Here's How Cutting-Edge Charter School Leaders of Color Engage Families for Student Success

Nov 19, 2019 12:00:00 AM


For decades, parents and charter school administrators have cultivated best practices to build inclusive, welcoming and student-centered school communities across the country. From single-site schools to large charter networks, leaders, educators and CMOs have worked together to create spaces that challenge students’ intellect, emphasize academic rigor and mastery, and enlist parent and community support to increase student success.

This week the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Public Impact released a report, “Identity and Charter School Leadership: Profiles of Leaders of Color Engaging Families.” The report profiles three dynamic school leaders of color—Maquita AlexanderFreddy Delgado and Kriste Dragon. Each school featured includes a mix of academic models, including college preparatory programs, schools that are “diverse by design” and dual language programs. The profiles in this report aim to inspire more educators of color to pursue charter school leadership and underlines the best practices that school leaders of color have implemented to create strong family relationships within their schools.

The report highlights the parent and family engagement practices that school leaders of color have applied to their classroom and school culture with an emphasis on sustainable efforts that can be replicated within all school models. Throughout the interviews, common themes were found among the profiled leaders. Specifically, [pullquote position="right"]their impetus to become school leaders grew from inequities that they experienced in their early academic development[/pullquote]—and now they have leveraged those experiences to create more equitable schools and learning experiences for other students.

Citizens of the World Charter Schools

Kriste Dragon recalled how jarring it was to visit early education programs for her child that celebrated diversity, versus her own experience attending schools that fell into the trappings of adhering to racial stereotypes. So when she sought out a school that reflected the many cultures of her Los Angeles community, she realized that she would have to build it herself. Thus, Citizens of the World Charter Schools (CWC) has become a school where students and families have learned how to live and thrive in a diverse society.

The report also underlines tenets around which school leaders of color have grounded and refashioned their engagement practices: emphasizing student achievement over deficits and providing inclusive family engagement practices to foster strong academic results. Because charter schools are public schools, the student body served traditionally represents the socioeconomic and racial composition of their local community.

At each of the schools featured, students from low-income families and students of color make up a significant portion of, if not the entire, student body. Within these settings, the profiled [pullquote]school leaders focus on the academic and personal achievements of their students versus overemphasizing the “deficits”—both real and perceived[/pullquote]—that low-income students of color are usually associated with.

School leaders used asset-based language to describe their students and families and underscored the value students and their families offer. They discussed the methods that their schools used to address students’ needs, such as partnering with families to reinforce their value and positive impact on their child, rather than perceiving their primary role as a leader to compensate for, or work around deficits, found in their student’s community. 

To strengthen their diverse student population, school leaders were also deliberate about their school recruitment and enrollment practices to support their growing student body and campus. At CWC’s four schools in Los Angeles and Kansas City, the leadership is intentionally “diverse-by-design.” CWC built their campuses in distinct communities and matches their student enrollment to the demographics of their communities with respect to race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

CWC’s leaders are methodical about creating a school with a diverse enrollment. CWC has adopted additional practices to ensure all families have equal opportunities to learn about the network and equal access through the application process. Some of their practices include additional outreach to low-income families through community partners, enrollment informational meetings held in various languages and a weighted lottery that balances family demand with community representation. 

CWC schools also hire staff across all levels of leadership that reflect the local community. More than 50% of CWC staff in Los Angeles—including all three principals—identify as people of color, and at the Kansas City campus, 45% of full-time staff identify as people of color.

Yet, CWC leaders know that [pullquote position="right"]families are the key ingredient to making this model work.[/pullquote] The importance of effective family engagement in CWC’s success has been particularly evident as it has expanded beyond California. Parents serve on the board in both the Los Angeles and Kansas City regions to influence broader policies across their state and throughout the network. Each school also has a principal’s council that meets throughout the year to advise and provide feedback on site-based decision-making and includes a range of stakeholders to include families.

Like all charter school leaders, Kriste Dragon and her team care about more than just test scores. And their mission is to impact and expand the conversation about what an excellent education contains, requires and accomplishes. To that end, CWC is developing ways to measure and report on student mastery, including on report cards and in family conferences. 

The focus on strong academic results by charter schools is only a partial reflection of the broader concentration which is meeting the needs of the whole child. Through rigorous academic curriculum, strong family and school relationships and evaluating existing practices, [pullquote]our school leaders of color have proven that students and families of color can achieve academic success in any environment.[/pullquote]

Nina Rees

Nina Rees is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the charter school movement. She is responsible for setting the strategic vision of the organization, fundraising, and working with her senior team to foster a climate in which charter schools can grow and have a positive impact on the academic achievement of all students. Rees has over 20 years of experience in Washington, D.C., most recently as Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Knowledge Universe, a leading global education company with investments in early childhood education, before- and after-school programs, and online instruction. Prior to her tenure at KU, she served as the first Deputy Under Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. In this capacity, she oversaw the administration of 28 grant programs, supporting 1,300 projects, and was responsible for spearheading innovative federal programs and policies such as school choice, charter schools, and alternative routes to teacher certification and school leadership. Before moving to the Education Department, Rees served as Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy to the Vice President at the White House. Prior to serving in the executive branch, Rees was the senior education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, where she authored more than two dozen policy briefs and served as the foundation’s chief spokesperson on education. She previously worked at a public interest law firm and an advocacy organization. She began her career in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill, where she worked for then-Congressman Porter Goss (R-FL) in 1991. Rees has appeared on various news outlets including Bloomberg, CNBC, C-SPAN and PBS’s NewsHour. Her articles and opinions have been published in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. She also writes a regular column for U.S. News & World Report. Rees serves on the board of directors of the PIE Network, the advisory committee of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the advisory boards of Honored and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. She is a Pahara-Aspen Fellow and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. She lives in McLean, Virginia, with her husband and daughter.

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