May 27, 2015

Taking on the Color of Our Surroundings, Part 1

The next few posts on the blog will be excerpts from Chapter 4 of my dissertation; this chapter explores the setting and the visual culture inside the Philadelphia charter school where I did my research, and teachers’ perceptions of autonomy at that school. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.

Chapter 4: Taking on the color of our surroundings, part 1
A few minutes before the start of the Pence Charter teachers’ meeting on this snowy February afternoon, the new school CEO is unstacking chairs and setting them at student work tables. As he moves around the classroom he talks to me about the possibility of tomorrow being another weather closure day – the sixth so far this winter – and how this will impact the academic calendar. Readying the room is a familiar task for him, one he is used to from his years as a teacher. And, like most teachers, time is very much on his mind.

His words and actions would not seem at all discordant in this particular setting except for the fact that he is engaging in them while wearing a suit and tie. As the Pence teachers start to enter, singly and in pairs, the noise level grows, as does the contrast. Every other person is dressed in jeans or pants, casual shirts and sweaters, and boots or sneakers. They talk with one another and choose seats while the CEO waits at the front of the room. But, just before he begins the meeting, he suddenly looks down at his feet. He tells me under his breath that he forgot to switch out of his outdoor shoes and into his dress shoes, which he has to remember to do before the Board meeting tonight. This is a crazy meeting day, he says, like most days.

The CEO begins by announcing that there will be some follow-up on the issue of teacher pay, since he had heard the feedback from teachers that receiving only a percentage of their contracted raises this year was both unexpected and dispiriting. He also reminds the assembled teachers that the Board will be discussing the Pennsylvania State renewal application process Pence Charter is required to complete this year. Another topic of discussion with the Board that evening will be the possible future expansion or replication of Pence and how to market the school’s strengths. Pence has not requested any increase in enrollment (referred to as new “seats”) for several years, and the school is at capacity, but development of another K-8 school site or expansion into a high school is in the offing.

With regard to whether Pence will have its charter renewed and whether the school will continue to operate, the teachers see no impediments since the academic performance of the school has been solid, though it did miss the required Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goal (part of No Child Left Behind legislation) in the 2012-13 school year. But teachers have little impact on the range of factors reviewed by the School Reform Commission (SRC) regarding charter operations, factors which can and do impact the SRC’s and the State Department of Education’s decisions about charter renewal. This process can be unpredictable; when Pence first applied for a charter nearly 15 years ago, the application was denied by the School District of Philadelphia but approved by the State.

A cluster of issues that continually impact charter school teachers arose in just this one afternoon teachers’ meeting at Pence: the insecurity of pay and contracts, Board control of strategic planning, the fact that charters have to be renewed by the School District of Philadelphia (and reviewed by the SRC) in order to continue operating, questions about the need for growth and the possibility of expansion, which hinges on competition with other schools for enrollment. The CEO is always working to define Pence’s most marketable differentiators. He explains to me that he perpetually has to think about what is most relevant when it comes to marketing Pence’s future and possible growth, and that what really makes the difference is finding ways to stand out in the ever-expanding urban charter market.

Pence Charter was originally brought into being as a small, dual-language K-3 school by a group of parents who first met in a playground in one of the tonier neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Most of them had young children, and each of them wanted their children to have quality educational experiences. These were parents of privilege, intent on developing a way of providing private/suburban school quality without having to either pay or move out of the city; they sought to create a publicly-funded school to meet the needs of their own children and those like them. As one longtime Pence teacher put it, “I am convinced that our founding people, having met them all and worked with them…they thought they were going to get like Friends Select [a well-regarded private school in the city] for free” (Teacher Audrey, personal communication, February 24, 2014). The 1997 charter school law in Pennsylvania (the PA Act 22 Charter School Law) allowed a variety of groups to seek funding from the State and from the public school system in Philadelphia to create schools to meet their specific needs, and this group of parents chose to do just that. In the most literal sense, they opted out.

By making the choice to start their own charter school, the founders of Pence were responding to the sudden availability of resources through the charter school law. Accompanying this availability was marketing (still prevalent today) about the promise of alternatives to traditional public schools, along with a push from the State legislature for an outside, for-profit contractor to manage all of the city’s schools and operations (Denvir 2014). Many structural arguments were made at the time to justify this shift, but the messaging about charters was (and is) fueled by something less tangible: the idea of loss. Marketing drives the search for options in schooling, and messaging loss or absence fuels that drive.

Charters were and are still positioned as products, each with a features list containing on it what parents perceive as being absent from another school option. Charter marketing frames non-charters as missing essential features and targets parents using language that reiterates, in both overt and subtle ways, the loss they and their children will encounter should they choose differently. No doubt for the Pence parents, the sorry state of Philadelphia’s public schools (or at least their perception of this) presented them with a clear picture of loss.

Twenty years into the charter experiment, even a cursory review of reports on charters (Carroll 2010; Grady 2010; Fergeson 2011; RAND 2011; Kahlenberg 2012; Lake 2012; CREDO 2013; Squire 2014) conveys that what charters actually offer, what truly differentiates them from traditional public schools, are not consistently high test scores or consistent student academic successes, but rather their less visible features. These can be features that parents desire but may not always be able to list on a form or survey: whether a K-8 school has strict teachers, for example, or many teachers of a particular race, or many students with special needs; whether the school is perceived as a pathway to social improvement through the “right” high school acceptance; the school’s reputation within its neighborhood (which outsiders may never hear about); the relationships between school staff, parents, and the community, particularly those in the community with the greatest needs; and aspects of the school’s interpersonal culture, including how teachers and staff are regarded by (and addressed by) students, and the method used to maintain noise levels, order, containment, protection, and control within the building. Some of these features may be entirely hidden from view to parents and teachers alike, visible only to the administration or the Board, or to funders or other outside interests – yet they impact the school’s culture and how teachers make shared sense of that school’s culture.

