According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ (n.d.) most recent figures, approximately 2 percent of children in the United States attend charter schools. Now consider Washington, DC, where the charter school phenomenon is so popular that over 44 percent of the city’s youth are enrolled in a charter school rather than a traditional public or private institution (FOCUS, 2010). This causes one to wonder, when provided with this type of school choice, how do families make the decision to pursue the charter route over other options for their children’s education? And what, if any, are the benefits of being an educator or administrator in a charter school over a traditional public school?

In Our School, former high school teacher and current education consultant Sam Chaltain seeks to answer these questions. Presented in the vein of light-hearted investigative journalism, Our School follows Chaltain’s personal experiences observing classrooms, talking with staff, and listening to families at two public elementary schools in Washington, DC, over the course of a year— one a first-year charter school and the other a ninety-year-old neighborhood school. Through a rich narrative that describes the thoughts, decision-making patterns, and challenges experienced by the schools’ teachers, administrators, and prospective parents, Our School illustrates how the experiences of stake-holders in these two school settings can be both alike and distinct from one another.

Divided into two parts—one for each semester—Our School leads its readers on a journey that starts just before the first day of school and carries the story of learning through to the conclusion of the academic year. While families are generally referenced throughout, Our School does not go into the personal details of parents and caretakers; instead, readers get a strong sense that the heart of this book resides in educators’ experiences across the course of the year. The book introduces its large cast of practitioners in a humanizing light that delves deeply into descriptions of their personal lives and professional motivations. For example, we learn that Molly is a first-year teacher who formerly worked in environmental policy. Uninspired by her previous career, she decided to make a change by accepting a job as a kindergarten teacher at Mundo Verde, a brand-new charter school. Similarly, we discover that Rebecca will be entering her fourth year as a coteacher in a third-grade classroom at Bancroft Elementary School, a neighborhood school that has been around for more than ninety years. Whereas Molly is just entering the profession and all experiences feel quite new to her, Rebecca has her instructional routines established and is starting to wonder about pursuing a career other than teaching.

At times it can be tedious to keep track of the large ensemble of teachers, principals, school directors, and parents; yet, the book’s rich descriptions of these two schools and the educators who teach at them helps Chaltain portray how choices and experiences are both similar and different for those dedicated to ensuring schoolwide success. The principals of Mundo Verde and Bancroft both battle the anxieties of achievement pressure, community relations, parent satisfaction, and teacher retention. Teachers in both schools assess the effectiveness of various instructional strategies and simultaneously struggle to discover where they fit (or don’t fit) professionally in the field of education. Prospective families evaluate the benefit of charter versus traditional public schools and question the type of learning community that would best suit their children. The tribulations and jubilations experienced by the staff at each school are heartwarming and seemingly indicative of “real life” for educators. Teachers are elated to discover when a reluctant reader finally catches on, principals hold their breath in hopes that their school achieves the scores it needs to stay open another year, and parents puzzle over which environment is most educationally and culturally appropriate for their children.

However, it is unclear how Chaltain ascertained the personal details from his subjects. Did he conduct interviews? Were the subjects asked to keep a journal? The reader wonders how the author was able to delve into the minds of the educators in order to relay their thoughts and feelings. While the descriptions of schools and teachers are believable and feel authentic, Our School would benefit from an introduction that clearly describes how Chaltain collected and then analyzed data, as well as an explanation for why he selected these two schools over the many others in the DC area. Additionally, when Our School ends, it is still relatively unclear how or why parents decide to pursue a charter school over other options, or if there are any benefits for teachers to working in a charter school over a traditional public school. While these questions are not fully answered, the reader is better equipped with knowledge of the different challenges faced by charter and traditional schools, as well as what types of questions one should ask as a family or aspiring employee.

It is not until the epilogue that Chaltain describes his motivations for writing the book and offers constructive advice for school reform. He confides that he “wanted to see what it was like to be a teacher in 2012 . . . but most of all [he] wanted to put a human face on the modern landscape of school choice” (p. 166). After reflecting on what he had learned throughout the course of this year, he offers a substantial list of suggestions for how school reformers can more successfully retain teachers, more humanely evaluate school progress, and more effectively develop a democratic method for introducing school choice to families. For example, he states that “every teacher [he] observed over the course of writing Our School said she felt unprepared for the challenges of the classroom, and for understanding how to meet the myriad needs of her students” (p. 167). In response to this concern, Chaltain recommends that all teacher preparation programs adopt a model that teaches developmental sciences to provide foundational knowledge of the social, emotional, and physical needs of children and learning sciences to provide teachers with an understanding of how children learn. This step, he argues, could serve to ameliorate challenges schools face when trying to retain quality teachers. Strategies such as this and many others are offered in an intelligent and easy-to-digest tone that could be helpful to more than just school reformers.

While the book and its descriptions cannot be generalized to all existing schools in the United States, Our School does offer a compelling snapshot into what life is like in the world of one charter and one traditional public school in Washington, DC. Given its careful and comprehensive examination of these two environments, Our School enables its readers to better understand the real-life challenges and triumphs of those who strive to make these schools a success. Our School could benefit any parent who is struggling with the school choice process and any educator who is deciding which type of educational environment suits their teaching style.

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools [FOCUS]
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National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.)
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