Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice

(a draft introduction of my new book — feedback of all sorts welcomed and encouraged.)


Unlike the others, who set off in teams to look for the twigs, branches, and leaves they would weave together to capture the essence of their school, Laura Graber searched the ground around her, alone.

It was unlike her – the person most responsible for bringing this group together in the first place to launch the Green Earth Bilingual Public Charter School from scratch, and the person most committed to doing so democratically. But now it was June, and the inaugural year was over, and the staff of twenty-one women and two men was completing its last shared activity before the start of the summer, when the size of their team would double, when they would pack up all the records and wires and playthings and poster boards and move to a new building across town, and when the glow of what had just been accomplished would start to fade in exchange for a renewed anxiety of all the new challenges to be overcome.

Laura leaned down and grabbed a branch, thin and moldable. The spot of Rock Creek Park she was in was right next to the spot she’d gone running all year to maintain her sense of balance – the only time of the week when no one could demand anything of her, and there was no problem to solve.

Teams of teachers returned to the main clearing by the creek. Cassie Hurst came back speaking with her usual energy and excitement about what she’d found and what the group should do. Jessica Rodriguez and Beth LaPenn chatted away in Spanish, their minds on their summer adventure in Madrid, just days away. And Dora Benitez was already steeling herself to be one of the ones to get in the water, because that’s what her dad would have expected of his Dolly.

Before walking to the park from the school, which would soon become just another floor in a downtown office building, Hallie Schmidt showed everyone picture books of the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy. Each page held images of evanescent sculptures Goldsworthy had made with only the materials nature provided: Circles of reconstituted icicles. Potholes along a stream filled with bright yellow dandelions. Lines of white wool along a dark stone fence.

The group decided their own sculpture would be a circle of branches, to reflect the spirit of the Oglala Lakota poem Dora had shared with them:

In the Circle, we are all equal. When in the circle,

No one is in front of you. No one is behind you.

No one is above you. No one is below you.

Some bent stacks of sticks into shape, while others wove together the many gradients of green – grass, leaves, brush – into a long, crooked line that would, they decided, form a path to lay across the center of the circle. It was always the same, Hallie thought as she watched these young people work, remembering the first cabin she and her husband had built, and then lost to a fire the night they moved in: you gather your materials, you consult your plans, you make your final decisions, and then you build the house.

     *  *  *

The Sutpen Elementary School parade began in a small park at the confluence of five city streets and three city neighborhoods. For months the weather had been cooler than usual, but by a mid-morning in June it was still hot enough to keep most of the adults huddled under the shade of the park’s aging oak trees, each group chatting casually in a different mother tongue: Vietnamese, Spanish, Amharic, English. A police car idled at the base of the street that bore the name of the neighborhood it served – Mount Pleasant – and waited for the parade to begin.

As teachers orchestrated the final arrangements – cheerleaders up front, drum and bugle corps to follow, and flag bearers representing every nation in the community picking up the rear – nine-year-old Lourdes adjusted the yellow “Nuestra Escuela” t-shirt across her sleight shoulders and grabbed hold of the large, wide Sutpen banner with three other students. As they walked to the front of the line, past a sea of family members holding cameras and camcorders, Lourdes knew not to look for a familiar face. She wouldn’t see her dad until she boarded the plane to spend the summer with him in Texas, and she had learned long ago it was best not to think about where Mami might be at any given moment. She watched the spinning lights at the top of the police car and imagined the parade was already over so she could be back on the soccer field blazing down the sideline, past all the boys, to score another goal and remind everyone how strong she really was.

The police car started crawling up the street, and the cheerleaders began their rhythmic chant: SUT-PEN! The last remaining students and adults emerged from the shade of the trees to fall in line, while a phalanx of mothers with younger children formed an impromptu stroller brigade at the back.

Lourdes watched the people gathering in interest as the parade progressed down the street. Three heads poked out of a window above the 24-hour Laundromat. A man with a lathered face got out of his chair to stand on the top step of the Pan American barbershop.  An elderly woman sipped coffee from a mug on the porch of her aging Victorian, while younger children – future Bancroft students – weaved their tricycles in between the foot traffic of the sidewalk.

