I recently visited one of the five original Albuquerque charter high schools, the Public Academy for the Performing Arts (PAPA). Together with Amy Biehl, Southwest Secondary Learning, South Valley Academy and Twenty First Century Charter High School, PAPA was granted a charter eight years ago and greeted its first students a year later.
I was impressed by what I saw at PAPA. This public school has made dance, music, chorus, theater and martial arts fully integrated components of their academic program. Students at the school receive excellent math, science, social studies and language instruction. Their test scores show they are every bit as successful in the classroom as the students at any of the mainstream public high schools in town.
In addition, they are given top-notch individual and group instruction in the performing arts. Already the school is making a name for itself through its graduates, even though this year’s will only be its second graduating cadre. There is a long waiting list for vacancies at the school, and interest in getting in the lottery pool for the sixth grade (the starting class at PAPA) is very high.
I share this information about the Performing Arts Academy because it makes for a good illustration as to what the success of that first group of public charter schools has meant for this community … and demonstrates a few things that have not happened in Albuquerque that should have.
Our charter schools fill a very important role in our total public educational spectrum. There are now over 30 charter schools in APS, enrolling close to 7,000 students. They have enriched the district in many ways, not the least of which is financially. Where as the initial fear of charter schools was that they could pose some kind of economic threat to APS, their seven years of operation so far make clear exactly the opposite.
The second point is the charter movement does not seem to be growing either too rapidly or too slowly in Albuquerque. The movement’s dynamism continues steadily in this 93,000-student district, with the modest addition of five or six charters every year. That is not unmanageable. Neither is it dwindling. The diversity and the variety of approaches to educating our young people seem virtually limitless.
The third point is that while there have been some growing pains and a few unfortunate missteps by charter administrators, the overall record of the charters in this district is very positive. It is something that APS ought to be pointing to with pride; replicating; supporting.
Instead, charters remain the troublesome stepchild of a district that has blinded itself to their positive qualities … and that has systematically ignored the opportunities they offer.
That brings us to what has not happened in our city when it comes to charters that should or at least could have been approved. Their innovations in curriculum and programming might be laboratories for APS. Their successes ought to have engendered imitations or adaptations somewhere among the 130 non-charter schools in the district. But there is very little interest on the part of APS in examining those innovations and copying them.
For examples, look at two kinds of charters, PAPA and the vocational schools.
Now that APS is faced with having to somehow come up with classroom facilities for the rapidly growing neighborhoods on the northwest and southwest mesas, instead of copy-catting the giant (and very expensive) mainstream models the district has gone back to a dozen times with widely varying results, why not try other programs and do so on smaller, more personal scale that would be more affordable?
Vocational programming has been incredibly attractive to students. Four charter high schools with vocational approaches in this district all have waiting lists of applicants eager to try something different from what is provided at mainstream campuses.
Beyond that, the building trades and other industries which are potential employers of graduates of these programs would jump at the chance to help design and even build the facilities where a state-of-the-art vocational education could be provided.
And if PAPA has proven so appealing to talented students that Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed a statewide performing arts high school, possibly a boarding school, why hasn’t APS picked up on the idea itself?
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that APS is an enormous battleship that simply cannot maneuver in the tight spots where today’s education demands it must venture. It only has one response to use in dealing with the chorus of needs being directed to it. Outside that box is fear and unpredictability, so the district avoids anything akin to innovation.
There are enormously dedicated and talented teachers and administrators in APS. Many students in the district receive excellent educations and can compete with graduates of any school, anywhere. But those pockets of excellence are chiseled out of raw materials that could be made far easier to locate and that should be far easier to access. Too many students are turned off, not turned on, by their APS experience.
If APS is like a battleship in its lack of agility, it is also a battleship that seems to be adrift much of the time, washed by tides and currents into impossible situations. There is a need for a much more powerful engine and a steadier hand on the rudder. Learning from the successes (or failures) of its own charter schools would be a good start.