I saw a headline in the New York Post recently that grabbed my attention. The headline read “Joe Biden Reportedly to be Tough on Charter Schools.” The article went on to discuss how the incoming Biden/Harris administration has been working closely with people and organizations that have historically not been friendly to charter schools. The article implied that the Biden/Harris education policy might be influenced by “broad brush” arguments that categorize all charter schools as alike.
This would be a huge mistake. Simply stated, not all charter schools are alike.
I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades working with independent community-based charter schools. I’m talking about charter schools created by parents, educators and faith-based and civic leaders. Specifically, I’m talking about nonprofit charter schools created by concerned community residents who came together to address the needs of their children and families.
The independent charter schools I work with are often referred to as “mom and pop” charter schools. Typically, they are not part of charter school networks nor are they “for-profit” charter schools. They are schools created by parents and community members working together to help kids.
They are also exactly the schools that should be supported by the Biden/Harris administration.
In the Biden Plan for Educators, Students and Our Future—President-elect Biden says that K-12 educators will “have a partner in the White House“ and that his Education Department will support and expand “community schools.” Independent charter schools are community schools, in the truest sense of the term. They work with parents, students, teachers and community organizations to identify and address families’ unmet needs, and they establish themselves as “community hubs.”
To see how independent charter schools are in fact the very community schools that President-elect Biden is seeking to support, you need only to look at Challenge Preparatory Charter School (Challenge Prep). This is a school I worked with since it was just an idea. Roughly 10 years ago, my partners and I met with Rev. Dr. Leslie Mullings and several parents and community leaders to talk about the need to improve educational outcomes for children, mostly Black and Brown, in Far Rockaway Queens. We worked together to create Challenge Prep, which began as an elementary school and has since grown to become an elementary, middle and high school with one of the most innovative Career Technology Education (CTE) programs in the nation. What’s more, Challenge Prep established itself as a leader in the recovery efforts during and following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which hit Far Rockaway with a 32.5 foot wave that shut it down and left most of the school’s students and their families homeless. In response, Challenge Prep stepped up and launched emergency initiatives to help its students and their families. Challenge Prep became the central hub in Far Rockaway for facilitating distribution of $6.8 million in relief supplies and providing services and resources to people throughout the community. Challenge Prep continues to be a beacon in its community, most recently by providing free meals and supporting children and families in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another example of how independent charter schools are dedicated to serving their communities is the Renaissance Charter School (TRCS). TRCS is one the oldest and most successful independent charter schools in New York City, with a commitment to civic education and fostering student empathy, advocacy and activism. In an absolutely heartbreaking article published earlier this year, the stories of several young children and families in the hard-hit neighborhoods served by TRCS struggling with COVID-19 were told. TRCS is located in Corona/Jackson Heights, which is among the most severely impacted communities by COVID-19 in the country. Indeed, at one point this year at least 80% of students in its counselors’ caseloads were sick or had sick family members and more than 40% of its families had had someone laid off or furloughed. In keeping with its mission to holistically serve its students and families, TRCS added more mental health providers through a federal grant program and expanded its morning meeting, advisories and social emotional wellness initiatives. It also enhanced its professional development with training in anti-bias and culturally responsive instruction to ensure that all teachers have a “common understanding of trauma and resilience.” As a result, TRCS has been a leader among all New York City public schools in serving its community during the pandemic.
I expect that much will change in the next few months as the Biden/Harris educational policies are established. I’m encouraged that the President-elect has promised to include diverse voices and views in the discussion. As we envision a new future in K-12 education, let’s make certain that the voices and views of the independent charter school community are heard.