By: Chris Mercogliano
[You will find further assistance from Chris’s book, How to Grow a School, which is available through his website www.chrismercogliano.com. ]
One of society’s most glaring needs continues to be a wide range of accessible educational options for children. Here let me be clear that what I mean by “option” is a setting that truly fits an individual child, that arranges itself according to how he or she learns and develops best rather than the needs of the institution or other extraneous factors. Also let me be clear that by “learn” I mean learning in all of its developmental dimensions: cognitive, emotional, social, and “spiritual” – by which I mean a deep sense of identity, meaning, and purpose.
The regrettable truth is that the majority of children have only one option, tuition-free schools that are part of a monolithic system operating according to a highly rigid educational model that very often runs counter to how children actually learn and grow, and that almost entirely ignores the vast variation that exists among them. Children who don’t fit the model are slotted into pathological categories, and only then does the model shift slightly in order to address their differentness.
An additional socioeconomic reality is that public schools in affluent districts often take a more liberal interpretation of the model and operate more flexibly and creatively, and allow a certain measure of individual expression; while the others are welded to a robotic curriculum that insists children be on the same page at all times.
Yet another socioeconomic reality is that children of means have access to a second option, the network of tuition-based schools where classes are smaller and teachers enjoy more support. At the same time, however, the majority of these schools operate according to the same dysfunctional educational model as the public schools; and in the end there is little substantive variation among private schools either. This means that children who don’t thrive in a public school setting often don’t fare any better in a private one. There are, of course, private schools that operate according to nontraditional models, but other than Montessori, which number in the several thousands, these alternatives are few and far between.
A small minority of children with and without means have one other option, a publicly funded charter school. Here it must be noted that only a small percentage of the total number of charter schools, those located in the handful of states with liberal charter school policies, operate according to a model different from the standard public one.
Then of course there is homeschooling, which is currently a viable option for approximately two million children.
The bottom line in this thumbnail analysis is that far too many children in far too many locales do not have access to educational settings in which they are able to thrive cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually because those options simply do not exist. Or if they do, they are only accessible to children of means.
The solution? Let’s begin with what it isn’t, which is that public school reform will someday transform the conventional educational model into one that truly addresses the diverse needs of a diverse nation of children. Such was the original promise of the charter school movement, that it would create a variety of innovative and successful new prototypes after which the rest of the system would then remodel itself. The twofold reality of the movement as it enters its third decade: first, the truly innovative charter schools have either been isolated from the rest of the system or shut down altogether. The fact of the matter is there are no examples anywhere in the nation where the other schools in a district have adopted in any non-token way the approach of a successful, innovative charter. Secondly, the movement has grown increasingly conservative. The overwhelming majority of new charter schools adhere just as strictly today to the conventional educational model as their non-charter counterparts.
No, the solution to the problem lies at the grass roots level. Where there is a shortage of viable options for the children – which is just about everywhere – parents, teachers, students, community leaders, and other stakeholders need to band together to create those options. While starting a school or resource center is challenging, as Maurice Gibbons so rightly states, at the same time it isn’t rocket science. Learning is a deeply instinctual act that only needs to be supported and nurtured by others, not caused or created. Yes, school/resource center starters must possess a deep understanding of children, but not a PhD in school administration. And yes, teachers of high-level academic subjects need to have spent many years mastering them; but it doesn’t take a postgraduate degree to help younger children learn the basics and to address their other needs.
What growing a school requires, just like growing anything, is a lot of care, patience, commitment, and attention to detail; along with the ability to improvise when conditions are less than ideal. This is especially true when a school or center commits itself to the inclusion of children without means; in which case financial sustainability depends on a large supply of community building skills, creative financial thinking, and above all, perseverance.
The process of growing an unconventional educational option is filled with risks and uncertainties, but ask anyone who has succeeded and they will tell you the rewards are beyond measure.