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Transforming Decades of Failure

Erin Gruwell, the inspirational teacher behind Freedom Writers, continues to be one of the few educators fueling my desire to teach in a low-income area. Her experience as a transformative educator showed me the power of the teacher in a classroom. However, many teachers remain ineffective in the classroom. The Thomas B. Fordham institute hosted a panel discussion in which individuals talked about their experiences with turnaround school districts in Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee.

A turnaround school district is one in which previously failing schools are “turned around” into successful schools through various changes in school leadership. Schools are not being closed or recreated as Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the Achievement School District, and Veronica Conforme, the chancellor of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, have made evident. Conforme and Barbic made very clear that turnaround efforts are transforming the neighborhoods into areas of success, not recreating the neighborhoods. This is important to note because it shows that the integrity of the neighborhood is not lost under new school leadership, but rather efforts are made to equip students with the resources to enhance the community in which they live. Turnaround efforts enhance the practices and schools in place. This also helps to encourage community involvement without making it seem like external organizations are imposing themselves upon these communities labeled “failing” and “impoverished”.

Fordham Turnaround PictureIt was interesting to see how improving schools can have a transformative effect on the whole community. Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District, notes that these turnaround school districts often are in areas of generational poverty and work tirelessly to allow disadvantaged students to escape the cycle of poverty. Poverty places a great burden upon communities, but equipping them with the

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Class Segregation and Educational Opportunity

I recently attended a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute with Robert Putnam of Harvard University, Charles Murray, who is a W.H. Bradley Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and William Julius Wilson, a sociologist and Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. Each speaker presented their criticism of Putnam’s newest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and offered insight into the increasing opportunity gap among children.

Putnam spoke candidly about the segregation deeply embedded in our society—religious, ethnic, and racial disparities have improved, while classist assumptions have led to greater segregation between the lower, middle, and upper social strata. He briefly explored the implications of these treAEI Putnam Event - Demographicsnds by explaining the terms “summer camp gap” and “Goodnight Moon time” and also called for extensive policy changes to help fix these inconsistencies.

The “summer camp gap” refers to the amount of benefits parents are able to provide for their children, such as piano lessons, sports camps, or vacations, and “Goodnight Moon time” is the portion of the day dedicated to parent-child interaction. Children acquire valuable developmental skills during extracurricular activities and from stable, close contact and socialization with a parental figure. Putnam argues, however, that children in high school-educated homes versus college-educated homes possess fewer resources to hone these skills, which further stratifies social classes.

Murray strongly disagreed with Putnam’s approach to policy implementation, and Wilson believed Putnam’s book did not focus nearly enough on interracial differences.

I believe that the discussion centered largely on the social sphere, and the panelists did not integrate education into the conversation as much as they could have. A child’s social environment is inextricably linked to his or her educational access. This connection can either accelerate or

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A Charter School is Born

A story of how a charter school started out as an idea to meet a need, the struggles it encountered trying to come into being, and the amazing impact it’s had so far on its community now that it is open and serving students.

St. Helen Elementary School, part of the Roscommon Area Public Schools (RAPS) closed its doors at the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year.

The school was located in St. Helen, Michigan, a rural village with a population of less than 3,000 residents. St. Helen, along with the adjacent community of Roscommon, comprised the geographic boundaries of RAPS, with an elementary, middle and high school also located in Roscommon. Until the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year, students from St. Helen attended middle school and high school in Roscommon. The decision of the RAPS Board of Education to close St. Helen Elementary School, due in large part to its perceived lack of financial viability, and consolidate it along with Roscommon Elementary school, resulted in a strong community without a single school. Soon thereafter, RAPS placed the building and the 24 acres of land it was located on up for sale.

A group of community members led by Jennifer Jarosz, a mother of two and owner of the local diner where she waits tables, decided to pursue the idea of establishing a charter school to replace their closed elementary school. Soon thereafter, Rural Education Matters (REM), a non-profit organization whose charge it was to support the idea of establishing a public charter school to serve the children of St. Helen and all others who wished to enroll, was born.

After failing to convince the local community college to grant the group a charter, REM was at an unfortunate crossroads due to the statutorily imposed cap on university-based charter school authorizers being

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