Incorrect Charter School History: A study of the Academy of the Pacific Rim to Unveil the True Nature of the Reform
By: Lily Jewell
May 5, 2017
The charter school concept was originally a small idea, but today the creation of individual charter schools has led to a massive education reform. According to Kahlenberg and Potter, the original idea of charter schools was developed by teachers in the 1980s. These leaders wanted to create small, engaging educational settings throughout low- income communities. It was an attempt to help students from all different racial, ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds. At first these schools were a simple alternative for students from low-income backgrounds. They prided themselves on individuality. Since, the schools pride themselves on being unique does the general overview of the reform compare to the history and evolution of a specific charter school. How did the Academy of the Pacific Rim originate, and is their story similar or different to the typical charter narrative as portrayed by Kahlenberg and Potter in A Smarter Charter? And what does this comparison reveal about how to correctly tell the story about the charter school reform?
Academy of the Pacific Rim, located in Hyde Park, Boston Massachusetts, founded in 1995, once the charter school reform had already begun. Academy of the Pacific Rim prides them on fulfilling the goals of the charter school movement. Academy of the Pacific Rim is just one of the many charter schools that make up the entire reform. Studying the origins of this specific charter school, will provide an up close and personal look at how one charter school’s story compares to an overall historical analysis of the charter school reform. Since charter schools pride themselves on originality, and more, it will be intriguing to see how the portrayal of the charter school reform lines up with the individual case of Academy of the Pacific Rim. The history of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, lines up with Kahlenberg and Potter’s focus on individuality, but studying the individual case proves that we cannot study the reform as a whole. In order to understand how charter schools are working to serve our students we must look at how each school serves specific niches and how they evolve individually over time.
Kahlenberg and Potter manage to tell only the general charter school reform story, as moving away from Shanker’s original vision. In order to prove how far the reform has moved away from the original vision they analyze the different promises of the original reform, and assess whether the statistics from three different studies show that they are succeeding. The overall data they found was that “the group of schools that were supposed to be held up as exemplars, models for the traditional schools, in reality perform, on a whole, no better,” (Kahlenberg and Potter 82). The history they paint of the charter schools shows the history and progress of charter schools as a whole, rather than the individualized schools. But there studies do not remain consistent for all charter schools, specifically the Academy of the Pacific Rim.
Charter schools vary on a variety of different levels, such as location, study body, niches, and more. Despite the variety in the physical schools, the stories of these charter schools seem more alike than different. The portrayal of charter school origins appears similar because of the consistent goals of different charter schools. They all work to provide low-income families with better public school opportunities. Academy of the Pacific Rim, like many charter schools pride themselves on providing the best education for their students, similar to other excelling charter schools in Boston, such as Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and Boston Harbor Academy Charter School. “They are also knit by a common vision: serving city youth who want academically rigorous options beyond traditional public schools,” (Vaishnav 2002). Academy of the Pacific Rim, along with many schools that make up the charter school reform, get lost in the vast sea of charter schools. The charter school originating story is remarkably similar to the general story of the reform, but differs in the ways in which its originating story is centered partially on the niches of the school.
The origin story depicted by Kahlenburg and Potter tells the story of independent educators wanting to experiment with their teaching styles. Similar to the depiction in A Smarter Charter, the Academy of the Pacific Rim was founded by former public or private school teachers in their thirties who met at conferences or meetings on charter schools (Vashinav 2002). This image enforces the idea that the Academy of the Pacific Rim charter school was founded on the very basic premises as other charter schools in the reform. And similar to the overview given in A Smarter Charter, the leaders of the school eventually got lost in a group of other Boston charter schools. Along with Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and Boston Harbor Academy Charter School, Academy of the Pacific Rim leaders created a sort of alliance with the other school leaders. “They swap notes on boosting scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam. They share ideas on math curricula. If one has an opening for a teacher, they refer candidates,” (Vashinav 2002). Additionally, Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, said the strong bonds among Pacific Rim, Roxbury Prep, and the Harbor Academy “exemplify the relationship he hopes to see among the state’s 42 charter schools. He also wants charter schools to work more closely with public schools,” (Vaishnav 2002). The leaders of these charter schools see them as excelling because of the ways in which they have broken from the ‘self-reliant’ mentality charter schools were originally founded with. The portrayal of Academy of Pacific Rim in Vashinav’s article expresses the distancing from individuality as a positive, which is very different than how Kahlenburg and Potter paint the picture of the charter school reform.
