Recently I have been thinking about what it means to be in the “education reform” space and reflecting on how I got here. Many of the people in my life and in my professional circles know me for my work with charter schools, first as an authorizer, then as an advocate and now as the founder of my own charter school support organization.
But I’m fairly certain if you checked the statistics on my life—I came from a low-income family, didn’t live in the “right” ZIP code, pregnant at 19—you’d fall over. How did I get here? From casualty of the system to someone trying to make it better?
Twenty years ago, when one of the earliest charters to open in Albany began making news, I was paying attention to what the school was promoting—it was founded on the premise any child could learn and be successful in life.
That hit very close to home for me. As a child, I attended Albany City Schools, and at the time I was in high school, my parents didn’t have the means to send us all to college. To make matters worse, there was no one at school telling me I could succeed or telling me college was an option. In fact, I was told I had only a few options. I’ll never forget my guidance counselor telling me: “Your parents had too many children they can't afford to send you to college.” We were even discouraged from taking the SATs.
My guidance counselor went on to relay my options, telling me I could become a hairdresser, nurse’s aid or could enroll in the military. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these careers—but as I look back it makes me both sad and angry that a so-called “educator” put up artificial barriers to my and so many other kids’ success and achievements, simply based on how much money our parents made and our ZIP code.
A school shouldn’t limit your options or tell you what you can and cannot do.
It wasn’t until I was a mom that I realized I my child deserved more. I was going to ensure my child would receive a better education with no limitations. And I also realized I was capable of more than the limitations my guidance counselor and others put on me.
No one would ever have the same conversation with him that my guidance counselor had with me. [pullquote position="left"]Having kids of my own, and seeing what charter schools promised—those were the catalysts for what would become my life’s work.
I started my research. I read the Charter Schools Act. I called the guy in charge of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute and got a meeting with him the very next morning for an interview. I knew I wanted to work with charters, and it must have been clear right away because seven minutes into that meeting, I was offered a job as the office manager, and I took it promptly, to get my foot in the door. Within six months I was promoted to director of operations and within a year, I had become the director of charter school accountability. I stayed in that role for eight years, working directly with counsel on compliance and oversight of our schools.
Eventually I knew in my heart, my time would be better served stepping in to help schools improve and expand. The truth was there were not enough high-quality schools for the number of families who wanted them for their children. But I was told at work, “You’re a regulator, not an advocate.”
At that very moment, I thought, “Oh, I should become an advocate.” So that was my next move and I spent many years advocating and providing guidance to schools directly.
I finally gained the courage last year to leave a comfortable role and do something scary: Launch my own firm that supports schools with services they need to succeed. In my day-to-day, I do the work I am truly passionate about. My colleagues and I provide intensive supports to independent charter schools and small charter management organizations, specifically those with authentic community roots.
When I walk into a school, I see me. I see the kid sitting in class bored to tears. Or I see the kid struggling to understand the math on the board but the lessons keep going ahead despite the fact that the child doesn’t understand. I see the kid who has read every book in the class and needs more but more doesn’t exist. I see the kid who doesn’t fit in. I see the kid who feels less than.
And that is why I work so hard with charter schools to ensure they are high performing, they are accountable and they always remember it’s not about the adults in the room. It’s about the kids.
I also think about how many of those students would have the same conversation I had with my guidance counselor if they were in a different kind of school, one that doesn’t recognize their potential, their talents or their gifts?
That’s why charters mean so much to me. They’ve changed the way we educate, and the way we value children and their potential, and nurture them in a way I did not experience in school.
I may not be the traditional education reform person, but have no doubt, that’s what I am.
Jill DeMarco Shahen is co-founder of Empire Charter Consultants, which works with charter schools in New York and nationally.