A case for supporting charter schools for Maine kids

Posted May 31, 2009, at 7:01 p.m.

I support LD 1438, the charter school bill. I believe this bill allows us as a state, and as parents with children in this state, to have an opportunity to grow and enhance our public school system in a way that 40 other states already enjoy.

I hold a doctorate in at-risk education. Although my interest is primarily at the secondary level, I also have a 7-year-old son who was largely at-risk in a public school system in which I thought he would flourish. His interests and experience at his young age gave him a head start on school; however, school was not prepared to advance him past “grade” level. It broke our hearts to hear him cry every morning and to know that the school was doing all they could within the confines of standards and policy.

In January, his father and I withdrew him from public education. He is now enrolled in Wassookeag — a multiage, home school group — in which he thrives. He is engaged, he is supported, and he is finding that he can express himself and his needs in a healthful and loving way. This is the little boy we raised.

However, our choices, as working parents were limited. Our home schooling is supplemented by added instruction and hours with other home-schooled youth. Not all parents can afford this path to educate their children. Our current education system is also a system of privilege.

If my son continued to be enrolled in public school, he would be considered at-risk for dropping out — at an early age. So many are. Twenty-six percent of our teens leave Maine high schools before graduating. Many are taking their GEDs less than one year after leaving. A record number of teens are enrolled in “adult” education courses, a record number of children are home-schooled.

Maine deserves a system that incorporates multiple methods of teaching and approaches and considers multiple learning styles, interests and socioeconomic status. To date, this is not the case. We have “alternative” education programs that our youth can access if they are failing in some middle schools or more typically — high school. This, is not choice. It puts our youth at a deficit for credit to graduate, it creates a sense of low self-esteem and lowered motivation. Who wants to stay where they consistently fail? This is not the message we should send to our children. We collect enough data and records in our school systems to know that when our youth need to

be taught in another environment — we can do that without them “having” to fail first.

I support public charter schooling and have been an advocate for this complementary public school system for many years. As an educator, I know there are kids who are extremely capable of learning in the current climate and with the current standards-based teaching methods that many of our schools employ. I know there are teachers who are caring, compassionate and flexible in their approach to learning and teaching.

However, the fact remains that we are still losing one out of four youth who begin high school in Maine. I don’t see this improving as many districts, and notably as our rural regions, scramble to save money in mandated consolidation efforts — many of which face a decision to close their community schools. With charter school legislation, those little schools can and should be returned to their historical roles as the hub of community.

Federal funding for charter schools opening up to Maine residents would increase chances of our parents finding more options to accommodate their children’s diverse learning styles and interests. It would supplement funding for school districts that are suffering from extreme budget cuts. And it would give Maine credibility and standing as educational visionaries who care about their children, and not behind the nation in practice and policy.

Cheryl Saliwanchik-Brown is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine, where she teaches graduate-level courses in at-risk education.

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