Amber Raskin | When Charter Schools Fill a Need

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I applaud the vision of the William S. Hart Union High School District. They work to customize and provide options within and outside of the district, and they see and understand the role of charters.

They understand that by allowing families to choose, and charters to innovate, it makes all students and schools better. While the majority of the community may not choose charter schools, the fact that charters are an option improves education for everyone. Not all districts are as forward-thinking as the Hart District. This is why we need more charters statewide, not fewer options.

The 1992 California charter schools law was passed so educators could be free to try different pedagogies and define cutting-edge best practices that families may choose to benefit from. The fact that students and parents can opt in (or out) gives charters more flexibility to build a community that accepts trial and error and encourages rather than stifles innovative practices in education.

SCVi, iLEAD’s founding school, just finished its 11th year in this community. We serve students and families who need or want something different. We are a small TK-12 public school where kids receive a great deal of personalized attention and continuity if they stay with our school for their entire educational journey. This allows us to individualize the experience. Our approach makes us a great choice for kids looking for a school to inspire them, and kids who don’t necessarily fit in the box — outliers and early adopters, dreamers, and thinkers, who might not do well in traditional school.

With our focus on social-emotional learning and entrepreneurialism through project-based learning, we do well serving students who are looking for reimagined, rigorous, academic and personal challenges as well as those with special needs, anxiety, depression, and who may be “at risk.” Students who have been bullied in other schools find a safe home with us. Families who feel like things are not working in their current schools for a variety of reasons travel to SCVi from as far away as Fillmore, Frazier Park, Sylmar and Van Nuys.

Personally, I didn’t do well in school and went to a district in Orange County that was considered excellent by traditional standards. In elementary school, I tested into “Mentally Gifted Minors” (GATE). But when I got to high school, I fell through the cracks because the traditional approach didn’t work for me. Conversely, I was successful once I was older and started a career. For me, there was a disconnect between the skills and knowledge I needed to succeed at work and what I was taught in school. Looking back, I needed something that was hands-on and felt meaningful and connected to real life.

When SCVi opened, I set out to provide an option for my own two kids that would also be a gift to other families. In my high school experience, I felt like I was on the outside looking in. We’ve learned that many times this dynamic creates successful entrepreneurs. Often, when someone has a hardship and sees a need, they are motivated to fill it. My daughter is thriving in New York at college. Yet, I am most proud that she started two businesses in high school with the support of her teacher during an economics project — and she still runs them from her dorm today because she saw a need to provide a kind of theater she felt was missing in the SCV. 

My 17-year-old son is thinking of starting a home automation business, because in his world starting a business in high school is not the exception, rather the norm. I want to create more opportunities for students to do that at a young age so they find their own path to success while making a positive impact on this world.

Every day, when we open the doors, it’s clear that SCVi and iLEAD Schools are special and needed in this region. Kids travel to SCVi from 21 districts and we have a waiting list. Even in an area like Santa Clarita, which has “Blue Ribbon” exemplary districts, some students just need different options. Imagine how much greater the need is in districts that are not “Blue Ribbon”!

Nothing works for every student every time. Students and parents need different approaches and the ability to customize their path. Free public charter schools, operated independently, do just that. They are game changers.

Public charter schools are based on the same principle as some nonprofit colleges and preschools — publicly funded, privately run and focused on a specific mission or demographic need — but still ​open to all and tuition-free.

When group teaching and classrooms were first created, the most progressive technology was books and only some people could read them, so the most efficient way to deliver knowledge was having a person in front of a group of people repeating what was in the book. Today, learning is everywhere and 24/7. Through technology and instant communications, people can even print their own books in mere days. Think about how much the world has changed since SCVi opened a little over a decade ago; when this week’s graduates were in second grade: the iPhone was brand new, Twitter was just gaining popularity, few had heard of AirBnb.

It is said that knowledge doubles every 12 months and soon it will be every 12 hours. The amount of data in the world will double every two years into the next decade. Comparing the old way of learning to the new is like comparing our students writing with a pen and quill vs. a laptop.

As it should, it takes a long time to make systemwide changes at the state level. However, families that need something different now don’t have time to wait for the process in Sacramento. They only get one shot at their child’s education. They need options now.

California’s tuition-free public charter schools, such as SCVi and iLEAD Schools, fill this need. Customization and choice-based learning-on-demand is the future of education.

At SCVi, and all iLEAD Schools, our kids, even from kindergarten, grow up articulating their learning to their peers and adults on a regular basis. When they prepare to graduate, they ​defend​ their senior portfolio, answering the driving question:​ ​“How am I ready for the next steps in my life?” They explain why they are ready to graduate and be successful at the path of their choice​. During their journey with us they explain what they are learning through the years. They become adept at articulating their rationale and their “why.”

Our mission statement is, “​Free to Think. Inspired to Lead.”

We have defined our niche because we work constantly with students and parents on student outcomes. We focus on wrapping them in support so they can learn to be their best selves and figure out how to contribute to the world around them.

A decade ago, even in educational circles, many had never heard about social-emotional learning or project-based learning. Now, thanks to the efforts of quality charter schools everywhere, it’s becoming mainstream. In charter schools, we have had a chance to try things that complement and inform the state’s newest “Dashboard” approach. At SCVi, we started some of these holistic assessments 11 years ago and now the state has made it a best practice!

Recently, a group of bills was introduced in the state Legislature to dismantle charter schools as we know them. Some of these have been endorsed by the “charter task force,” of which only four out of 11 are charter supporters. Where I used to feel I was on the outside looking in, now I feel like I’m on the inside looking out. We have waiting lists and families that travel from far away wishing our school was closer to their neighborhood. We could bring one to their community, but it is already very hard to get new charter schools approved because some districts block charters — and the legislation being considered would make it even tougher to garner new approvals to serve areas that really need more options.

Regarding the negativity about charters, sadly, abusing the system is something we have seen in some circumstances, but is not unique to public charter schools; it happens in all sectors. We have seen bad banks and bad medicine, but we still trust good investments and good doctors. We need to work together to prevent this so that options can remain viable and available to all kids. It is my understanding that stakeholders from the charter community were among the first to tip off authorities to possible misconduct. The charter community wants to stop abuse as much as anyone else.

Legislators: Please continue to allow charters to be part of the solution. The bills being considered in Sacramento are the equivalent of keeping the entire class in from recess because a few students misbehaved. A charter moratorium and doing away with the appeals process is not the answer. Instead, let’s create a task force with balanced stakeholders​ to study why families choose charters. Let’s study other states’ policies and laws to learn from them. 

Let’s study what is working in charters and grow them, instead of curtailing them.

Amber Raskin is founder and CEO of iLEAD Schools.

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