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Commentary: How teachers buffered students from Celerity’s questionable practices

Guest contributor | February 21, 2017

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By Q. Tien Le

In January, federal agents raided the offices of Celerity Educational Group, a charter school network, as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of fraud and mismanagement. Prior to the raid, the Los Angeles Unified School District school board, citing governance and oversight issues, denied charter renewals for two of Celerity’s schools — Celerity Dyad in South Los Angeles and Celerity Troika in Eagle Rock — in a 6-0 vote. Despite these serious allegations, parents seem to be unfazed.

It’s important to understand the paradoxical reactions from parents for two reasons. First, some might attribute parents’ indifference to parents’ lack of concern for their children’s education, which is simply not true. When I was a teacher at Celerity Dyad Charter School, I had 100 percent parent participation during parent-teacher conferences and, in several cases, both parents would be present. This level of parent engagement was typical at my school. Second, the lack of concern by parents may make it seem like the federal investigation is not a big deal. It is a big deal. It is not normal for schools to be under investigation by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Education simultaneously.

So, how do we make sense of parents’ paradoxical reactions? Parents’ seeming indifference to news of a federal raid at Celerity is a testament to the dedication of Celerity teachers. While I was a teacher at Celerity, I was surrounded by dedicated teachers who provided for students where administration fell short. Since parents interface mostly with teachers and not administrators, it is easy to buffer parents from potential corruption at the top. Teachers stepped up and provided materials when administration becried strained budgets.

When we started working at Celerity, my colleagues and I did not have classroom libraries nor was there a school library. We visited dozens of thrift stores in Southern California to build classroom libraries for our students. Celerity did not provide us with classroom sets of novels because they believed that the short reading passage from test-prep materials like Buckle Down and Measuring Up were sufficient. When Celerity failed to provide students with the necessary materials, we turned to and the generosity of strangers to provide students with the world-class education they deserve. Through DonorsChoose, I received class sets of “The Giver,” “Hoot,” and “The Hunger Games.”

In our free time, my colleagues and I applied for grants so that our students could go on field trips. I am grateful to the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Getty Villa for providing my students with experiences outside the classroom at no cost.

After two years, I quit my job at Celerity because administration continued to mandate unsound pedagogical practices. For example, my principal asked me to minimize the time spent on history and science because they were non-tested subjects. In addition, administration wanted me to create “data walls,” public displays of students’ test scores, as a way to keep students accountable and motivated. I found both practices abhorrent and voiced my concerns to my principal. He responded by saying that, with more experience, I would understand why it’s important to publicly post students’ test scores. I’m nearing the end of my PhD studies in education policy at the University of Southern California, and I still have not found evidence that “data walls” are an effective way of improving educational outcomes.

Though hard-working teachers and staff were able to buffer students from the bulk of Celerity’s questionable practices, our power had limits. During a persuasive writing unit, I asked students to write to Celerity’s board about three ways to make Celerity a safer and more effective learning environment. The tiny asphalt lot on which my classroom was located contained roughly seven bungalows, no indoor cafeteria, and no grass.  

One student wrote, “I think that our school needs grassy fields. One day I was playing on the concrete that we currently have and I got hurt badly. Grass would be a safer surface to play on.”

Since there was no indoor cafeteria, students ate lunch outside, even during the cold winter months. Another student wrote, “We should really have a cafeteria. We need a cafeteria because our food gets cold. During the winter we are cold and expect hot food in a cozy place. But instead we have to eat outside in the cold.”

My students were not asking for soda fountains or field trips to Disneyland — the typical fantastical hopes of children. They just wanted to be warm while they ate lunch. Neither my students nor I were able to convince administrators to build an indoor cafeteria or a grassy field. Administrators were too focused on expanding their organization into other states, such as Louisiana and Ohio.

In sum, Celerity’s pedagogical and fiscal practices are unequivocally repugnant. However, the outcome would have been much worse without the dedication of teachers and staff.  

It would be a mistake to assume that the lack of reaction from parents is a sign that everything is fine at Celerity. Parents’ unfazed reactions are a testament to the commitment of teachers and staff who, against all odds, provided a quality education to students despite administration’s questionable practices.

Q. Tien Le was a former sixth-grade teacher at Celerity Dyad Charter School. She is now a doctoral candidate in urban education policy at the University of Southern California.

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