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?”
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.
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.
An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at citizenstewart.com and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”
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