As they reached the midway point of the street, Lourdes could see the white canopies of the neighborhood farmer’s market – just past the Best World supermarket on one side of the street, and the blackened facade of the burned-out apartment building on the other. Like everyone else, Lourdes had friends that had lived there and been displaced, the letters of the sign they hung in the first weeks after the tragedy starting to fade in the summer sun: HELP ME RETURN TO OUR HOME.

Two blocks away, Sutpen’s principal, Kim Ortiz, was preparing the back of the school for the parade’s arrival. Parent volunteers set up the barbeque pit and sorted the hamburgers, hot dogs, and churros for quick cooking. Another group set up the moon bounce just beyond the dunking booth – her students always loved the chance to drop their principal into a tank of cold water.

Ms. Ortiz listened for the sound of the drums.

The year had not gone the way she had hoped – far from it, really. She’d endured two different parent insurrections. She’d struggled to gain support from her staff for a new style of classroom teaching. And she had just learned that two of her best in that new style, “the Two Sarahs,” would not be returning. Yet there were days like this that always seemed to come along at just the right time to remind her why she became an educator – days when a neighborhood’s children and families would come together and remind each other that they were participating in the same dream: to unite all the children of a single community under a single roof in order to give them all an equal shot at success.

*  *  *

Imagine a year in the life of two different communities – a public charter school that was opening its doors for the very first time, and a neighborhood public school that first opened its doors in 1924.

In the fall of 2011, I embarked on a yearlong observation of these two schools, and of the city they exist to serve: Washington, DC.

Like other major American cities, the nation’s capital is experimenting with a new concept that is dramatically reshaping public education – school choice. In the past, choosing whether to “pay or stay” was something only the wealthy could do; the rest of us merely sent our kids to the local school and hoped for the best. Now, however, in cities like DC, lower- and middle-class parents are also considering a wider set of options – and confronting a wider array of obstacles. Although less than 3% of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools – public institutions with greater freedom to pilot different approaches to teaching, learning and governance – 41% of DC’s students are enrolled in such schools, including brand-new ones like Green Earth. At the same time, many of the city’s most promising traditional public schools are receiving an increasing number of applications from families that live outside its neighborhood boundaries. In the 2011-2012 school year, for example, nearly half of Sutpen’s students lived outside the school’s attendance zone.

Consequently, although the majority of children in rural and suburban America still attend their neighborhood school, fewer and fewer urban families are doing so, opting instead to enter the chaotic and nascent marketplace of school choice, and participating in a great intra-city migration of families, each in search of a school and a community they can claim as their own.

This move toward greater school choice is particularly vital – and potentially dangerous – when one considers that public education is the only institution in American society that is guaranteed to reach 90% of every new generation, that is governed by public authority, and that was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society.

In this new frontier, will the wider array of school options help parents and educators identify better strategies for helping all children learn – strategies that can then be shared for the benefit of all schools? Or will the high stakes of the marketplace lead us to guard our best practices, undermine our colleagues, and privatize this most public of institutions?

I have written Our School because I believe that before we can answer these questions, we must first understand what good teaching and learning really looks like – and requires. And we must become familiar with the state of the field as it is – and as it ought to be. The specific landscape of school choice may be new, but the general challenge is as old as the country itself: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.

Categories: Book Projects, Starting a School

Tags: , ,

Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Tim McClung
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    a) what you like and dislike- like examples of student choice in all aspects of school and schooling, dislike examples of teacher and parent choice without student input.

    b) what you want to learn more about-does anybody perceive education in a new light, as something to admire and enjoy in children but not to control? If not, why? If so, how are they allowing students to learn for themselves. (note: this is not the same as personalized learning which is still something that we do TO students as WIll Richardson points out)

    c) what a book like this absolutely must (and must not) include- Must include what allows students to have the freedom to learn on their own terms. Must not included a comparison of test scores between the 2 schools or any complaints from either school that one school has this advantage or disadvantage compared to the other.

