By Ron Rice, Senior Director, Government Relations at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools
I have been a Black student, education policymaker, and now an advocate for providing the best educational opportunities for all our children. One reality that I’ve had to face and embrace through each of these stages in my life and career is that the prevalence of leaders of color like me is a major contributor to educational success and whose lack thereof stifles that potential. As a student of color, those examples helped me thrive; and today they inform my advocacy.
This month, my organization, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools released its highly-anticipated report, “Identity and Charter School Leadership: Profiles of Leaders of Color Building an Effective Staff” which examined the ways that school leaders of color’s experiences and perspectives influence how they build school culture, parent and community relationships, and effective staff. This needed report affirmed what I and many fellow school leaders of color have witnessed first-hand in schools from New Jersey (where I advised the state Department of Education) to Massachusetts, California, Louisiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, where school leaders of color were studied. The report’s finding is clear: our children of color thrive with diverse and experienced teachers who understand their challenges and have a personal, unwavering dedication to their success.
Most importantly, our report is instructive as well because it sheds light — through the profiles of three public charter school leaders of color from Louisiana, North Carolina, and California — on the principles that can help match our best current and future teachers with our nation’s students. Three of those principles that resonated with my two decades in education policy are:
First, fill our school leadership pipeline with talented educators of color who come from nontraditional backgrounds and fields of study. But how do we dispel the myth that there are not enough qualified and passionate people of color who can and want to fill this educational pipeline? One way to do this comes from Eric Sanchez, co-founder of Henderson Collegiate — a network of three schools serving elementary, middle and high school in Henderson, North Carolina. Instead of only recruiting future educators from traditional education programs, Eric also recruits graduates from university programs focusing on social justice and ethnic studies. And this encouragement doesn’t end once the teachers reach the classroom — we must provide clear pathways for these teachers to pursue school leadership.
Second, school leaders and education policymakers of all colors must be committed to seeing and promoting diversity as an asset, not a deficit; an opportunity, not an obstacle. Imagine how better prepared our children will be for the world of tomorrow if they have been taught the history behind their identity, the language behind their culture, and the geography behind their journey. While nearly all schools struggle with activating this principle for the benefit of our students, our report demonstrates that public charter schools are making substantial progress where traditional public schools haven’t.
Third, achievement and demonstrated success — not myths, preconceptions, and inherited political biases — must be the basis upon which we support the best educational opportunities for all our children. For example, by their design, public charter schools have the flexibility to create and finetune curricula, teaching methods, and optimal outcomes that traditional public schools do not. So, why would we ever consider putting obstacles in any educational paths that are showing real achievement?
Race and identity of both our educators and students is only one factor in the holistic successes we are all working towards. However, it’s also true that all schools across our country in every community have historically not valued students’ diversity and identity as assets to enrich the education they receive. Public charter schools are making real progress to expose this blind spot and make the needed course corrections to ensure the success we’ve seen for some students are the norm for all.
Ron Rice Jr. is a former two term Newark, NJ city councilman, chief advisor to the New Jersey Department of Education, and is currently Senior Director, Government Relations at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
The African-American community’s fight for quality education requires constant dedication and reflection on successful strategies to educate our children. Donald Hense and the Friendship Charter Network is an example of success worthy of recognition.
Hense is the founder and board chairman of the Friendship Charter Network, the largest African-American-led charter school network in America. Hense’s accomplishment is significant, because, while over 80 percent of charter school students are Black or Latino, fewer than 10 percent of charter schools are founded and led by Blacks or Latinos, according to a study by the Brookings Institute.
Three-quarters of the students enrolled in Friendship schools in D.C. are from Wards 7 and 8, the city’s two poorest areas, and nearly all are African-American. Their achievement is reflected in their continuous improvement on standardized tests. Most recently, Hense and his team celebrated, when five of Friendship’s 12 D.C. schools were rated Tier 1 by the Public Charter School Board – the highest of three ratings a charter school can earn.
As a native of St. Louis and graduate of Morehouse College and Stanford University, Hense has long understood the power of a quality education. But for years he had no interest in working in K-12 education. He was serving as executive director of Friendship House Association, a non-profit serving low-income families in Washington D.C., when he was approached by an executive from a local charter operator about using Friendship House to charter a school. After some reflection, he agreed to transfer his experience fighting intergenerational poverty to the fight for quality public education.
Hense made history as the first African American to win a grant from New Schools Venture Fund, which supports charter school founders. Friendship was among the first group of schools chartered by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in 1998. Twenty years later, it has12 campuses for students in grades Pre-K3 to 12 in D.C., an online school, and schools in Baton Rouge, La., Baltimore, Md., and Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Hense is proud of Friendship and of education reform efforts in Washington, but he is not ready to celebrate. “We declared victory too soon,” he says. “Fifteen years of education reform is not an institution.”
