The Value of Charter Schools

By Solomon Hammerly ’16

In 1991 Minnesota became the first state to write a charter school law and introduce the concept of a publicly funded independent school to the public. Two decades later, approximately 6,400 charter schools are active across the country. The involvement between independent schools and public contributors allows for a different, and perhaps better, level of education.

The outside of Opal School, another school Gardner formerly worked at. (Photo: Solomon Hammerly '16)

The outside of Opal School, another school Gardner formerly worked at. (Photo: Solomon Hammerly ’16)

There is a fair amount of opposition to charter schools, most commonly the fact that parents are granted less freedom in giving their children educational opportunities. The UCLA Civil Rights Project, in a report on charter schools, explained, “The ability to choose assumes ready exposure to available school options. Research suggests that families’ access to the educational marketplace is unequally constrained by a number of factors, including contact with advantaged social networks… language barriers, socioeconomic status and the ability of parents to arrange transportation for their schoolchildren.”

Charter schools are struggling to break these stigmas, and that’s where Zalika Gardner comes in. Formerly a Lower School teacher, she left Catlin Gabel in the early 2000s to do what she believed would be the key to providing a strong education for students of color: starting a charter school of her own.

Gardner is helping to found the Kairos PDX Learning Academy. “It all started with myself and one of my colleagues, we had been friends for a long time and she was in on industrial policy. We both felt there was a lack of innovation in the way traditional schools worked. Although I love it at Catlin, I knew I didn’t want to spend my whole life there,” she said.

While she does express love for our school, she also wanted to venture outside of its tight curriculum: “I knew I wanted to be in a public school eventually. I looked at [Catlin Gabel’s] landscape and just felt constricted by it, because our charter school is smaller, we have the ability to change and experiment to pursue innovation.”

The mission statement of her planned school is to, “cultivate confident, creative, and compassionate leaders.” Choosing these words were considered essential to her and co-workers. “We’re preparing these kids for a future that we don’t know how it will turn out. All of our curricular decisions came out of those three goals,” she said.

Providing education to lower-class and low-income families is one of Gardner’s passions.

“One of the reasons we chose charter when we could have gone independent is that we don’t charge for tuition, and that we still have control over how we teach,” she explained.

 

While all these factors are important to her, she states that her overarching goal relates more to one of the key problems other charter schools face regarding one’s race in education.

Gardner stated that, “Our main goal of Kairos is to eliminate race as a predictor for academic success and to close the achievement gap for students of color. We see that gap as more [of] an opportunity gap and we plan to close that by capitalizing on every opportunity we can in integrating community to our learning.”

Within the last year as an educator, Gardner has kept quite busy. Speaking at TEDx Portland in mid-March, she presented her goal of creating a community centered around listening as a much needed spotlight. She also wants to translate her desire for listening to children into her school.

 

“The goals we teach in our own particular curriculum comes from the interests of the kids. To be able to do that well enough, the teacher or facilitator needs to be able to listen. You wouldn’t come in to school on Monday and know what you’re going to do on Friday,” she said.

The laws governing which public agencies are allowed to create charter schools raises concerns among many about the quality of education offered. One noted concern is in states with a high number of students enrolled, including California, Arizona and Michigan, teachers do not always have to be certified in order to teach in charter schools.

However, Gardner sees this as her advantage, letting her hire her own hand-picked teachers for Kairos, instead of relying on certifications and other superimposed qualifications.

 

“Hiring wouldn’t have to be based around a hierarchy of teachers,” Gardner mentioned regarding giving these jobs to adults. Kairos was approved by the Portland School Board in December 2013, and plans to open in August of this year.

Despite the struggle of closing this achievement gap and other past concerns about charter schools hurting that possibility, Gardner and Kairos provide hope in what the ideal charter school could be.