"Jack London has a phrase," observes Carole Mortenson Crary. "‘Life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do.’"
Mortenson Crary, a fifth, sixth and seventh grade language arts and social studies teacher, seems to have found her summit at The Midland Academy of Advanced & Creative Studies. She says she has a deep, sustaining love for her occupation.
At the charter school, Mortenson Crary has been amply rewarded with good results. In 2002, the academy won two Golden Apple awards from the state of Michigan. She credits the school’s entire staff with this success: "We had the highest fifth grade language arts MEAP scores in Michigan for three consecutive years, and the highest science scores in 2002. That reflects the work of dedicated teachers."
Success has not been elusive for Mortenson Crary who has been honored by the academy’s administration as a Teacher of the Quarter, and has received praise for her work in preparing students to succeed on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.
On top of the honors, and even more important to Mortenson Crary, is the abundant satisfaction expressed in parents’ letters and phone calls. She notes that the academy has received an overflow of parental support — a contrast, in some instances, with what she experienced as a teacher in the conventional public school system.
She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Saginaw Valley State University with both a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in classroom teaching. Some 31 years after she began teaching, Mortenson Crary brings a wealth of experience to her profession and an extensive background in both conventional public schools and public school academies.
Beginning her career in 1974 in the Midland public school district was rewarding for Mortenson Crary: "I enjoyed the children tremendously. … I loved the fact that I had other people within the same grade level to communicate with and discuss issues with." She also offers acclamation for the "fantastic material" in Midland, a district she says is known for its good elementary curriculum.
However, her time spent in a charter school has brought to light some aspects of the conventional public school system that she did not enjoy: "I guess the one thing that I found a little frustrating was the union mentality. … I was raised to think that I should be able to talk with people on my own, one-on-one, and settle differences of opinion that might arise or handle things on a very personal level. And I was very comfortable with that. But it is true that in some of the very large systems, that kind of thing does not happen. You have to work through channels, and there are certain things that you are told you should do and you should not do, and you’re just not quite free in the choices you make."
Mortenson Crary says she now enjoys the level of personal interaction with the administration at the academy. In contrast, "(Unions) sometimes drove a wedge between teachers and administrators, and I tend to think of us all as being on the same team. … We have the same purpose and same goal as we work together day in and day out."
Mortenson Crary also enjoys the flexibility her school allows in choosing the material she teaches at the academy. She has been able to personally select all of the textual material that her classes use, and she has been given the freedom to build it into her own program.
A lover of literature and history, Mortenson Crary believes her students benefit from reading the "great books": "We read complete novels instead of … little excerpts. … The literature I have selected is classical; things that have stood the test of time and have been admired by people for generations. … And I find that students respond to these and like them, and parents are delighted." Mortenson Crary takes seriously her charge to prepare her students for post-secondary success. "I use British literature as far down as seventh grade," she says, "and (some public) high school programs don’t even require it. They don’t do Chaucer, Donne, Milton. That’s a shame. I taught them in eighth grade."
However, the freedoms of teaching in a charter school come with certain drawbacks. Mortenson Crary points out that because most charters are still relatively new and small, every staff member takes on a heavy workload. In a profession that receives less respect than it truly deserves, working in a charter school has the potential to compound the problem. Although she draws motivation from her mission and packed schedule, Mortenson Crary knows that it takes extra effort to do what she does.
In addition, many charter schools have come under criticism for offering less opportunity for extracurricular growth. Many of the schools lack fully-developed sports programs typically due to their smaller size. The Midland Academy of Advanced & Creative Studies does have a few sports teams, but does not host a big-time football or basketball program. Mortenson Crary says that parents looking for this kind of activity in their child’s education should look first at conventional public schools, adding, "Charters are depth, not breadth."
Mortenson Crary does believe that charters offer a "viable alternative." She says there is a huge difference in the positive feedback that she has received in charter schools as opposed to conventional public schools. "Because people are looking for something distinctive," she observes, "they come here and we can deliver it to them." But she also realizes that comes with pressure: "We know that we have to perform. It’s very simple. This is a business in which we all participate, and we all have a stake. If we are not successful, our school will not attract students, and we will end up closing down. So, we know that we have to perform. We know we have to work extremely hard. And we have staff with tremendous knowledge and experience that helps them succeed." Thus, she argues, competition "forces us to be the best we can be and to keep examining our curriculum; keep looking at our test results; keep looking at our teaching strategy — what we are doing that seems to be successful, what could use improvement or alteration," she says.
She concludes: "In our school … there was a very conscious desire to experience something more, something above and beyond. We’ve tried to provide that." She says she is proud of the academy and feels fortunate to be sharing her passion for literature and history with her students. Her experience, drive and commitment appear to have found a setting where her efforts can produce unequivocal academic success.