Why my children attend THIS Chicago charter school

As parents, our responsibility is to ensure our children receive the best education possible.  While I believe in neighborhood schools and teach in one, our Southwest side Chicago public school did not match our needs.  One November evening, my wife and I sat in our living room after our two children fell asleep.  We made sense of the Chicago Public Schools application process to classical, magnet, and regional gifted schools.  Our top school choices remained a far distance.   We thought about morning drop-off, afternoon pick-up. Will we make it to work on time?  What if he gets sick during the day?  What if we get stuck in traffic?

I rarely get headaches.  My head ached that night.

We needed school choice.  All families do.  When districts assign students to schools by their home address, they perpetuate the segregation that forever halts students’ development and opportunities.  If a family chooses to enroll their children in their neighborhood school, they should be able to.  For my family, the local neighborhood school was not an option.

Our 60629 neighborhood school opened the year my son started Kindergarten—a brand new building.  But it only offered half-day Kindergarten.  That’s not good for a 5-year-old who already attended two years of full-day pre-school.  That’s not good for two parents who work full-time.  Still, we wanted our son to attend a public school.

So we sat silently thinking.  Then my wife, who is a much better problem solver than I am, said, “What about Namaste?”  I said, “Yes.  Namaste.”  We filled out the simple application, turned it in, and crossed our fingers on the day of the lottery.  Our son’s name was selected.

Today, my son enters 4th grade and my daughter enters 1st.  I am a proud Namaste parent.  Amid all of the charter school controversy locally and nationwide, Namaste remains a stable place where our children learn to be safe, respectful, and ready to learn.  The school serves over 400 K-8 students on the Southwest side:

  • 85% low-income and 90% minority student population
  • 20% of students receive special education services
  • No tuition and no selection criteria; admission is by blind lottery
  • Extended school day (8:30 – 4:00) and extended school year

About 87% of Namaste students meet or exceed state standards (compared to 74% in Chicago Public Schools).  Namaste remains the #1 highest achieving Chicago charter school out of 61 schools.

Namaste’s independence as a charter school allows the administration and staff to be flexible with its decision making.  Unlike CPS schools that must struggle with the politics of rapidly changing district, area, and even school leadership with different mandates and priorities, Namaste has the freedom to design roles that meet the needs of a dynamic generation.  I wish the CPS neighborhood school where I teach had the same flexibility.

What most attracted us to Namaste is the successful dual-language program.  While we envisioned raising children who are 100% bilingual, we struggled in our mostly English speaking home.  Our children now know how to read and write in Spanish and continue to grow academically.

In Kindergarten, my son wrote poems and remains a strong writer because of his experiences at Namaste.  Last year, as a 3rd grader, he served as a junior coach supervising K-4 students to ensure they played safely during recess.  My daughter learned to read and to love learning.  She developed a passion for art through painting.  She also speaks Spanish proudly—something she didn’t want to do before Namaste’s dual-language program.

Most importantly, I know exactly what educational experience my children receive during all of their time at Namaste.  The school grounds its identity in educating children to be healthy and peaceful people who use their intellect in responsible ways.  Over the past 10 years, Namaste remained dedicated to the promise it made to families and students.

I didn’t want my children attending a school where an administration change could result in a new mission for the school.  I didn’t want my children at a school still figuring out how best to serve the community.  I didn’t want my children in any school struggling to define itself while my children worked to define themselves.

Every morning when I drop off my children and watch them run into the building with smiles, I say to myself, “They’re safe.  They’re learning.”  This thanks to the Namaste staff full of  caring, dedicated people.  A low turnover rate and a strong commitment to developing staff professionally allows us to interact with educators who serve in various leadership roles—all focused on student success.  The staff, even in casual conversations about our profession, never complains.  Last Sunday, we met with our son’s new teacher, who scheduled conversations with parents at a coffee shop.  I’m inspired to be a better teacher because of the work I see my children’s teachers do.

I know many Chicago public schools provide students with good educational experiences.  I’ve worked hard to ensure this in every CPS school I’ve taught in for the last 18 years.  Still, I’m grateful we, as a family, had a choice about where to send our children when local or ideal options did not work for us.

Critics of school choice argue that these options will destroy neighborhood schools.  They won’t.  If families want to enroll in their neighborhood school, they should have a guaranteed spot.  If they don’t, they should be able to apply, by lottery, to any school with open spots.  Neighborhood schools, then, can work to fulfill the instructional and social-emotional promise they make to their respective communities.

Critics also warn of privatization.  Privatization happens when people outside of education oversee schools.  When privatization happens, schools distance themselves from the communities they serve thinking the elite leaders know best.  These leaders attempt to replicate their educational model quickly at multiple campuses and, usually, remain tightly connected to controversial district and political figures.

Namaste exists far from any example of privatization.  Namaste remains a viable choice for many families from various neighborhoods who value the ability to choose.

Neighborhood schools currently have the pressure of having to provide all-encompassing educational programs with diminishing funding. It’s an impossible challenge. This forces a school’s mission statement to remain eloquent in theory, but ordinary in practice. Overwhelmed schools end up simply “providing an education.” Any school can claim to do that.

If district leaders relax attendance boundaries, schools will have the opportunity to redefine themselves as places that offer a specific educational experience.

Schools need the opportunity to define themselves with education programs that provide students with focused, well-supported experiences that remove the pressure of having to do it all.

More importantly, families—especially low-income, minority families–deserve the right to decide where their children should go to school.

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