Thursday, April 15, 2004

The Business of Education in Cleveland

Wednesdays Plain Dealer ran a little article headlined:

City Schools may Drop Activities
Cash-strapped District Plans Cutbacks.

The article goes on to discuss the various programs and services that may be cut due to the 100 million dollar budget deficit.
Two things mentioned that affect me directly will be the supplemental pay for high school department chairmen, and pay for nonmadated professional development. We have also been warned about staffing cuts next year in all buildings: teachers, security, custodial, cafeteria, etc. My classes have always been large, now it looks like they may become huge. My supply budget will be cut even more. I have already been supplementing that out of my own pocket.

One of the most devastating cutbacks that I've gotten wind of though, has the potential to set the district in a virtual tailspin, and ruin futures. That is the cut in transportation for high school students.
There are no school buses for high school students in Cleveland. Kids who live more than two miles from the school receive RTA bus tickets from the district. Without that free bus ticket many of my students will have no way to get to school.
Of course we have always had the students who rode their bikes, walked, or got a ride to school. Most of those kids live close by. Their transportation was never paid for anyway. Cleveland's drop-out rate already exceeds 60%. Now we will add to the mix all the kids who want to go to school, but can't afford to get there.

Talk about kicking someone when they're down. Here's an amazing little piece of twisted legislation:
According to state mandates concerning private and charter schools, Cleveland parents who can afford to send their children to private schools, will get free transportation for their kids. Ironically, due to state cuts in school funding, parents whose kids go to Cleveland public schools must pay for it.

Amid all of the turmoil caused be the immediate actions being taken by the school district to minimize the devastation caused by this financial crisis, many Clevelanders have overlooked a rather disturbing fact:

46 million dollars of the 100 million dollar deficit is Cleveland public school money that must be paid out to charter schools

Here are a few things I've discovered about the charter schools.:

Many of these schools are run as for-profit businesses. They do not charge tuition because the per-pupil money that the state allocates to the district goes to the charter school instead. But, because the schools are run as private companies they are not required to disclose any of their records to the public. They are profiting from public tax dollars to educate the publics children, but have no public accountibility.
Do I see potential for abuse here?

One might counter with, "So what? If the charter school doesn't do a good job, if people aren't happy; it won't survive."
True enough, but what if the school doesn't do a good job and the people ARE happy?

Case in point:

Lately I have noticed a number of new charter schools popping up around Cleveland. These are the Life Skills Centers run by White Hat Management. This company was founded by David Brennan, an Akron businessman, and a big supporter of the Republican Party. Life Skills markets their program to students who are not succeeding in high school as an alternative way to earn a high school diploma.

At Max Hayes we are beginning to see a steady trickle of students leaving our vocational program for Life Skills.

Last month, I lost two more students to the Life Skills Center on Madison Road. When I asked their friends why the girls left, I was told that they had failed several classes, and would not be graduating this year. At Max Hayes they would be required to repeat their senior year of high school. Life Skills would allow them to graduate on time. (In two months)

I'd heard these rumors before, but chalked them up to teen exaggeration, and wishful thinking. I had also recently overheard some of my colleagues discussing a former student, who had just graduated from Life Skills. This girl was classified Special Ed.- Developmentally Handicapped at Max Hayes. ( There are no special education classes at Life Skills) Her reading ability hovered around the third grade level. She was 18 years old, in the 10th grade, and had not passed any proficiency tests. In a matter of a few months, she had her diploma from Life Skills.

Either Life Skills has a phenomenal new method of teaching that can produce educational miracles, or there is something very wrong with the way we teach at Max Hayes.

Or something fishy is going on at Life Skills.

I began asking questions.
When I asked my classes if any of them knew someone who was going to Life Skills, every hand went go up. Surpised, I asked them to tell me what they knew about the school.

Conventional teen-wisdom explains it this way:

Life skills is where a person goes who just wants a diploma fast.
People don't really learn anything there.
All the work is done on a computer. You simply have to show up, and complete the work that comes on the disc for that class.
Cheating is rampant and ignored.
Only a few general academic classes are required to get your diploma. Nothing like the work you have to do in a regular high school.

Several of my kids said that they were considering transferring there maybe next year. Other kids said that they would never go there, because that was where all the losers went. One boy said that he considered going there, but he wanted to join the Marines. His recruiter told him that they would not accept a GED, or a diploma from Life Skills. Another student told me that the Navy had the same policy.
I found those statements especially distressing.

That afternoon I called the Marines recruiting office. What they told me was essentially the same thing.
They consider a Life Skills diploma to be a worthless piece of paper. They find that something is very wrong when a student is getting all 'F's in public school, transfers to a Life Skills School, subsequently gets straight 'A's and then cannot pass the Armed Services Test.

What kind of scam is being pulled on our country's poor and uneducated? They are being tricked into thinking that this piece of paper means that they have received an education that they have not worked for. You will not find any of these schools in affluent or middle class neighborhoods. They are only being built our most disadvantaged neighborhoods whose populations are the most vulnerable to this type of scam.
Society doesn't seem to care that David Brennan is getting rich by exploiting these kids and their families. They were destined to be drop-out losers anyway.

These schools are popping up all over Cleveland's inner-city, and now other states (Arizona, Florida, Colorado,Washington DC), are buying into White Hat as educational savior. Three years ago I never even heard of them.

Does anyone else hear the giant sucking sound?

Oh, and one more thing.
When a student leaves Max Hayes and goes to Life Skills in the fall, the per/pupil tax money goes with him. If after a few days, or weeks, the student decides that they are not happy with Life Skills and returns to Max Hayes, the money is NOT returned to the Cleveland school district. It stays with White Hat Management. This is not theoretical. It has already happened.

It's just business.


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