A Charter School? What’s Up With That?

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A personal reflection on the effort to establish a K-8 Charter School in Champaign-Urbana

To tell the story of the Champaign-Urbana Charter School Initiative (CUCSI) is in essence to tell my own story. It involves the thoughts and experiences of over forty years as an African American struggling to come to terms with my public education. For me the story is more than facts, figures and statistics. It is a personal search for equity – for myself, for my children, for my community.

But first the nuts and bolts. Charter schools in Illinois are public schools of choice, selected by students and parents for their innovative educational programs. While designed to address specific identified needs,they are open to any pupil in the district. They are not intended to replace public schools, but to augment the available opportunities. Exempt from state laws regarding hiring policies and program design, they are conceived to be more flexible. They have their own governing boards, whose responsibilities encompass educational goals and standards as well as health and safety requirements.

Charters are granted through negotiation with local school districts, followed by approval from the Illinois State Board of Education. If the local school district rejects a proposed charter, the charter group can appeal to the state Board of Education. Charters receive a per capita tuition established for each school district by state formula, but must raise funds to meet the rest of their budget. The state legislature of Illinois has mandated 45 potential charters: 15 in Chicago, 15 in the collar counties surrounding Chicago, and 15 downstate. Currently there are four schools chartered downstate.

The Charter School proposed in Champaign-Urbana advocates an educational program focused on four areas: high family involvement, in which families partner rather than observe the education of their children; a culturally relevant curriculum; intensive community participation; and high academic achievement.

The Champaign-Urbana Charter School Initiative (CUCSI) is the effort of individuals interested in ensuring high achievement for all students, but particularly students of African descent.

The CUCSI committee began as a Study Circle group initiated by the Human Relations Office of the City of Champaign. The goal and purpose of Study Circles is to bring small groups of diverse citizens together to discuss issues of concern to the local community. The discussions aim not only to identify problems, but also to develop plans of action to solve those problems.

Issues of racial inequity were a major focus of the City of Champaign’s pilot Study Circles. In the course of eight weeks, the discussion in our group often turned to the economic disadvantages imposed upon the black community by the local and national society. The consensus was that economic self-sufficiency is crucial to combating racial inequities, and that economic self-sufficiency requires a strong educational foundation. Ensuing discussions centered on the systemic inequities in the local schools. The group, which included educators and former educators, agreed that the current educational system has in general not fostered THE growth, development, and resulting achievement of black children.

As an educator and a product of the Champaign-Urbana public schools, I challenged our group not to be satisfied with well-meaning talk that would have no impact on real conditions. I related my own personal experiences to illustrate how the public school system was responsible for maintaining a societal assumption that black children cannot and should not achieve on the same level as white children. I related the hatred of self, school, and authority that was fostered in me as I came up in the Champaign school system. I told of my experiences as an adult working in the same system with subsequent generations of black children and parents, experiences that made me realize that nothing much had changed despite lip service to the contrary. Finally, I related my struggle as a parent to find alternatives for my own children so that their natural love of learning would not be undermined as my own had been.

The effort to protect and nurture my children led to the great practical realization that the ultimate responsibility for the education of my children belonged to my wife and me, not to the State of Illinois. With this in mind, I configured my life and work to center on my own children’s needs. This led me to explore home schooling and Christian education, and eventually to become the principal of Judah Christian School, and a director of Project Upward Bound at the University of Illinois. I am currently the director of the African American Cultural Program at the UIUC.

Reflecting on my own experience, I have come to six fundamental principles. First, the ultimate unit responsible for the well being of children is the family. Second, schools should serve the needs of their constituent families, not the reverse. Third, children learn best when there is strong cooperation between the school and the home. Fourth, most families want the best for their children, even if they do not have the wherewithal to insure that their children receive the “best”. Fifth, for people of African descent, education is still the best way to move out of poverty. Sixth, if we in the African American community continue to allow others to be in control of the education of our children, we will perpetually find ourselves dependent on either the fleeting benevolence or the lingering indifference of those who have the power but seldom the will to meet the educational needs of our children.

Analyzing the status quo in light of the above six principles, I came to the conclusion that the current system and its resources are effectively inaccessible to the black community because we do not control them, and that therefore the African American community, together with those who genuinely support our goals, must develop a completely different paradigm for the education of our children.

Under the present system, the power is in the hands of those who exercise control over the financial resources, which are allocated by counting the heads of all the children in the district, including the black and poor. Unfortunately, the needs of these last are not a high priority. Decade after decade, no one has seriously challenged the achievement gap between blacks and others. Instead, the funds purportedly allocated to bridge that gap have been expended on other priorities.

Jesse Jackson once stated that the black community has no permanent friends nor enemies, just permanent interests. The problem is that the black community has not clearly defined and prioritized what those interests are. I believe a cry should go up that educational equity, designed to eliminate poverty, is our top priority. This is why I stand in pursuit of a charter school.

As a private school principal, I learned that schools could be established and run on far less money than the state school districts have at their disposal. The overwhelming majority of school funds are expended on the staff and the facility. Our C-U school system is one of the wealthiest in the state, yet our African American achievement levels are on a par with those of inner city Chicago schools. The problem is obviously not money alone (though money helps).

