools, bankrolled by the world’s richest men—schools actively excluding ELL kids or students with disabilities for the first two to three years.

How could this have happened? Is there a way out of the quagmire? More on this to follow.
2 Comments

Mike, Thanks again for guest blogging. Let me start off the discussion by asking whether you believe that the founders or the framework in which founders work has changed. My impression is that the same kinds of people who were founding small schools in the 1990s are founding them now, but small schools leaders are now faced with accountability requirements that make it difficult to serve the populations they wanted to serve.

Thank you for writing about the exclusionary nature of most charter schools. Students with IEP’s find themselves worse off after enrolling in their parent’s “dream” school; it’s not much different from disadvantaged folks who hit the big money lottery and find themselves in a worse position ten years later.

In particular, KIPP forcibly changes IEP’s to match the student with their unindividualized SETTS-or-Bust program. Promise Academy administrators bully their green twenty-something staff into referring kids with mild behavior problems to District 75 schools. Future Leaders Institute can’t even figure out which kids are supposed to receive services in the first place. And just try finding a related services provider in one of their schools. Kids with reading delays don’t get speech/language therapy and then get blamed for their inability to meet reading standards.

One diamond in the rough: Opportunity Charter Schools. It’s difficult to determine if they’re making genuine academic gains versus non-charter peers. On the other hand, they’ve done an outstanding job picking staff that is genuinely dedicated to the students. Their social workers are the best in the city, truly know the kids, and connect with their parents at a deep level.

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