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The raft of proposed legislation in the state Legislature seeking to limit or cap charter schools all share one disturbing element: the bills ignore the impact charters have on the students they serve.
I know for certain that a charter school changed my life. It was 2004 and I had taken a chance a few months earlier and submitted a lottery application to attend the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona.
I was filled with anticipation — so much so that every day I checked our rust-colored mailbox in the small apartment I shared with my mother in South El Monte. I didn’t know a lot — just that this new charter school said it was focused on educating students for the 21st century. This was done by providing students with both academic and entrepreneurial knowledge combined with core knowledge of the visual and performing arts.
When I brought my mother the application, I remember her saying, “Is this a private school? I want you to go to a good high school, but you know we can’t afford it.”
I explained to her that it was a not a private school, but rather a charter school, all of which are public and tuition-free. Before that year I had never heard of a charter school either. Where I grew up, nearly a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, my neighborhood was plagued with gang violence and drugs and the local schools were not the greatest.
The day I finally received a letter from the School of Arts and Enterprise, I raced into my room and tore at the envelope, feeling a mix of nervousness, excitement and fear. When I read “Congratulations and welcome to the School of Arts and Enterprise,” I was overwhelmed with happiness. The thought of my education had never thrilled me this way.
Our campus was a renovated warehouse, we lacked a proper cafeteria and sport teams, but my charter school felt magical to me. Maybe it was the small class sizes, the extra supports, the unique curriculum, or the teachers who truly believed in us. What I do know is that it was a place where diversity was embraced, where having a lot of energy didn’t classify me as a disruptive student and where being outspoken was considered positive.
My new school was so great that it didn’t matter that I spent four hours a day on public transportation getting to school and back home. For the first time in my life I was able to see my potential first hand. All of a sudden, my future was no longer an abstract, I yearned for a college degree and a career that fulfilled and challenged me. My goals felt tangible and I knew I was working towards them every single day, in every class.
I now work for a charter school network. As a staffer at Green Dot Public Schools (a unionized charter network), I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share the stories of our students, schools and educators.
This year I met a student at Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School who, as I did, commutes a great distance to attend the school because of her unsatisfactory experiences at her neighborhood schools. Before attending a Green Dot school she felt like school wasn’t important. But her mindset changed when she attended Ánimo Pat Brown school; she eventually worked her way from failing all of her classes to getting As.
My charter school education has helped me accomplish many goals in life, including being one of the few in my neighborhood to attend college and the first person in my family to earn a college degree.
A single choice changed the trajectory of my life, so when I hear that future students may be robbed of their choice to attend a charter school, it’s heartbreaking. In all aspects of life, society encourages choices and options, yet when it comes to one’s future and education the idea of choice is damning — but it doesn’t have to be.
By now we know that when it comes to education one size does not fit all, so why does a family’s zip code still determine the quality of education they receive? If we truly care about students and have their best interest in mind, families should be free to choose the education option that best suits their child.
It is essential that our elected leaders remember this — and remember families like mine.
Michael Phillips is a staff writer at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management organization.
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