To Hense, the fight to reform school systems serving African-American students should include more leaders of color. For years, he held a monthly meeting of black charter school leaders in D.C. to talk about their experiences and discuss lessons learned, but it “fizzled out” after young leaders lost interest. “We brought in second and third generation [leaders] and forgot to show them that [African-Americans] need to work together to get things done,” he says. “New [leaders] have to participate in black organizations.”
In spite of a few setbacks, Hense is still dedicated to supporting African-Americans interested in opening their own charter schools. The greatest obstacle to their success, he believes, is lack of experience in management. A potential founder needs “a good plan and a good board of directors. It’s best to go in [to the charter application process] with a strong [management] team.”
Fortunately, there are positive examples of young, African-American charter school founders to emulate. In 2017, Dominique Lee of BRICK Avon Academy in Newark, New Jersey won a Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Education Department. Dominque aims to use the grant to educate 3,000 students in Newark over the next few years, making BRICK the state’s third-largest CMO and the only one led by a person of color.
Hense recommends that other African Americans interested in starting charter schools apply for funding fromthe New Schools Venture Fund or for charter school design grants from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), if they are in D.C.
At 75, Hense says he is not done. The Friendship Education Fund continues to identify opportunities to replicate their model around the country. Friendship’s goal is to bring what Hense and his team learned in Washington to the countless districts struggling to grow African-American student achievement. As DCPS welcomes a new chancellor with experience championing school choice, there may be new opportunities in D.C. as well.
This article is a part of The ‘Reinventing America’s Schools’ series. This series highlights Change Makers from our community who are walking reflections of what’s possible when we place Accountability and Autonomy at the forefront.
Allendale County’s school district sits in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, in an impoverished, rural region near the coast known as the “corridor of shame” for the chronic poor quality of its education system. Until recently, three of the district’s four schools were considered among the lowest performing in the state.
But after an assist beginning more than a year ago from the state—which is working to rebrand the area as the “corridor of opportunity”—two of those schools made it off the state’s list of the lowest performers….
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As a child, in between born into an interracial family, Poet Michele Reese knew she wanted to write about the Black experience with works that delved into African American history, from very early on.
She bared the words from her soul in front of a room full of young writers with her son sitting in the front row as she read from her first published book of poems, Following Phia, which indirectly focuses on her journey through life, sexuality, race, motherhood, and other topics.
“My home sits in sandy soil, where once indigo was caked in lye, I’ve painted my children’s walls haint blue to keep them safe from mosquitoes and restless spirits,” she said. “They have been fed from my breasts, bathed in tepid water to bring down fevers, inoculated, taught to swim… I have done all the things that mothers do to tether their children,” Reese read at Xavier University’s Fall Literary Reading series on Oct. 4th.
Reese started her writing journey very similarly to other writers. It was one of her own teachers in middle school that inspired her to pick up the pen and write what she was feeling, whether it was about what she ate that morning, or how she was feeling about rainy mornings in West Virginia. All she knew was that she had to write.
“It was my own English teacher in seventh grade that made me write a poem,” she said, “I’m pretty sure it was for an assignment, but I haven’t stopped writing ever since. I had no clue it would be paying my bills today,” Reese said.
As the daughter of a Jamaican Immigrant, Reese began to tell stories through her poetry that dealt with race, intersection, gender, sexuality, slavery, and much more. These very stories were things not just about slaves and their struggles, but also about her own Jamaican family heritage.
Although she grew up in West Virginia, a mostly White-populated state, Reese never lost sight of her Jamaican roots. She was determined to begin writing poetry that dealt with African-American history, symbolism, and culture. It helped her to connect with the Black experience.
“I am tired of being beneath him. I cannot wait to escape,” Reese read from one of her poems, discussing the rapes of African-American enslaved women.
Although these topics were not always so easy to discuss, read, or write about, that did not stop her from writing about them. These were messages she believed needed to be talked about, especially ones about race and gender. She felt drawn to these topics because of the Jamaican blood running through her veins.
As a way to branch out and get away from West Virginia, the poet went to the University of Southern California where she earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing/poetry and print journalism in 1994. She then went on to graduate school and then earned her doctorate in 2000. The poet’s latest work, Following Phia, was published earlier this year and focuses on the journey of her life, both spiritually and intellectually. Reese discusses her travels, her love of being a mother, her heritage, and much more throughout the book.
“As the child of an immigrant, a Jamaican Immigrant at that, race was something I really wanted to tackle in my writing,” Reese said. She often wished she had poems that were light-hearted, and a little less serious, but she never stopped writing them because she knew the Black experience is never an easy subject. She wanted her readers to really connect with the struggles and the joys of being Black.
“I wish I had some more funny poems,” Reese said. “But a poet named Pat Parker wrote a powerful piece titled, “Where Would I Be,” and that kind of made me realize we have to have the courage to stand up for what we believe in and as a writer I think that’s very important,” she said.
