P olicy questions aside, what is life really like inside a charter school? And how does it compare to life in a district public school?
MTA member Lucas Donohue has experienced both
worlds — and he recently shared his story with MTA
Communications Specialist Laura Barrett on two
occasions, first by phone and then in his classroom.
Donohue worked at the Mystic Valley Regional
Charter School in Malden for nearly three years
and then took a job at the Dorchester Collegiate
Academy — DCA — for a year. He is now in
his fourth year at Cunniff Elementary School in
Watertown, where he teaches fifth grade. On Sept.
28, the day of our visit, Donohue was in the middle
of a reading lesson. He is soft-spoken but had his
students’ full attention as he read them a story and
got them talking about the author’s point of view.
During our conversation after school, a sixth-grade
girl dropped by to visit. Donohue appeared to be
the kind of supportive teacher students remember
— and visit — for years to come. Not all charter
schools are the same, but Donohue’s experiences
are similar to those described by other charter
teachers, parents and students. Many charters
employ the “no excuses” and direct-instruction
models that Donohue discusses. Here is his story,
edited for clarity and length.
M ystic Valley hired me as a reading specialist even though I have no credentials in reading.
I took the job because I really wanted to teach and I
needed a job. I was excited to get it.
Most charter school teachers I worked with
were young and inexperienced, but talented and
hardworking and caring. The problem is, the charter
school environment relies on inexperienced people
who are paid relatively small amounts of money.
In a charter school, the teachers don’t last. Of all
the teachers I started with at Mystic Valley, there are
only two left seven years later. Some years we’d lose
40 percent of the teachers.
Now I’m in Watertown and I’m loving it.
Teachers are equally committed to the kids as they
are in charter schools, but they are able to do it for
a career. It’s a profession. Teachers get training and
support and are in for the long haul.
Both charters I worked at were very top-down.
One used the direct-instruction method, which is
not real teaching since every lesson is 100 percent
scripted. There was no room for creativity, flexibility
and growth for the teacher.
The teacher says something and the kids say
it back. It is all very behavioristic. It is kind of
a throwback to an earlier time. Think of it as an
industrialized school system where every kid is
walking the same way and doing the same thing at
the same time. It robs the joy from teaching.
Each of these schools was 110 percent directed
toward getting good test scores. For example, we
didn’t read whole books; we had basal readers that
teach a skill and then give students a worksheet to
practice that skill. There was no authentic reading or
teaching for depth of understanding.
In Watertown, it is completely different. My
partner teacher and I go through a process that is
much more organic. We look at the needs of our
students and develop lessons to address those needs.
I get to pick the text that I think is right for my
students, and the students get to pick out books that
interest them. My classroom is full of books.
Our relationship with our students is also
different. At the charter schools, it was all about
discipline. For example, at DCA we had to hand out
ROCS — Reminders of Community Standards. You
could get one for a uniform infraction or for talking
in the hallway or for celebrating after you got a good
If you got so many ROCS in a week, that would
lead to a call home. If you got more, that would lead
to a detention. Students found themselves in trouble
all the time and it was usually for small things, such
as not having a shirt tucked in. The discipline would
compound and all of a sudden good students were in
detention nearly every day.
This rigidity was also applied to the teachers.
Teachers were not seen as professionals. When you
were sick, even if just for one day, you were required
to provide a doctor’s note and if you didn’t, they
would write you up. This contributed to the feeling
that this was not a career, it was just a job.
When I went for my evaluation, it had nothing
to do with helping me become a better teacher. Both
charter schools had principals who had never taught
a day in their lives. They focused on random, trivial
things. One year I didn’t get a raise because I wore a
sweater vest over a shirt and tie but I didn’t tuck in
my shirt. There was no discussion about instructional
processes or how to become a better teacher.
I n Watertown, I find the evaluation process useful. My principal taught for years and has valuable
insights for me. She values what I have to say. She
wants me to experiment to get better and knows that
mistakes are part of the process. She is supportive
and helps me grow as an educator, yet she doesn’t
nitpick. We’ll talk in a constructive manner about
how a lesson went and how I could do better.
The charters had an unprofessional relationship
with the teachers. At DCA I had a contract that said
my workday was from 7: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. About
two weeks after I started, my principal came to us
and said, “Our scores are low on MCAS, so two
times a week you have to work until 5: 30, providing
students with an hour of tutoring at the end of the
As teachers we said, “But our contract says 7: 30
to 4: 30. Are we going to be paid for this extra time?
Or do we get to leave earlier another day?” He said,
“No. We just rewrote your contract. If you don’t like
it, you can get another job.”
This is not how you treat a professional. If you
need the job and you care about the kids, you have
very little recourse. Are you going to take your
employer to court?
We also didn’t have a set salary schedule. The
raises were very political and depended on how
much the principal liked you. You could get a 3 or 4
Please turn to Teaching/Page 24
Lucas Donohue asks questions about the author’s point of view as he reads a story to his
fifth-grade class at Cunniff Elementary School in Watertown. A former charter school teacher,
Donohue is now in his fourth year at the district public school.
Photo by Chris Christo