Geography is NOT Destiny: Charter Schools and Choice

Geography is NOT Destiny: Charter Schools and Choice

Elana’s mom drives past four different schools to get to ours. “It’s a lot of driving,” she says, “but Elana has a home here.” It has not been an easy journey. Elana’s home school is 9 miles away—an eternity of lethargic traffic signals for a working mom with two other children.

At Elana’s last school, her teacher called her “stupid.” “She hated school after that,” Mrs. Monriquez says softly.

She heard about our school from another parent and “it has made all of the difference.”

I work at a charter school. Unlike district schools, charter schools do not enroll students by way of address, zip code, or physical boundary line. Instead, families must eschew the district-designated “home school” (generally the most geographically close school) letters they receive inviting their student to the district school, and find us.

Elana’s academic journey has not been an easy one. She was identified as emotionally disturbed in kindergarten. Without warning, she will tumble to the floor of her classroom, roll into a ball and repeat: “No, no, no.”

Mrs. Penn, her teacher, will gently redirect her; for the most part, Elana has adapted well to our student-centered model. The room to work at her own pace and according to her own learning style suits her well.

Charter schools weren’t necessarily created to carve out opportunities for students like Elana. The original hope was that we would be incubators of innovation. The smaller, less bureaucratic structure of charter schools theoretically would allow for the expeditious piloting of initiatives. If successful, these efforts could be leveraged to other schools.

While still possessing the latitude to be pioneers, more frequently, charter schools have become homes for lost children—those that fall into cracks, slip through cracks, or just plain create cracks.

Indeed, we have become an alternative and viable pathway for students for whom standard education misses the mark or fails or is the wrong target in general. When I think of our students—particularly those in a similar position to Elana—funneling all students into a single school based solely on where they live seems arbitrary and, in some cases, unrelenting.

How and where we are educated is deeply personal. For instance, the Linkedin feature “Find My University” asks a series of questions that guide the user to the best fit. The final question asks: Where do you want to live. When I think of the myriad of reasons I chose the college I would ultimately attend, my then-current zip code, thankfully, had nothing to do with it.

In something so important as education—something Nelson Mandela said is the only thing with the power to change the world—why not give every student a chance to find a school that works for her?

For students like Elana—students for whom the beat of their own drum is often far louder and more compelling than a single voice or a single choice of school—charter schools may well provide an acceptance, a shelter, and a home.

Please note: names used in this piece have been changed to protect privacy

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