Some of Reese’s poems have been published in several journals like The Oklahoma Review, Poetry Midwest, The Tulane Review, and Hand in Hand: Poets among others. She also is a former writer for The Watering Hole. The organization, founded by Candace G. Wiley, a Clemson University Professor in 2009, first started off as a small Facebook group. Since then, it has attracted dozens of members and their writers have earned numerous awards.
As a writer, there is a very slim chance your work will get published, Reese said, because someone must find it and fall in love with it. “If you are a writer, even if you just started, do not give up. Believe in yourself and in your writing, even if no one else does,” Reese said. “Continue telling those stories that people are afraid to tell because they deserve to be heard. Just like news reporters, poets tell stories,” she added.
Young writers like David Evans, a Xavier student, said that as a frequent writer himself, he couldn’t help but feel touched not only by Reese’s work, but by her sincerity as a writer.
“You can tell her writing comes from a place of realness,” Evans said. “As a writer, I felt the urge to pick my pencil up and start writing those things I’m so scared to write about because we all have a voice, even through ink and paper.”
He said he is grateful that Reese took the time to inspire another generation of writers with her story. “Writing has no limits. It is all about what you feel and sometimes even about what you have been through,” he said. Young Black writers don’t always get to see themselves in poetry, according to Biljana Obradovic, the English Department Head at Xavier. She wanted her students to have more knowledge on how to publish their work and to be exposed to different types of work. Not only did Reese come and just share her work, she gave aspiring writers an even greater message to leave with: To believe in themselves, their voice, and in their writing, “She is an amazing writer because her writing is sincere,” said Obramovic who met Reese six years ago during a teaching trip to Italy.
“Her writing speaks to the soul, and her writing speaks for a lot of minorities with similar views, similar heritage and those who have faced similar adversities. I am able to teach students that come from all over the world, and at an HBCU, I think it is so important for students in general to use their voice,” Obradovic said.
When asked about his childhood, Troy recalls “School was difficult. My classmates teased me due to my inability to comprehend written words. My teacher would call on me and I would have to endure an awkward silence until she moved on and called on another student.” By every measure we use to determine success and life outcomes in America, Troy Simon should be dead, unemployed, or in jail.
Troy believes a lack of parental engagement played a significant role in his low school performance and diminutive interest in education. Troy says, “My friends were always ahead of me academically because their parents were involved. My Mom and Dad both struggled with reading, but I had friends whose parents had them at a young age too, but they didn’t struggle like me with reading. Overall though, hardly anyone in my community had school spirit or happy feelings about school.”
Troy recalls, “There was a gap where I could go to school and then go home and not hear anything about school. Maybe I was supposed to be the middle man to bridge the gap between my teachers, my parents, and my community but I didn’t—or I didn’t understand how to.”
As a result, Troy found acceptance outside of school; snatching purses in the French Quarter and as a street tap dancer after teaching himself to dance. But following Hurricane Katrina, a short stint in Houston and what Troy describes as a “spiritual experience,” he began to take school seriously. Troy returned to New Orleans and enrolled in the new Recovery School District(RSD).
The RSD, administered by the Louisiana Department of Education, was created to take over and improve schools failing to meet minimum academic standards for at least four consecutive years. But after Troy discovered that the large class sizes and lax curriculum offered were not conducive to his learning needs, he enrolled in Abramson Sci Academy, a public charter high school that emphasized college readiness. Founded in 2008 with only 80 students, by 2009 Abramson Sci Academy students ranked second in Math and first in English in the RSD
Troy excelled. He graduated from Abramson Sci Academy and earned a prestigious POSSE Scholarship.As a Posse Scholar, Troy could choose from 54 different colleges and universities. Troy selected Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Despite the early challenges of transitioning to college course work, Troy graduated with honors from Bard College and is currently a joint Nursing/Divinity graduate student at Yale University.
Evidence is clear about the impact of parental engagement on student discipline and student achievement. The United Negro College Fund found a link between parental involvement and positive educational outcomes including higher grade-point averages; increased achievement in reading, writing and math; lower dropout rates; and academic self-efficacy. Although all students benefit from parental involvement, research by ProfessionalSchool Counseling shows that parental involvement for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds significantly impacts their children’s school performance.
But Troy, does not let policymakers and school leaders off the hook. He believes that the future of New Orleans and the Orleans Parrish School System depends on school accountability. “Failing schools would not be tolerated in privileged communities; and therefore, it should not be tolerated in minority communities as well because minority students deserve the same privileges, opportunities, and access to a quality education like any other privilege community and school.
The national education law, ESSA, now requires that school reporting must show improvement for all groups of students and faster improvement for groups that are behind. School rating systems must also reflect the progress of underperforming student subgroups and schools can no longer depend on overall “good averages;” while neglecting or failing to facilitate academic achievement for their most vulnerable students.
