Monday, August 12, 2019

MI: Rural Charters, Warm Bodies, and the Effects of the Teacher "Shortage"

St. Helen, Michigan, has its share of problems. Founded as a logging community, it's Up North in Michigan. It's at least near the interstate, but the population is under 3,000, with a median family income of $30,268. They do have an annual bluegill festival, and Charlton Heston spent part of his childhood there. On the other hand, they're Number Two on the Roadsnacks list of Worst Small Towns in Michigan. Unemployment is a whopping 18.9%; poverty is at 31%. This summer the beaches at the lake have been closed down for bacteria.

Not actually a phys ed teacher
The town took another hit that started in 2008 when the Gerrish-Higgins School District wanted to raise some taxes to improve its buildings. St. Helen residents voted for the tax. Then the district was taken over by the Roscommon Area Public Schools and they marked the St. Helen Elementary School for closure, consolidating all their students into an elementary, middle and high school, all located in Roscommon.

Jennifer Jarosz had lived her whole live in St. Helen. She's the owner/operator of the Hen House Restaurant in St. Helen. She started up Rural Education Matters, and the community looked for ways to save their school, a critical part of the rural community. Initially, they could not find an authorizer, but in 2011 Jarosz was among those testifying before the House Education Committee hoping that the cap on Michigan charters would be lifted. Her work has earned her a spot on the Michigan Charter Schools Association board, an unusual presence among the usual collection of consultants, financiers and corporate profiteers.

This is a side effect of charter caps I'd never thought about, but if authorizers can only approve so many charters, the competition will be to see who can promise that authorizer the best return, and big corporate operations will squeeze out the Mom and Pop charters.

The cap was lifted, and St. Helen had their charter, initially for an elementary school, just down St. Helen Road from the Hen House, and named for St. Helen's most famous resident-- Charlton Heston Academy. It now covers K-12. They featured an extra long school day, and no three month summer vacation. Students have been traveling there from the surrounding rural areas, to the point that Charlton Heston Academy asked to be released from state regulations so that they could give preference to residents of St. Helen; Michigan charters must move to a lottery once they're full.

Yes, they indulge in some classic charter school baloney-- out in front they apparently have a sign that says "Tuition free..." and lists some other free things at the school. This is a lie. Like any charter, CHA is funded with taxpayer dollars. It's not free.

CHA has also become the largest employer in St. Helen, and that in itself is leading to other problems.

CHA has a teaching staff of over 40% substitute teachers.

This article features just one of the many (I'm not going to include her name-- you can find it easily enough, but I don't think the writer of this article was doing her any favors). She used to be a repo officer for a credit union. She applied to CHA to maybe be a payroll officer or office manager. They said, "Wouldn't you like to become a teacher?" So now she's teaching math. She says she loves it. She also says

If I would have went to school and came out at 24 to start teaching, I wouldn't have made it. You have to have life experience, you have to have backbone.

She also says:

I would say that [long-term subs and certified teachers] are absolutely equivalent. There’s a lot of misguided judgement from people because I didn’t go to school for teaching. I think they think we don’t deserve it. But I don’t think one’s better than the other.

And she also says this:

It (the test to become a certified teacher) doesn't say that you're going to be dealing with emotions. It's just, ‘Do I know how to add or multiply or do algebra in order to teach it to the kids?’ That's the smallest part of my job. The absolute smallest.

A first grade teacher with no teaching degree or credentials is asked what makes her feel she can teach first-graders without a teaching degree. She replies, "I'm passionate." And she was a preschool paraprofessional for a few years.

Long term subs in Michigan are only required to have 60 total college credits. CHA has the lowest student achievement (aka test scores) in their intermediate school district, which is unsurprising given the level of poverty in the district.

The superintendent (David Patterson, the registered agent of Champion Learning, LLC) says that while he would prefer to hire certified teachers, the subs are doing just as good a job as certified teachers-- "you can't tell the difference." Of course, at this point, many of the certified teachers at CHA are former subs who completed a crash-course, one-year-of-weekends program at Saginaw Valley State University. The math teacher quoted above, who should "have went to school" and who thinks content knowledge is a minor part of her job, is now a certified teacher via the SVSU program. The charter pays for the coursework in exchange for a three-year commitment to teach at the school. It may not be a great program, but it does cut fewer corners than Teach for America. Makes it about as good as the Relay GSE program, which is also baloney.

Patterson's background contains few surprises. He graduated from Roscommon High School and went to work as a social worker in both Michigan and Florida. He's been adjunct faculty at Davenport University, Henry Ford Community College, and the University of Phoenix. And he spent some time as a "school choice" advocate with The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University. So when he says he can't tell the difference between a substitute teacher and a trained, certified teacher, I believe him.

Patterson says that "the issue" is not long term subs, but the "teacher shortage." On this, we agree. Well, sort of. There is no teacher shortage. Hell, there isn't even that much of a "shortage" in rural Michigan. Yes, Michigan has seen a big drop in teachers in the pipeline, but CHA is employing waaaay more substitutes than any other rural schools in the state.

But the narrative of a teacher shortage allows folks to justify all sorts of shenanigans. It lets teacher leaders pretend that there is some sort of teacher crop failure, an act of divine deprivation that they are helpless to address, so, hey, might as well just start grabbing warm bodies off the street or hitting up people who apply for other jobs entirely. As long as they have passion and really care hard, they'll be just like all the other fully trained teachers.

And what sucks more about this is that the students at this school are poor, rural students who really, really need a strong school with strong teachers. Particularly in Michigan, where the state court ruled that the state is under no obligation to provide students with an education that is actually any good. The students of St. Helen have been shafted in an unpleasant variety of ways over the past decade. I actually agree with the concept of a locally owned and operated charter school to replace what's been lost, but come on, folks-- that only works if you provide your students with a real school staffed with real teachers. CHA is all excited about the athletic facilities it's going to build when they need to be excited about the fact that they can't actually attract and keep the staff they need to run a real school.

1 comment:

  1. I started my teaching career in this part of the state. Poverty is chronic and generational here. The idea of going away (and you have to go away) to get a college degree, then coming back to the area to share your new-found skills and ideas, to build the economy and raise your family, doesn't really exist.

    The best teachers for schools in Roscommon County and the surrounding counties--Crawford, Oscoda and Ogemaw--grew up in the area, and know what they're facing when they come back: that chronic, generational poverty. It's not a surprise when a school 'superintendent' claims that untrained subs are as good as those who have degrees and pedagogical training. He's just trying to make a buck, not run an exciting, engaging school where kids might be inspired to learn, see their horizons expand.

    The Roscommon area used to be a place where actual trained teachers took jobs early in their careers. Once they got their feet wet in the classroom, they would either seek a better-paying job in a part of the state where college was a goal for HS students and families--or decide to live in 'God's Country' and enjoy teaching in a low-pressure, small-town setting, replete with lakes and forests. Charters have upset that academic apple cart--once responsible public systems lost operating capital through charters, a stable school ecology has been forced to cut programming to the bone and hire wedding planners as 1st grade teachers. Another way that charters make things worse everywhere.