Why do I and other black families support charter schools?
August 18, 2016
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Most Black families support charter schools, not because they are duped or privatizers, but because many see their neighborhood schools, and know their children need better options.  I know, because I saw it first hand in West Oakland, struggling to get my brother the education he deserved, in a system that didn’t treat him with concern or respect.

I never intended to be the charter guy, it just happened.  It all started when I went to my brother “Johnny’s” school in West Oakland.

When schools disrespect you

“The teacher made fun of my mama” my little brother said, restraining his sobs.

I would help Johnny with his homework if I was around, but I was in law school and out a lot.  If his mom couldn’t help him, I told him to just tell the teacher he couldn’t do the homework and needed help.

That’s what he did.  The teacher then mocked him in front of the class, “Johnny’s mom doesn’t know how to do long division.” Chuckles and ridicule, he is humiliated, and she insulted his mom.

I wrote a nice letter…It’s not his fault…maybe we can meet and talk about a schedule to support his homework or what resources there are…very nice.

Next day in class, the teacher starts in again, “Oh I better not say anything to Johnny or he will get his big brother after me.”  Another frustrated call from Johnny.

I write another letter… it’s not right to embarrass him…more formal…and asking for a meeting.

We meet, there are 4 or 5 folks there.  I don’t know what they expected.  The teacher addresses me in a condescending tone, “those were very big words in the letter you wrote.”

I think they were trying to say I didn’t write it or understand it, because some brother from West Oakland couldn’t write it.  But who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of people.

“You learn big words at Berkeley Law School” I responded.

Long pause, and everything changes.

Now the teacher gives her phone number.  They will write a report each week on his homework and send it home with him.  I should reach out any time.  It took them learning that I was not biologically related to him and a law student, for them to treat him or me with respect, and something is so wrong about that.

Low standards on quality and safety

Then there were the academics.  When I first started doing homework with Johnny, he would not finish it and say it was done.  It was totally annoying until he explained they only checked the first sheet so that was all you had to do.

Or safety.  When I heard that a student had tried to stab him on the playground (in elementary school), and asked about it, the principal said, that “it was only a steak knife.”  So yeah, he needed new school.

I saw an article in the paper about a new school around the corner, promising college preparation, a family atmosphere, leadership preparation, and focusing on African American history and culture.  It was a public charter school.  I wasn’t sure what that meant but figured it was worth a shot.  I cold called them, liked what they were doing, and volunteered to help.

Charters and the potential for community schools

This was the early 90s before any philanthropists or corporation cared about charters, before there even was an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or any privatization cabals, or even a “charter movement.”  There were a bunch of Black folks and some honorary Black folks sitting around tables in West Oakland trying to figure out how we can save our kids in the face of a system that was failing them.

That was the beginning of my charter movement.  The union did not oppose this charter, everyone knew our kids were getting shortchanged and nobody had any answers.   Far from privatizing the schools, we brought them to the community.  And far from “creaming” we focused on Black kids from the Lower Bottoms arguably the most underserved students in Oakland.

And I haven’t looked back.  I have worked with dozens of community based groups in creating responsive schools for kids left behind.  There were no college preparatory schools in NY that cater to students with mental health challenges—we did the first, John W. Lavelle Preparatory Academy.

Kids in Harlem were diagnosed with autism later, much to their disadvantage, and there were no inclusion programs, we worked with providers to help families identify indicators of autism and get free screening, and set up the first autism inclusion program in Harlem—The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem.

Staten Island had thousands of high school aged students out of school, but only one alternative high school.  We created the second, New Ventures Charter School, which targets students who are out of school.  We are graduating our first class this year.

And now we are working on Oakland’s first residential charter school, the Oral Lee Brown Preparatory Academy, as well as programs to support our most vulnerable students, foster kids, and kids in lockup.

History’s lessons and systemic inequality

As a Black man and a student of history, the system is rigged.  It used to be segregation by law, now its segregation by habit and privilege.  And despite the heroic efforts of many within the system, I wonder whether it will deliver in the future what it has never come close to delivering  in the past.  And given the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, I think I am diving in.

So no, I ain’t no sock puppet for the philanthrocapitalists, and I certainly haven’t gotten rich, but I am trying to get free.  Charters are no panacea, and come with a whole range of warty characters and defects.  But for many families, what are their actual options?  How long have we been waiting for that mythical high quality neighborhood school, waiting at rainbow’s end.

I know for my brother I couldn’t wait, if it were your child would you?


Dirk Tillotson has worked for over 25 years with underserved students and communities expanding educational opportunities, and simultaneously striving for equity and excellence.  He blogs at greatschoolvoices.org and oneoaklandunited.org.

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