Fortunately, Troy plans to use his Yale Degree to support other young Africans-Americans. Troy’s goal is to work in schools to support youth traumatized by violence, but he believes it will take schools and school systems giving him and other educators autonomy to be able to develop relationships with students. Troy believes, “If I am able to connect with the students and their parents, I am able to fully assess what the student needs (partly) and what they are going through and how I can be of any assistance to ensure their success.”
This article is a part of The ‘Reinventing America’s Schools’ series. This series highlights Change Makers from our community who are walking reflections of what’s possible when we place Accountability and Autonomy at the forefront.
A Rouses employee in Baton Rouge was surprised with a free car Monday morning (Aug. 6), days after the employee let a teen with autism help him stock shelves in the store, Fox 44 Baton Rouge reports.
Jordan Taylor was stocking shelves of orange juice one day when Jack Ryan Edwards and his father came across Taylor. A video that has gone viral shows Taylor patiently teaching Edwards how to stock those shelves for roughly 30 minutes, Fox 44 reported.
With Taylor’s kindness in mind, Neighbors FCU President and CEO Steve Webb acknowledged Taylor during the Central Community School System Convocation Monday. Fox 44 reported that Neighbors worked with “community partners” to provide Taylor with his own new vehicle.
Taylor’s actions also spurred the Edwards family to create a GoFundMe account to raise $100,000 for Taylor’s college tuition. In five days, more than 3,300 people have donated $115,485 as of Monday afternoon.
Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and start the course at the year 1450 — and some teachers and students are appalled.
The College Board, which is a nonprofit organization, announced recently that it was making big changes in the course, and said it would publish an updated course and exam description next year for the 2019-20 school year. The more than 9,000 years that will no longer be covered in AP World History will instead be put into a new series of courses the College Board is creating for high schools that can afford to purchase it, called Pre-AP World History and Geography.
Graduation season comes with inspiring stories about remarkable students, and Tulane University recently shared one about one of its own graduates.
Ben Alexander, a nonverbal student with autism, graduated from Tulane May 19, with the support of his father who accompanied him to every class since 2014.
Dr. Sam Alexander told Tulane he always wanted his son Ben Alexander to have the same opportunities that Ben’s two siblings had, according to a Tulane news release. Sam Alexander, an obstetrician-gynecologist, lauded Tulane’s students and professors for always expressing acceptance toward his son, who communicates via computer.
“Obviously I wish he could have gone by himself, without his father hanging all over him. But what a wonderful experience it was,” Sam Alexander said in a statement.
Sam Alexander’s efforts were also praised by Patrick Randolph, director of Tulane’s Goldman Center for Student Accessibility. Randolph said Ben Alexander would likely not even be at Tulane if not “for the constant and unwavering support of his father.”
The Cypress Academy community took members of the Orleans Parish School Board to task Tuesday night (May 22) during a meeting at the Mid-City school hours after OPSB announced it would directly manage the charter school to keep it from closing by Wednesday.
Tuesday’s meeting was initially planned by the Cypress administration to explain to parents why its board voted on Sunday to merge the charter with the Lafayette Academy Extension at the Paul Dunbar Building in Hollygrove. The weekend announcement stated the school’s small headcount of students made it “very difficult” for the school to pay for the needs of its students.
Parents in the Cypress cafeteria audibly gasped after head of school Bob Berk told them Cypress has to raise about $600,000 to balance its budget for the next school year. Berk said Cypress even opened this school year on “a leaner model” than they did last year in an effort to maintain the school, which involved only using one co-teacher across grade levels instead of two. However, Berk said the school realized that the leaner model “wasn’t working school-wide.”
Berk said he managed to find a few donors willing to pay up to $250,000 to Cypress, but he acknowledged he did not feel like they would still be able to raise the full amount of funding in time. Several parents in the room filled with more than 30 people told Berk the board should have been more transparent with parents about their financial burdens…
The students and staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology had a busy Monday morning (May 21). In addition to a graduation ceremony staged for the Lower 9th Ward school’s kindergarteners, students were given an opportunity to test out their newest fitness gear alongside members of the New Orleans Saints team.
The New Orleans Saints and UnitedHealthcare, the country’s largest health insurer, devoted new fitness equipment to the students that was positioned in a “Get Fit” youth fitness zone designated on the second floor of the school. The football players showed 100 students how to properly use the fitness gear in order to encourage students to stay active.
New Orleans Saints Cornerback PJ Williams, Safety Kurt Coleman, Cornerback Arthur Maulet, and Wide Receiver Robert Meachem each spent their morning demonstrating to students how their new fitness equipment is supposed to be used. The initiative at the C-rated school comes a year after the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health deemed Louisiana No. 8 in child obesity…