Former Antioch academy administrator writes about Dozier-Libbey charter conversion
Thank you for your continued well-balanced reporting of the contentious issue of the Dozier-Libbey charter conversion.
I know there are some issues where you and I do not, and probably will not ever, see eye-to-eye. However, the need for public school reform has never been one of them. I write today no longer a constituent of Antioch, but as a citizen of California and a school reform advocate. Mr. Crowder hit the nail on the head with his analysis earlier this week. This issue is far greater than Antioch and has the potential to stop the charter-movement, and the school-reform movement, dead in their tracks. Antioch politics have not given rise to an issue with greater state and national significance since I first moved there over ten years ago.
Charter school law is an example of the great power of political compromise. It accords parents and teachers the opportunity to take a direct role in the policies and procedures that govern their local schools while ensuring equal opportunities under the law to students regardless of class, race, or net worth. By vesting the power of school control in those who work with students on a day-to-day basis rather than a district office that needs to find some way of educating students with a disparate set of interests, needs, and motivations, charter schools can overcome the “Harrison Burgeron” effect of many district schools while remaining in the public sphere.
That said, charter school law is not a panacea. Plenty of charter schools fail – some from corruption and some from incompetence. Some commentators suggest that predicting charter school success requires some sort of precognition. This is why the conversion charter is such a strong model. A charter conversion typically requires a dedicated team of professionals with a proven track record of success. Districts (or counties when districts fail to do so) are encouraged to put their faith in a talented group of professional educators and release the reins on successful programs. By allowing self-governance by trusted leadership, school boards, and by proxy voters, are assured they will have successful, cutting edge opportunities for their students.
There could not be a better candidate for this type of success than Dozier-Libbey. Nancie Castro and her tireless, dedicated team have created a truly innovative and successful program—one that has shown excellence working within the confines of a district framework, but could truly soar if those regulations were lifted. There has been a great deal of press paid to specific policy decisions (for example the “no D” policy) that are rooted in research and best practices, but the real power of charter law is not in specific policies, but in the educators’ abilities to shape that policy quickly and efficiently as the need arises.
Even under an independent charter, there are checks and balances. The school must regularly return to sponsoring board to report on its progress and seek a continuation of its charter. A board of directors still has fiduciary duties and oversight responsibilities, and many meet Brown Act style public meeting requirements. Most charters are WASC accredited and require the continuous oversight that an accreditation board offers. Finally, charter schools are subject to state audits to ensure taxpayer money is being well spent and appropriately accounted for. Under this rigorous framework, there is certain to be accountability for public funds.
There has been much discussion in social and mainstream media regarding the equity and access issues to charter schools, specifically to the proposed Dozier-Libbey charter. One of the elements of a charter petition, and one of the most heavily scrutinized elements, is its plan to maintain balance and diversity. No doubt that oftentimes charters do not succeed in this regard. Maintaining true balance in a school of choice is a difficult undertaking and requires a great deal of planning and organization. Even then, it is not always possible.
With the conflicting data being thrown about, I am not comfortable saying whether or not Dozier-Libbey has entirely successful in maintaining a perfect racial/cultural balance in the few years since it has opened. What I can say is that there is no reason to suspect this data would be affected negatively by charter governance. A charter school can react quickly to demographic shifts and recruiting needs than a district school. I can remember many instances when Nancie was trying to get recruiting materials out more quickly, hold more parent meetings, and offer various times of day for parents to sign their kids up for Dozier-Libbey. Oftentimes the attempts were met with the lethargic complacency
of school district policy making. I firmly believe any perceived inequities have been exacerbated, rather than alleviated by district oversight.
It is important at this juncture to discuss the difference between elite and elitist. An elite school creates excellence; an elitist school requires it at admission. Dozier-Libbey is an elite school. Anyone can apply, and anyone lucky enough to be selected in the random lottery can attend. Once that student is on campus, it is up to him or her to succeed. A recent editorial in another publication mocked Dozier-Libbey’s “Cure” program. This program (that I believe no longer operates under this controversial acronym) is exactly what most parents and teachers want – additional one-on-one instruction and support for students who need it.
This is one of the many ways in which Dozier-Libbey is elite, rather than elitist – anyone that chooses to succeed is given every opportunity to do so.
I could go on-and-on about the virtues of the Dozier-Libbey charter petition (perhaps you think I already have). But I wanted to write this to you, personally.
While we disagree on some ideas, we have always respected each other’s minds and hearts. This is a good move for students, a good move for the community, and a good move for the state. I hope you will come out in support of Dozier-Libbey’s charter conversion petition.
Miller is the Founder and former Administrator of the Delta Academy of the Performing Arts, which is part of the Antioch Unified School District, and is now located at Deer Valley High School.