We know what to do. The formula for the effective teaching of African Americans is simple: encourage and facilitate cooperation among competent, energetic, respectful and caring teachers, the students, and their families. This formula has worked time and time again in private schools of all kinds. More specifically, it has worked in the seldom heralded black alternative schools, as well as in those rare black public schools that have inadvertently been left alone to address the educational and social needs of their students. In our own community Caanan Academy, currently serving students k-8, has exhibited wonderful academic success with children utilizing the formula mentioned above. Caanan’s test scores reflect high achievement, the children love the school, and the parents play an active role in their children’s education, and the teachers and administration work under the assumption that all children will succeed. In the public school arena one can look to Chicago’s South Side where the Burnside school is located. Where 99% of the students are African American. at the 99% black Burnside, the percentage of students scoring in the bottom quartile decreased from 19.3 to 8%. reading scores climbed from 44.8% to 52.3% in the same period. These percentages although still unacceptable to the teachers and administrators of the school, do indicate that the school is moving in the right direction. Both schools are utilizing the same simple formula described above. They are succeeding because of the will of the parents, teachers, and community. In both schools, African American families have decided to act in the best interest of their children. When the proper resources are made available, they are able to address the needs. Why couldn’t this be done in other public schools? it could if the needs of the children were the top priority. Frankly it is easier for schools of this nature to be established in Chicago, since the city and its school system is already extremely segregated. African Americans in such a setting tend to be much more aware that they must rely on their own initiatives in order for their children to succeed academically.

In a community such as Champaign-Urbana, this model will be hard to implement because African American families and community members do not have decision-making power to effect change based on the needs of their children. Because we do not have the numbers to effect changes either by substantial representation on school boards or via a strong financial base, the black community remains locked out of the ability to utilize human and financial resources to address the needs of our children. This is a major reason why charter schools should be an option to communities such as ours. Charter schools potentially offer a rare opportunity for the black community to control its own educational destiny.
Charter schools are, in essence, a hybrid of the public and private alternative school systems. As public schools, they have access to the resources to bring competent educators together with motivated families. On the other hand, free from some of the state laws and the local educational hierarchy, they can focus solely on the problems and abilities of at-risk children. They are also not subject to the defensiveness of the teachers’ unions, but have their own boards that are empowered to remove incompetent or mean-spirited teachers. Perhaps most importantly, the charter school’s board will reflect the backgrounds and concerns of the population that sends its children to the school.

In terms of curriculum and stated intent, the charter school we propose is not so different from other public schools. But it is different in two fundamental ways: all of the teachers and staff will have an affinity for the children and parents they are charged to serve; and the teaching staff will assume (contrary to the reality of the local schools) that black children can and will learn and achieve at high levels. We will assure this expectation through the teacher selection process. We will first chose an administrator with a proven track record of success with low-income and at-risk children. The administrator, in conjunction with parents, will have the authority to hire teaching staff reflective of these sensibility.

These two conditions of the daily reality in the proposed charter school will radically alter the experience of the children. They would have radically changed mine.
Lest we forget, the equity audits and climate surveys of the C-U public schools, which have resulted from African American protests, indicate a very disturbing reality. a majority of white teachers students and parents believe that the current school system is doing an admirable job that requires no major adjustment. Black families and staff feel that this is not the case. This fact alone should suggest that, at this point in time, a charter school is the only idea with the potential to correct a problem that should have been addressed long ago.

We presented our proposal for a charter school to both the Champaign and Urbana school district boards a few months ago. We felt that the educational needs of low income and minority students in both districts were such that the school should serve both communities. Urbana accepted the proposal with concerns to be negotiated at a later time. Champaign initially accepted the proposal with stipulations that would have materially altered the proposal. Subsequent to their initial vote, they later voted to reject the proposal. CUCSI has submitted a letter of appeal to the state board of education and is awaiting their response. Regardless of the outcome, CUCSI is very pleased with the support of the African American community for this initiative, and will continue to struggle and advocate for substantial change in the educational environment for our children.

When I reflect on the way the Champaign-Urbana public school system has abused and ignored the needs of the black community for so many years, I am astounded that any of us tried so long and so hard to cooperate with and maintain our abuser. If nothing else, the charter school initiative has served as a vehicle for bringing the concept of self help and the ability to change the current paradigm to the attention of the black community as a whole.

Unfortunately, some of our long-time allies – e.g., the teachers’ unions, even the major civil rights groups – see charters as a threat to cherished ideas of public education . But what exactly are they afraid of? I can understand the fear of the school districts and those who control them. I suspect they fear the potential success of the effort. If charter schools succeed with the same children that the current system routinely fails, the efficacy of that system will be called into question. It is hard for me to understand, however, why the unions and civil rights groups would be against efforts to increase achievement for all students. Do they not realize the ramifications of a system that does not work for a significant portion of the population?
But in fact, for those in power, the current system does work. It works the way that it was designed to work. It socializes African American children to take their “proper” role on the margins of society.

There are people of good will who are genuinely interested in helping to address our children’s needs. They come from diverse walks of life and political persuasions. But as an African American, I have the responsibility to inform them how they can assist us as a disenfranchised community to effectively deal with our own issues.
To conclude, we must look outside the box for solutions – for ourselves, and with our friends. We have to look outside the box because outside is where, for better or worse, too many of us have lived our lives. So, what’s up with a charter school? Initiatives for charters are nationally one of the latest iterations of the struggle to lift more black people in this country out of the slavery of poverty. In order to do so, we need control over the educational programs, the curriculum, staff, and the finances needed to operate the schools. No amount of “tinkering around the edges” by those currently in power will ever suffice.

As I stated earlier, when it comes to the educational needs of our children, African-Americans should have no permanent friends or enemies: just permanent interests. My interest is in high academic achievement for all children. i will support and promote any reasonable program: public, private, or hybrid that will help to accomplish that goal.

Nathaniel Banks resides in Champaign with his wife and three children, and is currently Director of the African American Cultural Program at UIUC. A longer version of this article, which was edited for length, can be found on our web site, www.ucimc.org.

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