The Challenges and Amazing Opportunities Our Family Discovered at an Urban Charter School

I send my 6th grader and my 1st grader to a charter school in one of the most depressed neighborhoods in my state. I didn't do it on purpose. I didn't have a grand design about exposing my kids to the diversity of the inner city. It just sort of happened. After all, anything is better than the public schools in my area. The two main factors were that it was very close, and it purported to have an excellent curriculum. What we have found is that there are challenges we never anticipated, but there are also so many opportunities to do good and to make our community a better place, even beyond the confines of the school day.

How depressed is our community? Our school district has double the state average in the student poverty rate, with 32 percent of kids living in poverty. Our school is seemingly even worse off, with 53 percent of students in low income families. Several kids that go to our charter school are homeless. Thirty-eight percent of the kids in our charter school are English learners, and 65 percent are minority. We happen to live in the number one metropolitan area in the nation for divorce among millennials. The administration has had to evict several homeless campers from our charter school's campus.

Our community is kind of forgotten, lying in a sort of no man's land between two major municipalities. Economic development is historically non existent. Gang activity and gun violence are rampant. This community has a higher than average rate of rentals versus owned homes, which means the population is more transitory. In our school district, there are 69 different languages spoken in the home. So it would be fair to say that our school's community is made up, in many cases, of broken homes, families facing serious obstacles to basic survival, language barriers, and generational economic challenges. Not exactly the most nurturing environment for learning. There is precious little community continuity.

In a typical school day, we often see a high rate of bullying. Behavioral issues remain a vexing issue. Many of the kids at our school don't live with both parents—and often, not even one. It seems that in too many cases, parents and guardians don't deal with the issues at home, assuming that it's the school's job. Respect for the rules varies widely. As one small example, a few months back a new pickup car line process was announced. When I flagged one parent down to remind him that he had just entered what was now the exit gate, he replied, "Thank you, Mr. Police Officer." Several incidents of parents screaming obscenities at administrators have been reported. In far too many cases, a good example is lacking at home.

And yet, there is reason for great optimism. I have seen both my children thrive academically in this environment. The ability of a charter school to be semi-autonomous in the curriculum it offers is a huge advantage over the failure factories that make up many public school districts. Our school employs a Direct Instruction model, and pledges that all children will be able to read by the time they leave kindergarten. Students learn at their own pace by being separated into smaller learning groups of similar achievement level. I've spoken to several parents, and many more have testified at our local school board when the charter is up for approval. So many have said that this curriculum has helped their child succeed, when they'd been previously left behind by public schools. At risk kids don't just coast. They thrive.