by Steve Evangelista

The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005. A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing. The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders. After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:

“We will work with any family that will work with us.”

On the surface it sounds great, even noble. Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity? A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.” But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!

A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting. Who exactly are we serving? What is the real cost of serving everyone? And who, exactly, wants to work with us?

An alternative—and, I would say, more noble–statement would be: “We will work with any family.”

The question of whether or not to include the dependent clause boils down to this: Are so-called high-performing schools of choice on one level just great sorting factories? Are the “families that will work with us” just another way of identifying the same families that researchers like economist James Heckman would find already imbue in their kids the “soft skills” required to persist and be successful in school, college and life?

If so, what happens to those other kids? The ones whose parents are intimidated by the prospect of charter school rigor, or by the demands of keeping up with the schedule and the requirements of having a child in a charter school, or who won’t agree or feel they can’t agree that it’s important to get their kids to school on time and in uniform every day?

Creaming and Counseling Out
According to defenders of the status quo, the charter answer to this predicament is to ignore the problem so it will go away for someone else to solve. Charters allegedly use intimidating, even hostile techniques such as harassment both to prevent parents who are less engaged and equipped to support their child’s education from signing up (so-called “creaming” or “skimming” the best students and families) and, if they do sign up, to push out those less engaged parents once they show their stripes (“counseling out”). This issue has long been Criticism Number 1 of charter schools, and charter folks like me have spent years denying that our own schools engage in such practices, even as we know, and admit, that it happens elsewhere to varying degrees. (As an aside, I know that this practice occurs at district schools as well, increasingly as school choice has proliferated; I know because I’m curious and parents with firsthand knowledge and an atypically blunt principal have told me so.)

I also argue that de facto counseling out occurs as a result of high expectations. If I demand that a child come to school on time every day—and then have our school social workers and parent coordinator work with that student’s family if the child is repeatedly tardy or absent —some families will choose the path of least resistance and transfer their children to a school down the street that won’t bother dealing with attendance concerns. In these cases (which are rare) I don’t see an alternative for preventing that family from leaving our school other than lowering our standards—and that’s not an option.

Charter Choices
To the extent that there is counseling out, are charters making conscious choices to push out or exclude families that require greater resources or refuse to get on board? Or do some parents self-select out simply as a result of the rigor or perceived rigor of school policies? How aware are charter operators of the enrollment and attrition implications of their policies?

I believe that by failing to answer these questions explicitly, comprehensively and publicly, charter schools are wasting the opportunity to contribute to long-lasting, meaningful reform. As a charter school founder and mentor of mine told me recently, “In 25 years no one will care about this school’s or that school’s test scores. A rigorous analysis will be longitudinal, and start with all the students in a school’s original cohort. If you’re only reporting on the ones who stay, you’re not doing rigorous research. And no one should care.”

There are some charter schools confronting these questions, but I’m not entirely satisfied with their answers. KIPP, among the largest and most respected charter schools, publishes its own annual report card that asks questions such as: “Are we serving the children who need us?” and “Are our students staying with us?” The report contains statistical answers on how many students stay in the program and the demographic composition of students—more transparency than you will typically find in a public school district—but no analysis of how a “no excuses” policy impacts those statistics.

Is Harlem Link Intentional?
At our school, we have always believed that having high expectations can lead to an inclusive and still high-performing school, if all families are required to meet the same standards but support is provided to ensure that those who need help get it. We have continually raised expectations—for everyone about everything—and have seen that the strain of meeting these expectations has exposed some disagreement over the standards by some families.

Examples of our policies include:

  • If a child comes to school out of uniform, we require that to change and are unyielding about it, but if acquiring a uniform is a demonstrable financial burden, we will provide a uniform.
  • We have hired multiple support personnel to hear the concerns of and provide support to parents—including two full-time social workers and one parent coordinator for our small student body of 300 students. (There was one counselor and no parent coordinator at my first public school, which had an enrollment of 1,700.)
  • If a child comes to school late multiple times, several different members of our staff will contact the child’s parent or parents to offer support and remind them of the importance of being on time. If we ask for a meeting and a parent misses the meeting, we will ask to reschedule.
  • When seats open up in the upper grades, we continue to enroll new students to fill those seats. We plan our budget accordingly, knowing the burden it places on all of us at the school to acclimate new families and students to our expectations and support new students who, on average, enter far behind the typical academic performance of our current student body.
  • We have three full-time Academic Intervention Services teachers to help with remediation for students who are behind academically. (That’s one for every 100 students, compared to one for every 350 or so at my first school and probably most schools nationally.
  • We have continued to support the independence of our parent association, which has since our opening year elected its own leadership, even though in some years in the past the parent willing to make the most noise and get elected president was a disgruntled one who used the office to grind an ax rather than make productive change for children.

Behind each of these policies is a conscious decision that has a discernible impact on the composition of our student body, on whether the children of parents who are uninformed about, feel powerless to control or simply disagree with our society’s norms about the basics of school readiness continue to attend our school.

Tonight, as we begin the process of building our next five-year strategic plan (2014-2019), we will debate whether we should continue these policies and others like them and we will take a stab at uncovering their true costs.

My presumption entering the debate is that if we are to take the stance that we are here to serve “all families” (without the dependent clause) we need more resources than we have now. Two social workers and one parent coordinator aren’t enough—simply because instruction needs my full-time attention and that of our other instructional leaders.

Right now, we’re half an instructional team. Half our attention seems to be occupied with issues like those described above. (I’ll bet the ratio is even higher for many district school principals.)

What if we had not only two but a full team of social workers, who would work not in the school but in needy families’ homes? What if we supplied everyone with a uniform? What if we had intervention teachers who only worked with individual students who were new to the school in the upper grades and need remediation?

Well, you might say, why don’t you do all those things already? Why don’t you spend your money more wisely to meet your mission? You won’t typically find me saying, “Schools need more resources.” That’s because I know that the money that is currently allocated to district schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically not well-spent to begin with.

In addition to having a strong curriculum, faculty and school ethos, I hope I have demonstrated that our school has already devoted significant time and money to providing support to families that need it and ensuring we attract and retain students of all varieties. What I’m saying is, if we are to serve “any family” and not just “any family that will work with us,” we need a parallel school, one for the soft skills that in high achieving communities are taken for granted.

You don’t have to look far down the street from our school—Geoff Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are basically trying to do these very same things (except, they were a social service agency that started a school rather than the other way around). Our questions are different: What can one school do? What can each school do? What does each school need to do? And tonight at our board meeting, what ought we do?

This post also appears at Chalkbeat.

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