Teacher Dearest

The free market alone was supposed to control charter schools, but the state is stepping in to clean up Gail Battistella's mess at Dragonfleye Charter School

Gail Battistella is a diminutive woman, 50-something, with crisp gray bangs and a tiny, high-pitched voice. But she holds within her an explosive potential that could be measured in megatons, a force that hums and sputters and draws people to her almost as powerfully as it blows them away.

Battistella is the flashpoint of a series of battles over the management of Dragonfleye School, a northwest Phoenix charter school whose curriculum is supposed to revolve around a student science lab that Battistella developed.

On January 27, 1997, the Arizona State Board of Education will start hearings to decide if Dragonfleye's charter should be revoked. If that happens, it would be only the second such revocation in the two-year history of charter schools in Arizona. The first occurred last month when the state board closed down the Citizen 2000 charter school because of financial irregularities.

Charter schools were created by the Arizona State Legislature with the notion that the free market can educate better than the government can. If there were problems at any schools, they would be weeded out by good, old-fashioned all-American competition. Citizen 2000's problems centered on money, the currency of the market. Dragonfleye's problems are more complex, less tangible.

Battistella and her co-founders all shared the conviction that they could provide a better education than the public schools. But now, a continuous exchange of charges and countercharges between Battistella and some of her co-founders and colleagues has placed the school's destiny beyond the vagaries of the marketplace and into the hands of the state's board of education.

Running a school proved harder than they had imagined, and Battistella stood at ground zero of two major meltdowns at Dragonfleye within six months of each other in 1996.

The first came last April when, shocked and burned by her frequent explosions, Battistella's co-founders at the school tried to remove her from the school's board of directors and fire her from her position of science lab director.

The board president and school principal, Gregory Miller, went so far as to get a restraining order to keep Battistella off campus.

But Battistella took Miller to court and turned Miller out instead; 10 of the school's 11 full-time teachers and 135 of perhaps 160 students left with him to start their own charter school--but not before tearing apart Dragonfleye's classrooms--what Battistella and her attorney have described as "looting"--and making off with the school's financial, personnel and student records.

Then Battistella hired a new principal and four new teachers to open school last August. Just two months into the new school year, she accused the new principal of starting a near riot by telling parents and teachers that the school's finances were so strained that the school was in danger of closing. Battistella called the police to have the principal escorted off campus, and all four full-time teachers left with her. For the second time in six months, Dragonfleye had to scramble to put adult bodies, anybodys, in front of classes.

Such tumult begs hard questions of the charter-school dream, such as: If the market is supposed to weed out the bad schools, how long does it take? And what happens to the students at those schools while the market is taking its time? Children, after all, are the commodity of education. Each year wasted is a year lost.

Dragonfleye has already lost two years for its children because of the childish behavior of the adults in charge, and still the market has not rendered its decision.

The state agencies charged with the oversight of education--the Department of Education and the State Board of Education--have not moved much faster.

"I think there's some extreme dissatisfaction with this school," says Kenneth Bennett, president of the State Board of Education, which authorized Dragonfleye's charter.

But being difficult is not grounds for revoking a school's charter. And though Bennett would like to see charter schools held accountable for their academics, it is not its interpersonal pyrotechnics, its inability to keep teachers or students, that has called Dragonfleye's charter into question. Not directly, anyway. There had to be grounds the market understood--like bookkeeping.

The state board is concerned because Dragonfleye has not been able to produce all of its student, personnel and financial records for the board's inspection, the very records that angry parents and teachers stole from the files before they fled.

If Battistella loses her school and her platform, it will not be the first time. Twice she had set up her lab in public elementary schools, and twice she was asked to leave. The school district blamed her expulsion on her divisive and combative nature. With much trumpeting by lawyers and flogging of media, Battistella accused the unions and the school administrators of undermining her good works.

"It's a program that works very well, that's proven," Battistella says. "It's such a good program that it's a shame that this has been done to it by people who do not have the best interests at heart.

"Whenever you do anything as a pioneer effort, you're up against it in the beginning," she says. "It takes a very rare type of person with rare qualities to be a pioneer. It might sound very trite, but going down to the foundings of this country, it wasn't everyone who was up to being a pioneer and taking a covered wagon across country. A lot of people gave up and fell by the wayside. It was those stronger people--maybe it was strength, maybe it was determination, maybe it was vision. They fought through to the end and became the first ones to set foot on new soil."

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