Thursday, May 13, 2010

PIKE Reconsidered

Sara Hallermann is a Louisville Mom with three kids, 7, 4 and 3. There's a lot going on in the Hallermann household. And she was a little dismayed when she read KSN&C's take on a group she belongs to: Parents for Improving Kentucky Education (PIKE). PIKE was branded suspicious on two counts.

First, KSN&C was (eventually) suspicious of a reference made by fellow PIKEr Lauren Morgan in the Herald-Leader. Morgan made reference to charters for "families who cannot afford private or parochial schools. I thought I heard something about public money going toward religious schools.

Second, limited Internet research found that PIKE had associations with other groups that bore little good will toward the public schools.

So when I called Hallermann this week, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would I get a tongue lashing, a bunch of denials, or accusations?

Not at all. What I got was a delightful conversation about kids and schooling and how we might help those kids who continue to get society's scraps in the form of a poor education and those students who don't fit, even in the "best" schools in the best districts.

Instead of being upset at my analysis, Hallermann said she understood how I would come to believe what I did. When she read Morgan's piece, she said a quiet 'uh oh' to herself. She was afraid Morgan might be misunderstood. As for the web search, Hallermann allowed that what I found was indeed what there was to find. It is what it is.

Turns out, PIKE is as grassroots as one might imagine. It's lead by folks who support the idea of forming specialized learning opportunities for children in the form of charter schools. They are specifically opposed to vouchers. They are very comfortable with charters being overseen by districts. They supported the original House Bill 109, but are less impressed with the new language that seems to exempt Jefferson County from the process. (More on that later.) They go out in public and talk to other parents one-on-one to recruit. It is not clear how big PIKE really is, but they are recruiting folks to an idea more than an organization.

So what's with the Libertarian connection? I asked.

They were the "only ones who invited us," Hallermann revealed.

When PIKE leadership was first trying to figure out how to get their message out, they contacted the Center for Education Reform and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for information. From her experience in Vallejo, California, Hallermann already knew that as much as $500,000 in start-up funds might be obtained through pro-charter organizations. But they had to get the word out.

Their first thought was to contact the political parties.

They called the Republicans. Nothing.

They called the Democrats. Nothing.

They called the Libertarians. Bingo.

Hallermann attended a meeting of Louisville Libertarians where she was met with level of support that was, at once, strong and disquieting. She said lots of folks expressed their support for charter schools but she soon realized that their idea of charters was different than what PIKE had in mind. Hallermann recalled one gentleman who was very supportive of her chat saying how great charter schools would be for Kentucky. Then, he said he'd "like to see all public schools abolished."

Hallermann said, "We learned our lesson. That was going to divide us so we stopped that." The idea of trying to gain support through established political parties died. But it left an Internet trail behind.

The views of PIKE members are "diverse" and "not well defined," Hallermann said.

Last year, Sara co-founded the Vallejo Charter School, a community-based education project. She told me the story, much of which I'll leave out, but suffice it to say that Vallejo was a tough district that had poor performance, and was losing students until a series of innovative charters began to attract students once again.

The local Vallejo public school followed a Response to Intervention Plan with a four-hour literacy block, but science and social studies instruction had fallen off the map. People were leaving. Hallermann and other parents wanted to do something to save the school. "The state's charter school law gave us a right to try," she said.

It bothered them not at all that the teachers were all union. In fact, Hallermann said, if Green Dot came into Kentucky they would bring a Progressive Collective Bargaining Unit into the process that would be very specific about professional development requirements.

The parents in the community envisioned an expeditionary learning school and worked for five years to build a program that would pass muster and gain district approval. Finally, Vallejo Charter School was formed as a partnership with the Vallejo school district, much as HB 109 would allow charters to partner with school districts in Kentucky. The school utilized an inquiry-based approach that brought science and social studies topics front and center. They aligned the curriculum, embedded literacy and math stood alone. "Because the curriculum model was so different it even attracted students from home-schools and private schools, Hallermann said.

"The whole experience was a beautiful thing", Hallermann said. The school lacked leadership, but the district's assistant superintendent was sufficiently impressed that she left her central office job to become the school's principal. They built a community garden as "friends, working together. I saw parents empowered. Everyone felt like 'this is my school'."

As luck would have it, about the time the school was to open, Hallermann's husband accepted a position in Kentucky and her dream went on without her.

In Kentucky, I'm sorry to report, her interest in charter schools has drawn opposition from school administrators sometimes at the top of their voices. But she seems resilient and remains interested in opportunities for children who don't quit fit in. As a former special education director knows of children whose conditions make it very unlikely that they will respond well to the approached used in most schools. But there is no other approach and she's a little worried about what the future may hold for these children. She thinks kids are different and the options afforded them should be as well.

Hallerman's life is about to take another turn as she about to undertake extensive travel for work. She does not expect to continue her work with PIKE. Too bad. We need parents who advocate for all children in our state.

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