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How Peninsula Charter Schools Succeed

Charter School advocates and union leaders discuss their take on the contentious issue of charter schools and specifically how to evaluate teachers.

As the school year fast approaches, many parents and their children are anxiously awaiting word on whether they were accepted off the waiting list to some of the Peninsula’s top charter schools.

Schools such as , magnet school and the East Palo Alto Charter School are known for low drop-out rates and boast far higher college acceptance numbers than their public school counterparts.

In the much spoken-about 2010 , non-union charter schools are portrayed as the end-all, be-all solution to the issues of underperforming schools.

Patch set out this week to talk to charter school advocates and union leaders about the pros and cons of charter schools and how best to develop them.

Todd Dickson, the former Executive Director of Summit Prep, one of the schools featured in “Waiting for Superman”, described charter schools as having greater autonomy than most schools, giving them the flexibility to try innovative approaches.

Dickson, who is currently working to develop several new charter schools in Nashville, said that one misconception about charter schools is that they do not have to teach all students. Admission is done by process of a random selection lottery.

Another benefit Dickson sees of charter schools is the fact that they have “great control over the hiring and firing of teachers.”

Though Dickson does not see himself as having ‘anti-union’ views, he expressed concern that many unionized public school teachers are judged solely on seniority when it comes to salary increases.

Salary increases, Dickson said, should come from improved performance.

“Public schools give salary increases even if there’s no evidence a teacher is improving,” said Dickson.

Teachers’ salaries at public schools in California can go up to $100,000 per year for senior teachers.

Dickson professed no objection to improving salary with experience, however, he stressed that the more experienced teachers should be required to illustrate how their experience has improved their teaching.

“As you’re a 15 or 17 year teacher making more, I would expect that you demonstrate your value and that the outcomes of your kids are so much better than those of younger teachers,” said Dickson.

Redwood City Teachers Union Head Brett Baird insisted that Teachers Unions have no objections to charter schools provided that they are staffed with unionized teachers.

“I’m all for parents doing right by their kids,” said Baird.

California Teachers Association Spokesperson Mike Myslinsky also expressed no specific objection to charter schools, but voiced skepticism about many of their practices.

In terms of teacher pay, Myslinsky said that teachers’ unions oppose performance based pay because performance is often based on students’ test scores.

“We oppose using standardized test scores when measuring ability,” said Myslinsky, who added that he believed seniority often corresponds with performance.

When it comes to the process by which teachers are held accountable for poor performance, Myslinsky stressed that while teachers unions are also concerned about poor quality teachers, they do not believe the ‘at-will’ employment contracts at non-unionized charter schools will fix that problem.

“Many teachers are dismissed at the whim of a charter school owner without just cause,” said Myslinsky.

But for some charter school principals such as East Palo Alto Charter School’s Sharon Johnson, unions are not needed because teachers’ points-of-view are listened to and often put into practice by the administration.

“Teachers have a voice directly here in decisions,” said Johnson, whose graduating classes have a 100% acceptance rate to colleges.

Johnson added that teacher pay at East Palo Alto Charter School is competitive with other schools in the region, and that the mostly young teaching staff is given ample opportunity to develop more teaching skills throughout their tenure.

For the California Teachers Association, however, teacher compensation is as much about preserving a middle class lifestyle as it is about rewarding performance.

“Teachers should be able to afford to live in the districts they teach in,” said Myslinsky.

“There are many teachers in Palo Alto or San Mateo or Burlingame who cannot afford to live there.”

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