by David Safier
NOTE: Since Imagine School at Superstition made news by firing 11 of its 14 teachers, I've been writing about it, reading up on Imagine Schools and talking to people who know more than I do. This is the second of what will be a few posts trying to make sense of the nation's largest charter school corporation which has drawn more controversy for its practices and low student achievement scores than any other (Here's the first post). What I write may be incomplete or incorrect in places. If you have information to add, please leave comments or email me at email@example.com. I keep all email correspondence confidential.
Dennis Bakke, founder and CEO of Imagine Schools, has an unusual and ineffective strategy for running his charter school empire, which is the largest in the nation. He pitches his philosophy of the workplace -- integrity, justice and fun -- to his staff, which he detailed in his book "Joy at Work" (required reading for employees). Then he practices "decentralized leadership," which he says results in "high levels of employee satisfaction and dedication." While this may have worked for Bakke when he was building Applied Energy Services where he made his fortune (before the company collapsed in the wake of the ENRON scandal), its hit-or-miss approach to creating schools has resulted in hit-or-miss schools. Some Imagine Schools have succeeded, but many others have been failures for the students and staff. Often, "employee satisfaction" approached zero.
Imagine Prep at Superstition in Apache Junction, a high school with a middle school housed in the same building, is a prime example of a dysfunctional Imagine school. In its four years of existence, it has experienced three nearly total turnovers of staff and four different teaching strategies. By the end of this year, things were bad enough that the Republic wrote an article about student protests against the administration and an almost total exodus of the teaching staff.
Imagine Prep at Superstition began in 2008 with 100 students and 4 1/2 teachers. It was a computer-based school. Students spent most of their time sitting in front of computer screens working their way through curriculum supplied by Apex Learning with little or no classroom instruction. Only two teachers returned for Year 2.
In Year 3, 2010-11, the school grew to 200 students (including middle school and high school) and 16 teachers. The Apex Learning curriculum was scrapped and replaced with online books which some teachers used more than others. The school was fortunate to get a good principal for Year 3, so ten of the teachers returned for Year 4.
In Year 4, 2011-12, the school had a bit more than 200 students (including middle school and high school) and 17 teachers, though the Republic article said there were only 14. The successful principal from the previous year left a few months into the school year and was replaced by an interim principal who was less liked by staff and students. All instruction was classroom based with a movement toward project-based education. By June, the students were protesting the administration and many teachers were told their contracts would not be renewed. Other teachers who were asked to return left as well. Only three (or four) teachers plan to return for Year 5.
It's indicative of how dysfuctional Imagine Prep has been that teachers chose to leave in these difficult economic times when jobs are scarce.
[NOTE: Though I believe what I have written is substantially correct, I cannot guarantee all my facts and figures about Imagine Prep are entirely accurate. I welcome any corrections or additions.]
You could say Imagine Prep at Superstition had four first years with little or no continuity in staff or curriculum except from Year 3 to 4. Year 5 promises to be another "first year" with a revamped curriculum and a new crop of mainly young, inexperienced teachers.
The teaching staff has been pretty much on its own. There were no experienced teachers or institutional memory to fall back on. The administration gave little guidance, though it could be free with criticism. Teachers often felt they were looking over their shoulders, expecting to be called out for something they were doing wrong.
Teachers were expected to pitch in for the good of the school (and, of course, the students), often without pay, in a number of ways. They coached with little or no pay and some years, no bus transportation to away games. They were expected to "volunteer" to run scoreboards, keep books, set up sound systems, etc. It wasn't uncommon for teachers to be expected to sit at tables in front of local supermarkets handing out promotional literature to recruit new students.
I haven't been able to get firm numbers on student turnover, but I am led to believe the "churn rate" was higher than one would expect at a successful school. The school's achievement scores were generally below the state average, which, to be fair, may reflect the student population. It has more students on free/reduced lunch than the state average (37% at the school vs. 27% statewide). On the other hand, it had fewer Hispanic and American Indian students than average -- 29% vs. 43% -- and more Anglos -- 63% vs. 43%.
The Imagine middle school and high school at Superstition comprise only one of 14 campuses in Arizona and over 70 nationwide. Since Imagine runs more elementary and middle schools than high schools, Imagine Prep doesn't make for a good across-the-board comparison, but it is indicative of problems found at many Imagine schools. Six Imagine Schools were just closed in St. Louis by the state because student achievement was even lower than in the traditional public schools which are famous for low achievement. Teacher and administrative turnover is a regular problem in the schools nationwide, along with low achievement. The hit-or-miss Imagine model is failing. Dennis Bakke may not be aware of how dysfunctional his empire is -- the 2011 Annual Report is overflowing with positive news and success stories -- but there are too many horror stories to ignore what's happening.