Monthly Archives: April 2009

Untouchable

In the past few months, I have had the privilege of attending a great deal of meetings in the two Community School Districts where Harlem Link is located, as we learn about our future placement location and get involved with all the very important political discussions that are germane to that decision. 
 
Time and again, I leave these meetings, which would leave Alexis de Tocqueville’s head spinning, thinking one word: untouchable. 
 
I don’t mean to liken our charter school to a gang of mobsters.  In fact, I haven’t even seen the movie.  I think “untouchable,” because after watching the crossfire, after hearing the ideas and conflicts bouncing around the room as community members stake out their agendas and express themselves democratically, I walk out of those meetings feeling like we are covered in a bulletproof vest.  At the end of the day, in the forums where decisions that shape the local agenda for public schools are routinely made and re-made, where policy is formed, where district priorities and mandates are issued, the core functioning of our school is untouchable.
 
Student
 
To be sure, we have our own knock-down, drag-out internal battles in order to come to the best decisions about how to serve our children and families.  Decisions at our school often are the culmination of input from teachers, administrators, board members and not least of all parents.   But our core functioning is determined from within, not by 8 million voices around the city.
 
What is that core functioning?  At the end of the day, we have a charter agreement with the State University of New York that dictates – that is, where WE dictate – the most important things about our school: who we hire to teach and how we hire them; how we treat each other, codified in our core values and Discipline Code; and our curriculum, that is, what we teach and how we teach it.  Our commitment to Social Studies, for example, is protected by the charter law (see the article at left).  These things are untouchable at our charter school.  The SUNY trustees will judge us, to be sure, and whether we thrive or fail as a community is dependent upon their judgment, but they are not meddling with our core functioning.  
 
Playing in the playground
 
I can empathize with the frustration felt by district school folks.  As a former public school teacher and School Leadership Team officer, I have sat in their chairs in those meetings.  I know how it feels to have a clear idea in your head of what should be happening in the school, but to feel foiled by a grand, clunky bureaucracy, to know what’s best for children but feel as if swimming in a sea of unresponsiveness.
 
That sea can’t drown us at Harlem Link.  We feel pressure, no doubt about that, and there are major accountability trade-offs for the autonomy we enjoy, but at the end of the day, our heads are above water.  We can safely say that 100% of the time, we have the freedom to make the right decision by our children and families.  We make our share of mistakes, but we’ve got no one to blame.  The finger points right back at us–our entire school community together–because our core
functioning, it’s untouchable.

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