Excerpts from Chapter 1: Birth of a School
In 1995 (age fifty-four), after more than thirty years in public education, I embarked on a journey into the new world of charter schools. Now, after more than a half-century as an educator, I can (now) share more than twenty-five years of adventures in the exciting world of charter schools.
Charter Schools began in Minnesota in 1991. In 1996, I was attending the national conference of the Association of Curriculum and Supervision. Albert Shanker (American Federation of Teachers) spoke about the need for a change in the structure of education. He was nearing the end of a storied career as a teacher union giant. But he seemed to be waxing philosophically on the status of American Public Education. He lamented high schools that were run like prisons with clocks and bells moving everyone to another place every forty-five minutes. I began to think about different models of education—ways to “break the mold” of the traditional model. Almost simultaneously, the Pennsylvania state legislature began to explore the charter school options during 1995. I was always an educational renegade (and a bit of an outcast) in the public school arena. My lackluster and blemished educational record was filled with shortcuts. I studied little, but was a good test taker. I was far from the average student. I was a true “classroom renegade.” Undecided on my life career, a professor at the Rutgers School of Pharmacy called me to meet on a Saturday morning in my senior year. It really wasn’t an interview; he just wanted to ask why a guy with such good College Board scores had such poor grades in high school. I had always been involved in athletics and youth athletic programs. I loved working with kids! So instead of a career in Pharmacy—I became a school teacher. I truly believe I was ONLY accepted at Montclair State Teacher’s College in 1959 was because I was a man! I probably got bonus points in order to get more men into the classroom!
My college career was somewhat better, thanks to my growing interest in education. But I was still a scattered learner. The Greek Drama teacher assigned Oedipus Rex but I found Lysistrada instead. I commuted to college with my beautiful wife-to-be. We would talk in the car about our mutual assignments (we were in most of the same classes). She was a bright student—who studied […] I just goofed off. I would pick her brain about the book I was supposed to have read—and then get a better grade than her on the test. The British Lit teacher assigned some heady modern authors, but I found Joyce’s Ulysses instead […]. Even my student teaching was rather lack-luster, under the thumb of two cooperating teachers who wanted me to do things their way!
I secured my first teaching position in l963. I began my career in Englewood, New Jersey; just after the school busing and suburban integration became the law. Englewood was one of the first integrated communities to restructure their system to better integrate classrooms. I entered the faculty at the Junior High School the summer after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and was inspired by the black teachers who spoke of their experiences on the lawn in DC. I taught English and Social Studies, coached, and eventually became an administrator in the Englewood School system.
I was a thorn in the side of my supervisors and even my peers. As a high school teacher I created a POETS club. One of the older faculty members complimented us on our interest in poetry. Then I told the assembled faculty room that it really stood for “Piss on Education, Tomorrow’s Saturday.” Forty-plus years later, I encountered someone who taught at that school long, long after I left. To my surprise the “legends of the POETS” club lived on.
On another occasion, again in the faculty room, a student from the high school newspaper was interviewing me on why I became a teacher. I flippantly said, “Those that can, can; those that cannot, teach.” This shocked my senior staff partners. I experienced a labor strike walking on the teacher picket line and several years later, kept schools open (as an administrator) during a similar teacher strike.
I moved into administration as a result of a “poor evaluation” that I received as a teacher. My department chairperson came to observe me in a lesson that was based on small groups and high student involvement. She politely told me she would come back and observe me when I was “actually teaching.” Several days later she returned, I purposely gave a rather dull, but thorough lecture. She loved the lesson and gave me a rave review. I refused to sign the evaluation document. In essence, I told her she wouldn’t know a good lesson if she tripped over one. She retired that year and I replaced her as the chair of the Social Studies department!
My teaching reputation led me through the ranks of administration, from Department Chair, to Vice-Principal, to Curriculum Director, and finally as acting Assistant Superintendent of Schools. But never quite the top job!
In 1986, I changed gears, (as the result of a divorce and a second marriage) taking a small superintendency in a small K–8 rural school district in
County, NJ. In 1990, I became embroiled in a Board/Superintendent squabble when we qualified as a finalist in a national grant that would have brought $500,000 to the small (and tax poor) community. The proposal would have made us a landmark school in the state of New Jersey. We would have moved to a twelve-month school year, introduced an innovative computer program, and installed a new system of teacher evaluation and board structure. The board did not approve the submission of the grant in a timely fashion, and I languished in the district until 1996. The Board President at the time of the grant pronounced that he would remain on the board as long as I was Superintendent in order to get rid of me.