Charters market themselves through productizing what they offer (such as high standards for academic achievement, or a unique curricular focus, or low tolerance for misbehavior) and identifying for the consumer what they will not lose by enrolling their children there. The Pence parents chose this path. They worked to develop a school that prioritized certain aspects of cultural awareness they themselves valued and similar to certain features of the private school in the city mentioned by Teacher Audrey earlier; the Pence founders identified global citizenship as a school theme and placed a curricular focus on second-language acquisition. They sought to promote the idea of the school to like-minded parents. But they found within the first two years that a fully bilingual school could not be sustained, because, as one Pence staff member put it, “the realities of whether or not you could quickly build up the student base were questionable, whether people would be afraid, you know, ‘what is this model? Would I send my kid there? Do I think they're getting the same education? I don’t speak Spanish, how am I going to support my kid?’”(Administrator JH, personal communication, June 3, 2014).

In alignment with both the visible, promoted feature of global citizenship and the desired but less visible feature of a certain social status/capital associated with having culturally diverse staff, many of the teachers hired in Pence’s early days were fluent native Spanish speakers from other countries. This meant most “were not trained teachers. Or if they were trained teachers in the country they came from and they didn’t have equivalent certification in Pennsylvania” and that because of their native fluency, “there have been excuses and exceptions made from the very beginning of the school”(Administrator JH, personal communication, June 3, 2014). The idea of a new charter school with an immersive focus on language acquisition, taught to all students by non-white teachers from Spanish-speaking countries, devolved over time into a two-track system where some students would get fully bilingual education in every class, and some would get second language instruction for a portion of each day, four days a week. And the focus on hiring native speakers from abroad also shifted over time, so that Pence now hires local bilingual teachers, most of them white. In the first eight years of Pence’s existence, white students of privilege filled out the Fluency track of this program, and African American students, who were also often socio-economically disadvantaged, filled out the Language Instruction track. Over the past few years track enrollment has gotten more diverse, but the two-track system is still firmly in place.

Today Pence’s enrollment is larger than the local public K-8 school closest to the park where the Pence founding parents met one another. Pence adheres to the required School District citywide school choice lottery policy to fill seats, and enrolls those students whose parents choose to send them to an alternative to their neighborhood school, drawn from all over the city. According to the school data collected by the SDP, about 50% of the students at Pence are considered economically disadvantaged, which is on par with that local K-8 public school, but across the District as a whole about 87% of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged. Currently Pence has an overall student population that is slightly more than 50% African American but due to that same computerized District lottery draw – and which parents chose to put their child’s name into that system of choice, or were even aware of its existence – the incoming Kindergarten class for the 2014-15 school year at Pence is 22% African American, and 45% Caucasian. In the 2013-14 school year, these numbers were 39% and 26% respectively (Administrator JH, personal communications, June 3, 2014 and December 4, 2014).

Pence provides for students from across the city, and the families that send their kids to Pence are assured that what it provides is vastly better, safer, more rigorous, and more effective than a typical Philadelphia public school, or than a charter school managed by a charter management organization. Many know this in a subjective way, from personal experience (as many have had other children who have attended District schools or have had other charter experiences) and they know this in a purportedly objective way, given that they hear the perpetual bad news about budget constraints, school closures, and poor performance in the Philadelphia public schools. And as one sixth-year Pence teacher put it, “I just think our issues wouldn’t even be thought of as issues in someone else’s program…There’s so many other bigger issues, that ours are like – everyone wishes they had our issues, I’m sure” (Teacher Molly, personal communication, June 13, 2014).

Yet the Pence two-track language instruction model has resulted in a deep racial and socioeconomic segregation of the student population. There are few African American teachers on staff, and the teachers are currently engaged in ongoing professional development about racial proficiency. As of the 2013-14 school year, Pence was rated in the mid-70s (out of a possible 100) on school performance by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (McCorry, November 10, 2014). And the school has no empirical data on how and whether its graduates succeed in high school or college.

What is indisputable is that Pence is a vital, clean, vibrant, colorful space. The school building has wide bright hallways, large windows, colorful locker bays, and an enclosed play yard and garden space. It shows well. Yet my first impression when I began observing at the school was that this was a space in which white professionals spend a lot of time setting standards for the noise level and behaviors of non-white students. Having been in charter environments that are much more controlled and controlling of student voices and actions, I could see that this school was disruptive by comparison; in contrast to a large Philadelphia middle school, however, Pence was as peaceful as a Quaker meeting.

These initial reflections about the space further fueled my curiosity about how teachers here make meaning of their experience. Who are you as a Pence teacher, at this independent charter school which operates in a competitive environment much like a small business? How does this all work within the backdrop of a “failing” public school system, in this racially and socioeconomically diverse city, and at this particular moment in American public education? Given that all these things come into play in your daily work life, what are the features, both overt and invisible, of this school culture and of the teachers’ roles within it? Do the teachers here always know which shoes they have on, and for which audience they are dressed?

Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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