Another way studying the Academy of the Pacific Rim’s founding can help ensure a fuller understanding of the charter school reform is the way in which the story expresses the importance of having school specific niches. Each charter school has a different student body to educate, with a variety of different needs. Academy of the Pacific Rim was founded on western principles, because specific parent activist felt there was a certain advantage in doing so. The goal of creating this school was to take into consideration not just races, such as black and white. Robert Guen, a former school committee member and founder of the Academy of the Pacific Rim said “‘We thought we could do something not just for Chinese Americans, but for the whole city,’… ‘Combine the high academic standards, discipline, and emphasis on character development’,” (Radin 1998). This mentality is different than the one depicted in A Smarter Charter. Even the curriculum is different than the general traditional public schools:
They start the day with exercises in tai chi chuan, an ancient Chinese meditation in motion. They wear casual uniforms: khaki pants and white oxford shirts, or burgandy shirts with the school’s logo. No sneakers. No jeans. They adhere to a strict disciplinary code. They clean their school themselves. They all study Mandarin Chinese. Absences are low, ambitions high (Radin 1998).
As Kahlenburg and Potter portray, each charter school is different. But by studying the curriculum at the Academy of the Pacific Rim, the true power of the individualism within charter schools becomes unveiled. Studying the culture and curriculum of Academy of the Pacific Rim proves that some schools are succeeding in meeting the needs of the students.
In addition to looking at the curriculum and culture of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, analyzing the history portrayal of school finances also proves the importance of studying individual schools rather than the reform as a whole. The Academy of the Pacific Rim started in only two floors of a building in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. And like many other charter schools, they were struggling to find the appropriate way to get more finances. Since charter schools are not that old, understanding finances is still a work in progress. But in 2006 the Academy of the Pacific Rim got lucky because they got cut a deal because of $22.27 million revenue bond issue sold by the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (Kaske 2006). They ended up being granted $11.775 million, and it was insured through ACA Financial Guaranty Corp, making it the first charter school is Massachusetts to have bond insurance (Kaske 2006). This individual financial success confirms the importance of studying the individual cases of charter schools, because “in some states, charter schools are unable to find financing for facility acquisitions and renovations,” (Kaske 2006). Therefore, it is impossible to tell the charter school reform story from a financial perspective because each case is different. And understanding how a school acquires their resources is crucial because the resources change the face of the school entirely. All in all, it is impossible to rate how charter schools are performing unless there is a foundational understanding of how they acquire their resources, and this is why overarching stories such as A Smarter Charter are not as helpful as studying the individual cases of charter schools.
Additionally another flaw about telling only the story of the charter school reform as whole based off statistics, is that when schools are referenced frequently they are only referred to based on their current standing in time. There is no story about how the individual schools improve over time. For example, in 2006 when the Academy of the Pacific Rim received this influx in money they were able to accept 125 (Kaske 2006) additional students, creating more opportunities for more underprivileged students. And quite frequently these success stories are overshadowed by the major failures of the reform. The ability of the Academy of the Pacific Rim to improve their educational environment significantly is something to be applauded. But overviewing stories such as A Smarter Charter do not reveal how schools have improved. Studying schools on an individualistic basis is the only way to reveal improvements. Since the charter schools are still a relatively new form of schools, understanding their development individually is crucial in order to properly evaluate them.
Studying the individual cases of charter schools is significantly better than giving an overview based off of general statistics. Although the story Kahlenberg and Potter tell is the right story is does not give enough credit to the charter schools in terms of how they are individually performing in terms of culture and curriculum, and how they have improved over the years. Charter schools were only created a little over thirty years ago, therefore, they are here to stay and are going to keep improving. The study of the Academy of the Pacific Rim reveals the importance of studying the individual practices and financing to tell the whole story of the charter school reform. The charter school reform started so that public schools would have freedom experiment and has a sense of individuality. Therefore, when telling the story of the charter school reform, the reform part of it should be removed from the story. Instead the details of the day-to-day business of individual schools should be portrayed, whether they are prevailing and successful schools or failing and need dire improvements. Each school is different, and has to work to educate a variety of different student bodies. Therefore, each school has different needs that need to be met. No school is the same, because no student body is the same. The statistics can only tell part of the charter school story. A Smarter Charter tells the logistical side of the story, but the study the portrayal of the Academy of the Pacific Rim through newspaper articles unveils the truth of the history of charter schools.
Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College, 2014. Print.
Kaske, Michelle. “Massachusetts Charter School Using Bond Proceeds to Purchase Building.” The Bond Buyer. (July 10, 2006 Monday): 362 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2017/03/29.
Radin, C. A. (1998, Apr 13). WHERE EAST MEETS WEST ACADEMY OF THE PACIFIC RIM IS ONE OF 24 CHARTER SCHOOLS IN STATE CATERING TO PARTICULAR NICHES IN PUBLIC EDUCATION. Boston Globe Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/405222573?accountid=14405
Vaishnav, A. (2002, Jun 16). CHARTER SCHOOLS SHARE IDEAS. Boston Globe Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/405452740?accountid=14405