On Charter Schools and Innovation in Education: A Conversation with Ruth Mesfun

At 8:00 on a recent Wednesday evening, educator Ruth Mesfun was sorting dominoes into plastic zip-top bags.

A sixth-grade science teacher at Excellence Girls Middle Academy, an all-girls charter school in Brooklyn, New York, Mesfun was prepping for the next day’s lesson: a hands-on activity that will have her students working in groups to create precise five-second timers using no more than dominoes, a ruler and a stopwatch (to measure the effectiveness of their designs).

It’s the kind of innovative activity that catches students’ attention. Mesfun knows that innovation and engagement are key to her students’ success. So this year, in an effort to address the persistent gender gap in technology, Mesfun is teaching her students computer science instead of following a traditional sixth-grade science curriculum.

Mesfun came to education from a career in marketing, and taught at a traditional public school in North Carolina before moving back to NYC. We recently talked to Mesfun to learn more about charter schools and innovation in education.

Let’s talk about the myths vs. the reality of charter schools. What misconceptions, if any, do you think the general public and teachers hold about charter schools?

I think people have misconceptions about charter schools, and misconceptions about traditional public schools. As far as teachers goes, the teaching environment isn’t necessarily better or worse if it’s a charter school or a traditional public school. It’s about the administration. I literally choose a job or accept a position because I not only like my job, but I love and trust my boss. Because I believe in my boss’ vision.

The administration in my public school was a great administration. They trusted me. They allowed me to make mistakes. They listened to me. When I gave them an idea, they told me, great, let’s figure out how we can incorporate it.

It’s the same thing with my boss in my charter school right now. My administrator has shared her mission with us, and I believe in that mission. She also listens to me. If I give her an opinion or idea, she’s likely to say, That sounds like a great idea. Let’s figure out how we can incorporate that.

How do you decide if a school will be a good fit for you? What kinds of things should teachers be looking for if they want to find a position where they can really be creative, innovative and supported?

When I’m interviewing for a position, I look at how the administration acts, how they communicate, how quickly they communicate to you in emails. Demeanor is a big thing.

Talk to other teachers at the school. Before I accepted this position, I spoke to all of the teachers here. I asked about work-life balance. I asked, How happy are you? On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?  One of my biggest questions was, Do you feel heard in the school?

Let’s address some of the controversy surrounding charter schools. Some people say that charter schools take resources away from the traditional public schools. How you would respond to people who make those kinds of arguments?

It’s almost my pet peeve when people generalize charter schools because every charter school is different. So if you go to my school, it’s going to be very different from another charter school, even another one in the same network or in the same city.

The fact that people generalize about charter schools is really interesting to me because if you see a bunch of students who are the same gender, or race, you don’t want to generalize them. Every person is different. Each person has specific characteristics and passions, and you never want to generalize, but people always generalize charter schools.

People think that every charter school has all this extra money, has X, Y and Z. Most charter schools have the same amount of money that a traditional public school has to use. They difference is that they’re able to allocate their resources the way they want. They’re able to say, for instance, OK, we’re not going to have substitute teachers. If someone is out, we’ll cover it internally, so we don’t need to spend money on substitutes; we can use that money for something that helps the kids directly.

People think that charter schools are taking money from public schools, but we’re public schools, too.

Do you feel you have more freedom in your teaching because you’re at a charter school, or do you think it’s because you have a fantastic administrator who’s giving you flexibility?

A little bit of both, to be honest. Here in New York, our students don’t have to take a state test or standardized test for science until early eighth grade. Because they don’t get a standardized state test for science in sixth grade, this is a great way to pilot programs and see if something works.

I think that we need that. We need to experiment without having students feel pressured that they have to perform all the time.

The only reason we have this computer science class now is because I told my administrator last year that this is a skill girls should learn in middle school. Studies show that girls usually decide by seventh or eighth grade if they’re good at something, so if they don’t think they’re good at math and science and computers, they’re not going to take computer science courses in high school. I don’t want that for my girls. I want to make sure that every single girl — no matter if they want to become a chef, a writer, a blogger, a dancer or singer — knows that she can do this. I don’t want any of them to think they can’t and end up limiting their own opportunities.

The reason why I’m able to do this computer science class is because I am tying every lesson to a Common Core objective. So in my lesson plans, I’ll have a computer science objective, but right below it I’ll have the math or language arts Common Core standards tie-ins. That way administration can see the direct correlation. There is no way my principal or her boss would allow a class like this to happen without it connecting to the Common Core.

What advice would you give to a teacher who is considering a position at a charter school?

Don’t look at it as, Should I go into a charter school, or should I go into a public school? Instead, think, Is this the right fit for me or is that? Because guess what? There are excellent charter schools and there are excellent traditional public schools.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.