I learned years ago that only some schools are for everybody. I was a parent who hit a dead end, and the only school options in our zone weren’t a good fit for many reasons. And then, we found a small, orderly, clean, safe and fitting charter school with high standards for middle schoolers and expectations that every student would succeed.
Ever since, I’ve been an advocate for charter schools. But not a knee-jerk advocate. For years I’ve visited schools of all kinds across the country and seen the good, the bad and the “should-close-down-today.” Charter schools fall into all three categories, as do traditional public schools.
Of all the ways that I’ve seen educators use their charter from the state to build their schools, one group stands out from the others: those who created their schools as a purposeful, safe harbor for historically marginalized students to be affirmed and educated.
These are the community charters that are deeply rooted in their communities, offer benefits beyond academics and are embedded in an ecosystem of social service partners that serve families in various ways.
For Us, By Us Schools
These community charters are organically grown, for and by the educators and families.
The best community charters I’ve seen in my years of advocacy serve as hubs for extended services and aim to build strong, collaborative relationships between educators, students, parents and social service partners. Their indigeneity positions them to offer a unique approach to education that highly values community involvement, collaboration and innovation.
These schools live up to the original promise that charters made to bring educators and families together and build schools tailored to their local needs. Together, they answer the questions that caring educators nationally ask, like “What could schools accomplish if they were designed to help students overcome barriers to learning?” and “What if schools built on community strengths and reflected a student's culture?”
Community Charter Schools Benefit All Involved
I’ve seen a range of benefits to organically grown, highly localized charters that are a part of the community, rather than seeing themselves as apart from the community.
- For students. Attending a community charter means having access to strong relationships with supportive adults who share their culture and are invested in their success. These relationships build a sense of security and belonging, encouraging students to take risks and be interested in their learning. Two schools in Indianapolis bring these relationships to life, in very different ways. At Purdue University’s Purdue Polytechnic High School, teachers aren’t teachers–they’re coaches. As part of their studies, students pursue passion projects connected to their own interests, from building a guitar to creating custom-label coffee and an in-school coffee cart with advice from a local roastery, Tinker Coffee Co. Meanwhile, at Excel Center, a community charter sponsored by Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana, with a mission to help adults finish their education and find sustaining jobs, each student is assigned a life coach to help them untangle whatever messy life situations stand between them and completing their high school diploma.
- For teachers. They benefit from working in community charters because these schools value the critical relationships that strengthen teaching and a teacher’s well-being. The collaborative atmosphere allows teachers to access the support of community partners and resources that can be used for academic or non-academic ends: local experts, local businesses, county and city programs, etc.
- For parents. Community charters create opportunities for families of underserved students to attend schools that center their needs and prioritize the continuum of care for their students. The Arizona Autism Charter Schools are a great example of how parents can come together and build schools to address the unique needs of their students who might otherwise go unseen.
- For communities. Community charters serve as a hub for local communities, offering services that benefit local families and households. For instance, Achieve Community Charter School and the BRICK Education Network in New Jersey work with 30 community organizations to offer healthcare services, family case management, housing support and early childhood education.
In the future, I would love to see more charters deepen relationships in their local communities to solve real problems rather than competing unnecessarily with other institutions. The best of them remember this and work hard to earn their keep in their local ecosystems. For instance, more Black and Brown nurses are needed in Rhode Island, and the Nurses Institute Middle College High School delivers them for the entire state. They also offer after-school and summer programs for aspiring nurses from any public school. They know their niche in the community, and they are filling it excellently.
Here’s How Community Charters Can Build Even More Trust
At the same time, community charter schools should always provide a comprehensive educational experience that benefits students, teachers, parents and communities. Through personalized curricula, community partnerships and a whole-child approach to education, community charters can create collaborative and inclusive environments that foster student success and prepare them for lifelong learning.
And, more than anything, like all public schools, they should be accountable for being good financial stewards of public money, firm administrators of student civil rights and good faith actors in local politics.
While I’m never going to support every charter school, I will always support the ones that earn the trust of their communities, affirm marginalized students and make public school choices so good that private school choice is unnecessary.
Purdue Polytechnic HS photos used by permission.