I am a proud product of public schools. I was fortunate enough to attend some of the best public schools in the nation when I lived in California.
As an educator, though, my career has been spent in charter schools — first in Los Angeles in one of Green Dot’s many charter schools, and now in the classroom at University Laboratory School in Honolulu.
In California, charter schools are abundant. They are founded with many kinds of potential missions, such as being oriented around “achievement” or technology.
Public charter schools offer a space to experiment with different education philosophies, focuses and teaching techniques.
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When I spoke with others about education and school choice on the mainland, one of the clear problems the public had with charter schools was that there was often no clear distinction between the goals of charter schools and those of the other public schools.
I experienced this myself. There was nothing radical about how we operated compared to the school two blocks away. Our charter status simply granted us more autonomy as teachers because we had our own smaller union.
This perception, though, was enough to create a different culture at the school. It was easy to see why a parent whose student went elsewhere would be frustrated. Why focus energy and resources on one school? Why not disperse those resources to all public schools?
Hawaii is better served if it has a place where things can be tested and created to move our educational practices forward and eventually provide resources for all of Hawaii’s keiki.
This is why the University Laboratory School is special: It is dedicated to research that can provide innovation for all public schools.
University Laboratory School is different. ULS identifies as a research and curriculum development school. Guardians know their students may be asked to try new classroom methods. This aligns with what many believe charter schools should be: the research and development arm of the education sector.
I have already seen the work at ULS have positive effects on the state’s education overall. Teachers here have helped create and revise texts that enable culturally relevant learning, such as History of Hawai‘i and Growing Up Local.
ULS also works with the DOE for research and professional development. We are a research and observation site for their recent Access Learning program, and act as an observation site for the upcoming Future Ready Learning project, which will help train teachers, administrators and technology coordinators to integrate technology into their practice.
As charter school law is developed in Hawaii, I think it is essential to ask questions about how a school is run and its purpose. I appreciate the charter commission ensuring that schools provide fair and equitable education for our students.
State Senate Bill 1348 would allow ULS to ensure the “laboratory” in our name is accurate and the school can admit a student body that mirrors the population of Hawaii. The exciting work we’ve done has been accomplished in part because we have a population that can accurately measure whether those new ideas could be used on a larger scale
If ULS cannot ensure that the population served at the school-level mirrors the state community it serves overall, it hinders the ability to conduct meaningful curriculum research and innovate.
While this might provide short-term “equality” in our admissions, it would hurt our ability to help bring actual educational equity to all students in Hawaii.
I understand that can feel strange. Students are humans, not data points. I understand that no amount of quotas or admissions policies would be able to quantify the unique, beautiful stories each of them can bring to our school.
Still, Hawaii is better served if it has a place where things can be tested and created to move our educational practices forward and eventually provide resources for all of Hawaii’s keiki. To do so, we must ensure that what we are creating could work with all of our keiki.
I am a firm believer in the public education system, and that we must work together to make sure that all ships must rise. I believe that we should work to ensure that every student can, if they choose, attend a local neighborhood school free of charge that provides opportunities for an amazing education.
I also firmly believe that the work University Laboratory School does serves that overall purpose. I believe the work that is, and could be, done provides innovation that could have lasting success in Hawaii — if we take the steps to back that up with meaningful research.
Creation is exciting, but to be able to share that creation on a large scale, we want to make sure it is done accurately as well.
This leads to some questions. Can University Laboratory School keep the “laboratory” aspect of its name and purpose? Can Hawaii’s education landscape include a place to experiment? Is it possible to still serve as a public charter school even as it acts as an incubator for new ideas and meaningful research?
I think so, and I hope the public and state Senate will support SB 1348 so University Laboratory School can continue to do that.
(This Community Voice was adapted from testimony submitted to the Senate Education Committee.)
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Christina Torres is a seventh and ninth grade English teacher at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu. She is also part of the NEA's Teacher Leadership Initiative and Teach For America's Education for Justice Pilot.