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Tim Myers: Charter may just be parent vanity project

Posted: September 22, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 22, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Before Judd Apatow got rich making raunchy comedies with just the right degree of sweetness such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” he produced the short-lived but critically acclaimed high school dramedy “Freaks and Geeks” and the full-on college comedy “Undeclared.”

Hart High School lovers will remember “Freaks and Geeks,” filmed on the Hart High campus, and lovers of the show will tell one that while putatively a comedy it accurately portrayed the semi-darkness and social law of the jungle of the 1980s suburban American comprehensive high school that still exists today. In contrast, “Undeclared” showed many of the same actors from “Freaks and Geeks” engaged in the fun shenanigans that most remember from their residential college experience with a definite light touch.

In interviews, Judd Apatow related that this difference did not constitute an accident, and many folks, including myself, will acknowledge that college acts in the capacity of reward for the successful survival of the cesspool swamp of American comprehensive high school. Other aficionados of the high school comedy genre will recall the film “The New Guy” where character actor DJ Qualls in a rare starring role portrayed the striking similarities between the suburban comprehensive high school and a poorly run county lockup.

Having said that, we expected our children to slug out and navigate the jungle of comprehensive high school in order to properly prepare them for life, since I will concede the only thing (tremendously) more harrowing than comprehensive high school relates to service in the armed forces in a hot combat zone.

No surprise then that some parents attempt to save their children from comprehensive high school with various alternatives. Historically, some chose religious-based parochial schools that resolved some issues surrounding comprehensive public high schools but found themselves harrowing in different ways. A not insignificant number went more or less completely off the grid and chose the home-schooling option. A relatively recent phenomena? Seeking public subsidy of specialized suburban charter schools.

Consider the case of the Albert Einstein Academy that obtained approval for a middle school/high school charter from the Hart district and is trying, for a third time, to obtain approval for an elementary school charter from the Saugus Union School District after failing to obtain a charter from several other granting agencies.

An Einstein Academy advocate asked my opinion on charter schools. When asked for my opinion, I always refer to the research done by Roland Fryer and Steven D. Levitt (of “Freakonomics” fame) in the early 2000s on the Chicago Public Schools charter school program. Charter schools in Chicago need to use a lottery system to admit students, so professors Levitt and Fryer could compare future academic outcomes between students admitted to charter schools and those who lost the lottery and stayed in their current school environment. They found no significant difference in objective academic outcomes — scores, attendance, college admission, etc. — between the two groups, resulting in a reasonable interpretation that self selection of more serious students resulted in the superior results of charter schools that would occur anyway in the current environment with that type of student.

On the other hand, the researchers found a distinct difference and superiority in self-reported soft items, including feelings about school, etc. Therefore, the charter school provides an environment where the students “feel” better about going to school than those in the public schools, though objective outcomes remain the same.

I can definitely see why parents would want that “choice.” However, I did not believe that “feeling good” should be the primary outcome of our children’s education, but rather a feeling of competence and accomplishment after they navigated through a sometimes difficult situation.

With respect to Einstein Academy specifically, the school seems a vanity project for a group of parents to fulfill religious language training obligations by sticking their arms into the public till. On the other hand, I know personally of people currently attending Einstein Academy’s program that would find themselves literally devoured by the comprehensive school system. (Just my opinion.)

But in the final analysis, the Saugus district should follow rules and approve the elementary school charter if Einstein Academy meets the legal requirements for elementary schools.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident.


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