In the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, there is an unforgettable scene, where parents and children anxiously await the results of a lottery. A lucky few will be able to enroll their children in a charter school. These New York City schools only have capacity to admit one in twenty of the applicants.
Charter schools are public schools and receive public funds, but they have the freedom to design innovative curricula. As documented in Waiting for Superman, as well as in more recent studies, charter schools on average deliver better academic results for less money. And since every charter school attracts students based on parental choice, underperforming charter schools do not last.
Across California, where barely ten percent of K-12 public schools are charters, the Waiting for Superman scenario plays out year after year. A new charter school in Orange County, the Orange County Classical Academy, offers yet another example. The upcoming 2021-2022 academic year will only be this primary school’s second year of operation, but they have over 500 applicants on their waiting list with only 60 slots available.
The Orange County Classical Academy opened last fall with 360 students, comprised of two 30 student classes at each grade level from kindergarten through fifth grade. Their plan is to add a grade level each year in order for the existing students to advance all the way through 12th grade while staying at the school. Hence for 2021-2022 they will add two 6th grade classrooms and grow the student body to 420 students. Their retention rate is nearly 100 percent. While five students disenrolled, it was because their families moved out of state.
“Our curricula is something many parents are desiring,” said Semi Park, headmaster at OCCA, who acknowledged the need to open more schools to accommodate the demand. But doing that is a tough battle. Charter schools face a hostile political climate, due to unrelenting opposition from the teachers’ union.
When OCCA’s charter was approved, pro-charter members held a 4-3 majority on the board of the Orange County Unified School District. In a contentious meeting back in January 2020, opponents of the school chanted “we will remember in November.” They made good on their promise, since in November 2020 the union backed candidates, grossly outspending the pro-charter candidates, clawed one seat back. The district now has a 4-3 anti-charter board of directors.
According to the Orange County Register, opponents of OCCA on the school board claimed “the projected enrollment is overly optimistic.” That clearly wasn’t the case. But other objections made by opponents to OCCA reveal a teachers union – and progressive mentality in general – that may be sharply out of touch with what parents want.
One of the board members at Orange Unified who expressed concerns about OCCA was Kathryn Moffat. Her remarks might typify how opponents view charters in general, and OCCA in particular.
Quoting from the Orange County Register: “Kathryn Moffat, the school board’s vice president who voted against the petition, said she is concerned given the school’s curriculum is developed by Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan, it will have a religious and cultural bias. Given the school will be publicly funded, it’s inappropriate for the board to accept the petition.”
Echoing rhetoric that spews nonstop from California’s leftist teachers unions, Moffat went on to say that after researching the curriculum, she found “the focus to be on western civilization, and Judeo-Christian concepts, values and beliefs to the exclusion of others.”
But there is a difference between adopting a curriculum that emulates time-tested classical education techniques that were in common use until just a few decades ago, and putting an inordinate “focus on western civilization.” Similarly, there is a difference between teaching values based on Judeo-Christian concepts, and operating a religious school.
When headmaster Semi Park was reached for comments regarding the curricula at OCCA, the overall impression she conveyed was that “classical education,” which the teachers union attempts to stigmatize as “exclusionary” is actually a well rounded, practical course of study.
“Classical education has a different mission,” she said, “our goal isn’t just to get students into a great college, our goal is to raise them into virtuous citizens. Virtue is one of the most important aspects of classical education, and it isn’t just the religious aspect. Aristotle defined virtue as the highest form of happiness. Classical education teaches moral virtue and intellectual virtue. But you must teach moral virtue first. As our students learn to be honest and responsible, they are then able to develop their intellectual virtue.”
Park described the study of intellectual virtue as having two parts, human and nonhuman. “The human is when students learn about themselves and their relationship with others,” she said, “the nonhuman is learning about the world.” She described how the curriculum involves recitation and memorization, where the students are not only graded on memorization, but they are also graded on their posture, tone, confidence, and voice level.
As for practical content, the students study a broad range of subjects, including literacy (learning how to read), literature (reading good classic novels), writing, grammar, math, history, geography, science, art, music, and Latin. As Park put it, “there is no time to get bored.”
Objective data on how OCCA’s student body will perform on standardized academic achievement tests will be available sometime this summer, although the tests being administered this May are less comprehensive than normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Which segues into the topic that no report on a K-12 public charter school can ignore; how did OCCA fare during the pandemic?
Schools that remained open in California for in-person classes, which would be most nonunionized schools (which are mostly charter and private schools) were required to offer distance learning to parents who preferred that option. At OCCA, according to Park, 98 percent of the parents wanted their children to attend in-person classes. OCCA followed all of the guidelines regarding cleaning and disinfecting, masks, etc., and there have been only 10 cases of COVID, five of them asymptomatic and the other five mild cases. This certainly compares favorably to rates in the general population, i.e., there is no evidence keeping OCCA open for in-person instruction resulted in any excess infections.
As OCCA prepares to enter its second year, and supporters of OCCA consider how to cope with a political environment that overwhelmingly favors the agenda of the teachers’ union, the fact that more than twice as many children want to attend OCCA than the number of slots available is the most telling variable. Classical education develops the whole person, preparing them to succeed in life. Unsurprisingly, that’s what parents want for their children.
As Semi Park put it, “We are very humbled and grateful to see such a high demand.”
Waiting For Superman has come to Southern California.
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