  2. Romey Pittman
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Love your entry points, though they seem very different from one another (perhaps intentionally?). The MV scene seems more about a complex set of individual adult characters interacting together (without kids in the picture), and the Bancroft one more student and neighborhood-focused with less foreshadowing of individual characters…Maybe that’s because I know one cast of characters already and not the other one. Of course the MV details are not quite right (how could you know without having been there at that moment?) and I or any one of us who was there could help you tweak those if you want – or maybe that’s not so important.
    Loved your framing of the book overall – now I understand the vision…And can’t wait to read more…

  3. Jenerra Williams
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I liked the picture of the two schools. I agree with the above comments and would like to hear more about the kids in the picture of the first school and also some background on why they were gathering and the signifigance of it. Being from Mission Hill I’m sure I understand why, but this sort of gathering is not common and should be given more context. At Mission Hill when we spend this kind of time together, it helps to fortify relationships, refocus us, celebrate our accomplishments, support each other, acknowledge respect and admiration for each other, etc. This in turn creates caring and trust, which I would argue is HUGE foundation of the success of our school. I think the suggestion from Romey to get more details on that scene is a good one.

    I would love to learn more about how learning happens in each school, how much student voice is present in their learning and the school community as a whole, what parent involvment looks like, and ways they measure success without a number. I can’t wait to read about the “new style of classroom teaching” that was mentioned and would like to hear what the staff’s specific oppositions to it were.

    I also agree with Tim that comparison of scores (test or otherwise) must not be included.

    I think what should be included is a comparison of how the schools are alike in positive ways and how those things moved the schools forward. It would be great if you could focus on a male teacher at some point. The feild is so dominated by women. Will race, class or gender be talked about at all? I don’t have any ideas about that at the moment. Just curious.

    I love the imagry you created. I could definately get a feel for what was happening in each scence! I look forward to reading more. Maybe we’ll have time to chat when I’m in DC in the next few weeks.

  4. Anita Peters
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I found the description of the two schools confusing at the beginning and too long. I think you need to shorten this and make the contrast more apparent-. I liked the principal’s reflection but it came too late- it could be reversed – begin with this reflection and then looking out at the community coming together. Those who have been in the frontlines know this feeling well- I have seen this up close having worked for two charter schools, one in NYC and the other in CT.

    I like when you talk about what your objective is- imagine … this is a good opening.

    What else- you must include somewhere how technology is changing how we learn and teach and what this means for education. You should attend the NYT tech conference in NYC in Sept. Look up Gooru. Is technology democratizing education by opening up opportunities where before there were none?

    You have to look at both the microcosm and the macro picture.

    That’s it for now. Yes, Sam I am reading and following you.

    warm regards,

  5. Don Davies
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    You are onecofvthec few educador/writers paying sériious attention to democracy and the Schools. Só I look forward your new book. I welvomevnew exemples of what democrátic Schools actually do and look like. I ffounded the Institute for Responsive Education in 1973. And kept is going for 35 years. I am still trying to think and writecabout Schools and democracy, but my 85 year old brai n does not always Play ball.Só I am jealous of you and wish I had had social networking and Ipads etc when I was trying to Change the world. Please keep up what you are doing! Don Davies

  6. Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink


    Some thoughts/questions.
    1. Is it fair or representative to be comparing a charter school in its first year of operation, before an optimal pattern for teaching and learning has been established?
    2. You do a nice job of conveying an experience in place-based learning Laura is involved in. It might be more useful if this were compared with a more typical learning experience at Sutpen. The parade, as a once-a-year event, doesn’t provide the desired comparability in my opinion.
    3. I suggest the name of the charter school appear in the first few paragraphs.
    4. I’d agree with Anita, above, where she says, “I found the description of the two schools confusing at the beginning and too long. I think you need to shorten this and make the contrast more apparent.”

  7. Debra Henning
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    A. What you like: I like how you capture the personalities and personal dynamics of the teachers in the first school you describe. In the scenario for the second school, I learn more about the “issues” facing students, families, and school staff, which I also appreciate.

