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A Visit to Vallejo Charter School

 

 

And the Broader Implications of Social Darwinism



3/1/13

By Marc Garman


This past Tuesday VIB was invited, along with parents of prospective students, to take a tour of the Vallejo Charter School. The school is located at 432 Del Sur St. – formerly the Davidson Elementary School Campus and takes students from Kindergarten through 8th grade.


The Vallejo Charter School (VCS) is one of several charter school options in Vallejo. VCS operates within the Vallejo Unified School District and is subject to the district's administrative input, has the same employee unions and receives part of it's funding through the district. Other charter schools are independent and raise their own funds independently. The campus of VCS is small as is the overall enrollment and class size. There are only two classes per grade with a focus on small classes and quality instruction.

 

The school embraces an Expeditionary Learning model which in turn is based on programs taken from Outward Bound Outdoor Leadership Programs. Outward Bound was begun with the idea of building leadership and critical thinking skills in students by taking them into an “unfamiliar physical environment.” This translates into outdoor field trips in addition to regular class work. According to the Expeditionary Learning website at: www.elschools.org the focus is on an approach that is designed to “transform schools into places where students and adults become leaders of their own learning.” Parent participation at VCS is mandatory, and volunteerism is encouraged.


Dance and art are given a special emphasis with 7th and 8th grade students being given options to additionally explore photography, theatre and creative writing. English, Math and all the core subjects are taught along more conventional guidelines and comply with district and state standards.


As a group of parents and I followed Family Volunteer Lead and parent Sarah Kirley on the campus tour, students seemed both engaged and enthusiastic. The campus buildings themselves are humble with several quasi portable classrooms, one being used as a dance studio; the cafeteria doubling as a gymnasium and auditorium. But in spite of a humble outside appearance and modest size, it is obvious that a lot of time and effort is expended in creating an enriching educational environment with both teachers and parents working together. Classrooms are filled with student artwork and lesson related posters and materials in a way that belies a lot of thought and care.


There is a lot of reason for optimism around the model being used at the Vallejo Charter School. But there are some concerning issues surrounding the charter school concept in the broader context of American public education. This became apparent to me when a parent who recognized me tapped my shoulder and explained the plight of his 10 year old step son. Our conversation went like this:


Do you want to hear the real story?” he asked, outlining the lottery system and limited number of slots at VCS.


We tried to get him in last year but he didn't get in and his mother refuses to send him to one of the two schools near us because they are so low performing. We lie about his residency so he can go to school in XXXXXX.”


What?”


Yeah. I hate to admit it, but he stays with friends during the week so he can go to school in XXXXXX. He's too young at ten to take a bus by himself. His mother is really depressed because she never sees her son except on the weekends, and I just really hope he gets in next year. We're considering home schooling, but that means one of us will have to quit our job or go part time and that's not going to be easy...it's really tough. I just hope he gets in, or I'm not sure what we're going to do.”


This whole conversation is disturbing on so many levels. While many charter schools are doing an admirable job, it is a harsh reminder that, “The system is broken. We have to operate within a broken system and do the best we can,” as one parent volunteer put it.


That parents have to compete, enter lotteries or lie, finagle and claw their children into a decent education undermines the principles of public education we are supposed to embrace in this country. Public education as the great social equalizer is failing miserably in America. Children with engaged, capable and proactive parents are likely to get into a school like VCS. But what about situations such as the many single parent families today, or cases where there are social problems within the family such as substance abuse, violence or just outright poverty? These parents are likely not to have the time, energy awareness or desire to make the sort of effort required in what has now become a fight for their children's future. Simply put, this is the application of Social Darwinism to the institutions designed to protect and provide opportunity in the most equitable way possible to the youngest members of our society and those with the greatest potential to become valuable members of society, or not.


And we in Vallejo and America engage in a clueless and endless marathon of head scratching as to why there seems to be a constantly growing underclass of unskilled, uneducated, untrained, unemployed and unemployable people who merely strain our remaining social systems? Prisons are overflowing, felons being released and yet our educational institutions which can play a part in breaking that cycle are fragmenting into a system which imposes a de-facto segregation and mechanistic determinism in driving the disadvantaged to the bottom and increasing the gap between rich and poor, those of advantage and entrenched indigence.


Is it un-American to believe that certain institutions such as education should be run on an essentially socialist model? Or should we allow more harsh forces of market and personal motivation to hold sway over our youth even if it means that many of them are shoved off into a ditch that will inform their path through adulthood?


We are losing the very principles that earned our country the moniker “Land of Opportunity.”