Commentary: Let’s reinstate LAUSD’s charter school leave
Guest contributor | May 4, 2017
By Karin Kroener-Valdivia
It’s National Charter Schools Week, and I’m remembering my first experience at a charter school. Fifteen years ago, after my fourth year of teaching in LA, I was burned out, exhausted from having my track constantly change and from moving rooms during the day without a classroom of my own. I came close to walking away from teaching and going back to the corporate career I had just left.
When an opening at a small charter school presented itself, I left LAUSD without hesitation. I was able to take a charter school leave of absence and later return to my seniority and pay levels when I went back to a district school. Today, the only LAUSD charter leave of absence open to teachers is for those who work at a traditional district school that is converting to a charter. This seems shortsighted.
Putting aside any anti-charter arguments, charters allow teachers like me a break from the bureaucracy of a very large district. It would seem to be a good idea to allow teachers to move more fluidly from charter to regular schools, bringing pedagogical ideas that work back and forth.
Los Angeles now has more charter schools that anywhere else in the country. One of the reasons LAUSD should reinstate the charter school leave is that it helps ward off burnout. Teaching in urban high schools with class sizes normed at 44 students, and four classes to prepare for daily, is daunting at best. Charters help reduce the burnout by offering smaller class sizes, allowing teachers more curricular freedom, and including teachers more in the decision-making process. It is a change of pace in an otherwise very linear career trajectory.
The burnout I feel at this stage in my career is very different than earlier versions. I am no longer in daily survival mode. I am used to the class sizes and the grading involved. Today, I am more concerned about not having a voice in the way a school runs, not even at a pilot school which is meant to be more teacher-led.
One example would be professional development. Veteran teachers often have to sit through one-size-fits-all PD sessions that are great for new teachers but do not help more experienced teachers grow their practice. And, while there are amazing teacher-led professional development opportunities outside of the district-provided Tuesday sessions, such as those offered by Teach Plus and UCLA’s Writing Project, it would be beneficial to have more differentiation of PD built into the district’s time as well.
Innovation is another reason why the district should reinstate the charter school leave. Charter schools are a place where teachers and administration can experiment much more freely. I will be the assistant principal at a charter school next year, and all my ideas thus far have been met with “OK, let’s try it.” One idea we will be implementing is that I will co-teach a class each trimester. Because the teaching staff is relatively new, having a veteran teacher to help plan, and work with student groups in the room, should provide a much-needed level of teacher support.
There are just under 300 charter schools currently under LAUSD jurisdiction, serving over 100,000 students. The trend doesn’t appear to be reversing. If an already sizable charter population is only going to become increasingly significant in Los Angeles, then allowing teachers to move easily between schools seems like the right move for teachers and kids. By allowing the fluidity between schools, we will open up the creative sharing of best practices, which, ultimately, benefits students everywhere.
Karin Kroener-Valdivia is a high school English teacher at the New Media Academy at Hollywood High School and a Teach Plus California State Policy Fellow.