    B. What you dislike: From a reader’s standpoint, it seems that it would be well to choose two scenarios that have more parallels, e.g. teachers from each school reflecting on the year. Although you feature end of the year events in both scenarios, that commonality only gradually emerges in the reader’s experience. I also agree with the reader above who suggested that the introductory scenarios could be shorter, hopefully without losing the sense of real personalities that you have captured.

    C. What a book like this absolutely must (and must not) include for you to read it cover to cover: Such a book must balance facts, and I mean data, as well, with the narratives that capture the experiences of the entire school “family” – students, parents, educational staff, and administrative teams. I want to know who’s running the charter school; is it part of a corporate structure, or a grassroots institution; what role do the arts play in the curricula of both schools; what can you tell us about the core curricula in each school; how much autonomy do teachers in each school have to make curricular decisions; how much autonomy do students have in directing their studies; how much autonomy do the principals have in selecting their staffs; how do the staffs compare in demographics and education; how do the schools involve their communities in the life of the schools and students; and, yes, I would like some test data. Much of this information could be captured in a few well constructed tables, which readers could study or skip, as they choose. If the purpose of the book is to compare the schools and their unique contributions to public education, I believe it is essential to have such facts, along with the personal stories that capture the lived experiences of the members of the school communities. We need the kind of carefully crafted studies that you’re undertaking! Best wishes.

  8. Andi
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I am intrigued with the comparison and look forward to reading the complete text. But I am left wondering how charter schools will fit with the Common Core Standards that 46 states have adopted. This is an exciting time in education and a very uncertain time too. Will the standards help move democratic classrooms forward or continue to drive a wedge between the differing philosophies?

  9. Christopher Wilson
    Posted July 15, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Sam, you’re off to a really promising start here. The questions you raise at the end about school choice, and the tensions/possibilities surrounding it, definitely make the reader want to learn more. I found the description of the Sutpen parade especially engaging because of the focus on Lourdes. The opening sequence about Green Earth would be more gripping, I think, if there were also a student at its center. The emphasis on specific student characters is one of the factors that made “Waiting for Superman” so riveting, despite the shortcomings that you and I have already discussed. More later, when we see you — keep forging ahead, this is great stuff!

  10. Posted July 18, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Sam, I dig your narrative voice, as well as your essayist’s questions and framing.

    I have no problem juxtaposing these two scenes despite their differences if they both represent the same moment in time (loosely) in the year in the life of the schools. People should see how differently different schools close out – how do they choose to end each cycle in the lives of their schools? With what are their people primarily preoccupied or otherwise concerned? Part of what needs to be captured is the chaos – the messy and diverse vitality – of public education. Maybe a simple transition between the vignettes (“That same week,” “That same day,” over there “the school year closed differently,” etc.) could position their closings against one another in a clearer contrast. I don’t know.

    I’m curious about the benchmarks for success at the two schools – are they at all relative? How does one school get to move (from an office space), but not the other? In what ways are the schools aware of one another? Do they (educators, students, parents, supervisors) hold in their minds any connections or responsibilities between themselves or – more broadly – between public schools and public charters? How do they carry themselves under the comparison implicit in your – and the division’s and nation’s – observations? What does democracy look like at each school? How, if ever, and why does it break down at either place?

    How do the lives of the schools relate to one another as responses to the same system? How do the people in the schools feel the impact of their democracies and the system’s expectations of them?

    Lots of questions that aren’t really fair to ask based on a draft intro, but there you go –

    Best wishes as you pull it all together –

  11. Posted July 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    One thought to add into the mix is that I think the audience of this book could be wider than the US. For example, in my home city of Brighton in the UK there is a campaign to create a state-funded Montessori school which will, I hope, help to evolve education here into something more democratic. Would be great if you kept an international audience in mind when you write it so that it’s accessible and useful to people around the world who want to change education for the better.

    Very best of luck with the book Sam!

  12. Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for this great feedback. I’m in the midst of trying to finalize the draft of Part I of the book, so I’m doing what I can to incorporate these observations and strengthen the story overall. Stay tuned!

  13. Brian
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    It doesn’t look like an easy book to understand, but you wrote about relevant questions that only a little probably would take in consideration

    Tree Surgeon Hertfordshire

  • Read Sam’s Books