This morning, I witnessed the start of a new school year at two very different buildings – a neighborhood public school that first opened its doors in 1924, and a public charter school that was opening its doors for the very first time.
I still get back-to-school butterflies each time a new year begins. There’s just something uniquely beautiful, and precarious, about the first day a group of children come together under one roof. The promise of what lies ahead feels like an almost unbearable ache – the weight of the work to be done being so great, and so unsteady.
By 7:00am this morning, there were still no children under the charter school’s roof — the school day didn’t begin until 8:30am – but the mere presence of the roof itself was cause for celebration. Just two days earlier, the hallways of the school, which will be housed for its first year on the fourth floor of a new office building in downtown DC, were buzzing with last-minute preparations. Workmen installed new windows in every room – a task the school’s founding executive director had been begging the building’s owner to complete for weeks. One volunteer steadily made her way up and down the hallways, using a green marker and a stencil to affix room numbers. The father of the school’s board chair installed wire hanging rods on the walls. In one classroom, two women spoke Spanish as they finalized nametags, while another made colorful signs out of construction paper.
By the time the first student arrived – a five-year-old boy named Henry, clutching a batman action figure and bearing the eager grin of someone ready for a new adventure – any signs of the recent chaos were long gone. The classrooms – large, sunny and airy – were immaculate and inviting. Each adult wore colorful t-shirts bearing the name and logo of the school. As the school’s operations manager struggled to get the printer in working order before the inaugural group of 120 children arrived, she took a deep breath and said, to no one in particular, “It will all be OK.”
A short bike ride across town, a different set of children and families made their way along the long, sunny sidewalk that leads up to the neighborhood school’s front doors. Originally built to accommodate the children of European refugees from World War I, the school’s enrollment now tops 450, and reflects the modern diversity of the surrounding streets. This morning alone, I heard English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Amharic in the hallways. Children as young as three and as old as eleven filled the school’s gymnasium to meet their classroom teachers and get escorted to their homerooms. Parents received last-minute registration and information forms, and interpreters worked busily to make sure everyone understood what was required. During one such exchange, a teacher kinetically approached a particularly sullen young boy. “How you doing, Enrique?” she said, smiling and putting an arm around his shoulder. “Did you have a great summer?” Enrique shrugged, his head still down. Nearby, two girls playfully interacted with each other – new friends perhaps? – each clasping securely to the leg of her father, each performing her own unique pirouette.
This year, I hope to watch how the school calendar unfolds for these two communities – along with a private secondary school – and learn more about the particular obstacles and opportunities that give shape to the daily workings of a modern American school.
Although I live and work in DC, my interest in choosing three schools from the area went beyond mere convenience. Roughly 40% of the students in DC attend charter schools; less than 3% do nationwide. Similarly, less than 10% of the nation’s students attend private schools, yet many of the country’s finest are housed here, reflecting an uncomfortable – yet accurate – cultural divide that typifies the nation’s capital. And although the overwhelming majority of children in America still attend their neighborhood public school, fewer and fewer families in DC are doing so, opting instead to enter the growing, chaotic and nascent marketplace of school choice.
As this market grows and more families across the country are faced with similar decisions, what can the experiences of the educators, parents and students from these three school communities teach us about how to identify – and support – a great learning environment? Will our nation’s public, public charter and private schools openly and freely share their most valuable insights and observations with each other in order to benefit children and communities nationwide? Or will the high stakes of the marketplace lead a new generation of educators and innovators to guard their best practices, undermine their colleagues, and further privatize this most public of institutions?
Time will tell how these particular schools choose to answer those questions. But today was a good first day.
Just 179 to go.