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We Need to Talk About the Charter Problem by Hala Karim

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By: Hala Karim

A group of teachers sitting down for a meeting

Source: Person Writing on the Notebook | Pexels

Hala Karim shares her experiences teaching at charter schools, detailing the challenges and exploitations charter school teachers face.

Situated in a desolate strip mall on Columbus, Ohio’s west side, Zenith Academy West purports to be a haven for the city’s ever-growing Somali and West African population.

The charter network’s website maintains that their vision is to, “become the top-ranking charter school for high-risk students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in the state of Ohio,” a lofty goal, indeed, albeit with no tangible steps or explanation as to how they plan to achieve it.

After relocating back to Ohio in the summer of 2018, I applied to teach middle school English at Zenith, and, after a short interview, was offered the position.

This wasn’t my first charter teaching position. In the past several years, I had ricocheted from one charter to another, from Chicago to Los Angeles to Columbus. I had come to understand that, among many inconsistencies, there does exist a cache of universal, devastating consistencies that transcend nearly all charter school networks.

To prepare for and teach four different grade levels, fifth through eighth, I was offered a meager salary of $36,000. That’s about $20,000 less than the national average for teachers, and the national average, as we all know, still sucks butt.

Regardless of education or past experience, most full-time, credentialed teachers were offered the same salary or less. In fact, Zenith tried to find loopholes by hiring long-term subs that they could pay even less – without benefits.

One teacher I spoke to came in with ten years experience under his belt and was making the exact same as me, a teacher with three years experience.

Since I was living with my parents at the time, rent-free, I signed my contract, with hushed trepidation. My colleagues, many of whom had children, mortgages, and student loans, conceded with exasperation that this was just the life of a teacher. They weren’t as up in arms as me, for some reason, despite my best efforts to galvanize them to riot.

My fellow staff members were forced to rely on the salary of a partner, former partner, or parents to merely assure they could pay the bills and have anything left over at the end of the month. Clearly, we weren’t being compensated fairly.

After a month or so of growing agitation, I refused to keep shrugging my shoulders at the brazen maltreatment of my hard-working colleagues and myself. I emailed the director of Zenith Academy and firmly – but politely – at least, as polite as I could be to a person overtly exploiting my labor –stating that I would like to meet to renegotiate my salary.

My first email was ignored, as was my second. Finally, after a third email that CC’d two other administrators, the director apologized for the delay, insisting that my previous emails must have been hiding in his spam box! Sure they were, pal.

When we met, he thanked me, with hollow insincerity, for advocating on behalf of myself and the Zenith staff.

It was apparent within the first minute that he never intended to consider changing my salary.

Hala Karim

He explained to me, in the patronizing tone of a self-important man who knows he’s in the wrong, that the budget simply didn’t allow him to pay me any more.

In fact, he claimed, and I’ll never forget this, that had he been in my initial salary meeting, he would have tried to “talk me down” from $36,000.

What an abhorrent way to admit just how absent your respect for the demanding job of teachers is. And what a sorry excuse.

Here’s the truth: if you don’t have the budget to compensate teachers fairly, you don’t have the budget to open a charter school network.

Hala Karim

It’s better not to open one at all than to open one and overwork vulnerable teachers in need of a job.

Zenith hit every sad target on the Common Charter School Checklist. It featured a revolving door of first-year, inexperienced teachers who didn’t know how best to meet the needs of students. That certainly isn’t their fault, and first-year teachers have to start somewhere.

However, these students needed experienced teachers who could balance classroom management with curriculum instruction. They’re continuously met with wide-eyed, novice instructors who resign to the chaos that ultimately unfolds in their classrooms.

Additionally, the principal had started when I started, and, despite the best intentions, did little to establish a proper behavior protocol or positive school culture, relegating those responsibilities to the teachers.

Across any charter school I’ve taught in, the administration has always repeated the same talking points.

Why are students misbehaving? Why aren’t teachers doing more to ensure that students are engaged in class? Why are students unhappy? Here’s why.

School culture and behavior protocol start with the administration. You’ve got to start from the top. Teachers do implement and enforce rules, but they need to be consistent across classes.

Another reason that students misbehave is the aforementioned revolving door of teachers. Kids notice when teachers don’t come back the next year. Kids notice when their school is merely a launching pad and not an endpoint for someone’s teaching career. Kids notice when teachers are overwhelmed and unhappy, and that transfers right to them.

Thankfully, by the time I arrived at Zenith, I had somewhat mastered the art of classroom management and creating my own curriculum on a whim.

That’s another factor. Many charter schools refuse to put money toward an actual curriculum, coercing teachers into spending their own money to buy and create their own.

I subscribe to the notion that if your school’s vision is to be the highest-ranking charter school in Ohio, investing in an actual curriculum is a good first step. Moreover, curriculum design is its own profession, but that responsibility falls under the umbrella of “teacher” in Charter-Land.

In fact, many of the quintessential non-teaching positions that are present at many public schools are strikingly absent and fall under the teacher’s umbrella at charters. My school didn’t have a guidance counselor, psychologist, or nurse. So, we acted as the guidance counselors, psychologists, and nurses.

As for my actual experience with my awesome students and my classroom, I loved those kids. So much. I only taught there a year, unsurprisingly, but I still think about them daily, and I hope they’re doing okay.

I sought to cultivate the best, brightest, and happiest classroom culture amid the chaos ensuing around them – in the halls, in the lunchroom, in a couple of their other core classes.

The kids at Zenith are so smart, creative, funny, and full of hope. They deserve a school that mirrors their skills and potential.

Hala Karim

They deserve a school that offers the repository of resources that they desperately need. They deserve real curriculum that challenges them and prepares them for college and beyond. Many of my students are refugees or children of refugees and have trauma they need help navigating.

I remember someone hearing about the school I taught at and jokingly saying that I taught at a “fake” school.

First of all, that’s one of the most offensive remarks anyone’s ever said to me. Further, the kids are not fake. They are very real. They’re in a country where they are already ostracized for their faith, race, and economic status. They don’t need to be belittled and neglected in their education, as well.

I remember my hesitation when I decided to leave for a public school the next year, wondering who would be there to protect and nurture my kids, but I just couldn’t stay. And that’s the nature of charter schools.

Charters are presented to parents and students as “school choice,” but they’re the wrong choice to make.

Hala Karim

Even being funded by public tax money, they are able to avoid regulations that public schools need to uphold. They eliminate unions, which is why politicians champion them so damn much, and can thus exploit teachers any which way they want. Charters don’t have to honor a teacher’s sacred prep time.

At Zenith, I was often watching a class during my one hour of prep a day. A lack of union representation also adversely affects salaries. Charters often pay way less than their public school counterparts, as Zenith and my other two charter schools in Chicago were able to do.

The responsibilities of a teacher are increased. The class sizes are increased and thus more challenging to manage. The pay is cut. The resources are cut. Such an environment for teachers and students is prone to abject failure.

They’re typically run by businessmen who have no background experience in education and are looking for an unregulated way to make extra cash. In fact, at the first charter school I taught at, the CEO (why does a school have a CEO?) was arrested for embezzlement midway through the year.

This is all to say, privatizing education has proven to be a failed social experiment.

Invest in public education. The students and teachers of America deserve much better.

Hala Karim

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