It’s Complicated

The other day I was listening to a news program on the radio about national parks. The scientist on the show suggested that restrictive boundaries around park lands are not actually good for wildlife. Animals need corridors. If a particular species finds that existence in a certain region of a national park is threatened through food shortage, inclement weather, excess predators or other causes it will, if mobile, simply move to its comfort zone.

Unfortunately, kids do the same thing, but not for the same reasons as animals in national parks. Nine years ago, I co-founded a small charter high school. I suppose one could argue that this makes me a proponent of school choice. But I’m starting to rethink this. Each year we have a few students who choose to leave and go to other schools. Some of these kids will undoubtedly do better in other settings, but some are simply migrating away from what feels like a threatening situation; they want to be back in their comfort zone.

I remember a student during our second year. He was a junior and decided that he wanted to transfer to a large district high school. When asked why, he simply said “I want to be anonymous.” A few years later, another student decided to leave. She had been kicked out of her neighborhood district school and had given us a semester’s worth of a chance. Now she was heading back. Why? “You guys are always in my business,” she explained.

Students in small schools often find themselves outside of their comfort zones. We know them well. We know what they are capable of, and we won’t accept anything less. And yes, sometimes we are “in their business”. Students that graduate from my small high school know what it means to be cared for. They learn to advocate for themselves and speak to adults effectively. They also know what it feels like to be held accountable or to have their bluffs called. Neither of these things are terribly comfortable, but they result in huge growth.

The ones that choose to leave, to migrate back to their comfort zones, are often the ones that stand to gain the most from remaining in what my colleagues and I call “their risk zone”. But with the revolving door nature of charter schools, it is impossible to force a student to stay, even if it were in his/her best interest.

Am I proponent of school choice? It’s complicated.


Eve Rifkin

Eve Rifkin

Tucson, Arizona

I have been an educator for over 20 years. As a founding co-director of City High School, I have held a variety of leadership and teaching roles, including academic director, humanities teacher, and principal. I am currently the Director of College Access and support students as they envision their lives after high school.

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