Opinion

Charter Sector Approaches its ‘Second Great Awakening’ As it Turns 30 Years Old: Committing to Community Schools and Leaders of Color

By Naomi Shelton | July 28, 2021

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The charter school movement has made tremendous gains for students and families seeking the unique combination of a high-quality education, and an affirming school culture and climate often unanswered in traditional school systems.

The call to action was answered and countless charter founders sprung into action to create innovative models, with authorizing and applications following suit.

With thirty years under our belt, we have seen tremendous progress in charter network growth, the creation and refining of accountability measures; and increased funding and philanthropic support for this work. Trial and error. Research and development. Growth, expansion and replication. Still many lessons to be learned.

Over this time people of color have also been in, around and leading in this work: Educators like Harriett Ball, a Black educator whose teaching practices inspired the KIPP program or Lagra Newma, who founded a single site school rooted in her track record of leadership, classroom experience, and personal mission and vision. Tim King curated a culture of academic excellence and a Black male-centered system in Chicago to address an unmet need.

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As the country continues to grapple with systemic racism, video evidence and data collection now validate the violence and traumas many people of color process and face daily, making these transgressions more difficult to ignore.

America sits at an inflection point: We continue to uncover where, when and how racial biases show up in all of our systems. Now we are facing another reckoning with the ongoing effort to minimize teaching and imparting fact-based history. So, while it had been easy to turn a blind eye to inequities, we are forced to face the fact that no system is immune: policing, lending, healthcare. Even Ben & Jerry’s can see how inequities show up in public education. How do we reconcile this?

Just as educators and social entrepreneurs sought to address the barriers to high-quality education for marginalized students and families through the creation of charter schools thirty years ago, we must now re-evaluate and continue to evolve and eliminate the barriers in the charter sector. The charter sector has approached its “Second Great Awakening.”

Cue an analogy that my high school religion teachers may or may not appreciate. The “gospel” of charters has reached countless families and caregivers seeking alternatives to meet their children’s academic and social needs. Leaders, educators, funders, and supporters have been brought into the work, but to further expand the reach of this effort, we must recalibrate to see true change in outcomes for the sector and education overall. How? The support for leaders of color must evolve beyond pathways to the leadership of existing organizations to include a “grow your own” or a for us by us movement.

During the 2020 racial reckoning, a number of schools that serve Black and brown students were called to the carpet for harmful practices, forcing many who had turned a blind eye to become aware of the problematic and racially steeped biases in this sector. Many now rush to write Black Lives Matter statements, rush to address race, equity, diversity and inclusion efforts by hiring or training, and acknowledge transgressions of bad actors and problematic school culture and norms. Leaders of color watch this outpouring of focus and funding and collectively shake their heads.

For years, while Black, Brown, and indigenous leaders designed, founded and ran schools focused on serving the communities they intrinsically understood. Their white counterparts were offered more opportunities to expand despite their failings to reflect and connect with communities. New Profit’s report, Transforming the Social Sector: The Opportunity and the Need for Action, highlights the access to capital and multi-year funding challenge faced by leaders of color.

Over time, racial biases have deepened, creating barriers to application review and approval for school founding teams led by people of color. The system that precipitated the need for charter schools created a space that perpetuated inequities. Research shows the implications of inequitable practices exist not only for students and charter school leaders of color but prospective school founders. Essentially, authorizing bodies have become comfortable approving schools that fit a mold, spurring the replication of models that veer further from the innovation and supports that meet the needs of students and communities.

The National Charter Collaborative was born out of the disproportionate charter revocations and closure of charter schools led by Black and brown leaders. The organization’s co-founders — Trish Dziko and Kim Smith — recognized a dearth of financial support, resources, and access to critical networks puts far too many schools steeped in culturally relevant practices at risk of poor standing in the eyes of authorizing bodies at best or non-renewal, revocation and closure. The worst-case scenario impacts not only students, families, and communities, but the sector. Removing bad actors affirms a commitment to accountability, but allowing schools to flounder when resources and supports exist is self-sabotage.

In the last year and a half, we’ve seen a groundswell in supporting people of color. Many of the recent announcements of new leadership in the education sector of outstanding leaders of color. This is one way to address and acknowledge the importance of diversity. But we must do more. We must focus on the next iteration of this work and the generation poised to lead. Let’s collectively encourage our colleagues, policy makers, funders, and philanthropic partners to support leaders of color from inception to sustainability.

Support single site charter leaders of color with funding, leadership development, and other resources to create conditions for growth and success. NCC created a community for school leaders operating in silos to share best practices and unpack challenges while centering the lived experiences of leaders, their staff, and their students.

Our inaugural Manati Fellowship cohort engaged leaders based in Washington, DC as a collective to:​ 1) create an authentic and close-knit community​, 2) identify a shared problem of practice​, and 3) design a shared solution to expand an aspect of their school​s. We will continue to deepen this work and expand the supports offered, as this is a necessary function of sustaining high-quality schools. Additional concerted advocacy that speaks to the challenges single-site charters face is also necessary to improve conditions.

Spur pipelines for new schools and founders of color committed to designing community schools. Earlier this year NACSA kicked off its Communities at the Center campaign outlining a set of six principles for authorizing to create the best education systems for our students by putting community needs at the center of its work. Communities and families come with ideas and passion to do what works for children — they often lack the investments to see those ideas come to life. NACSA recognizes “as charter schooling and authorizing center on the aspirations and needs of communities, a range of new and different outcomes could emerge – all leading to excellent educational opportunities for students.” NCC is committed to exploring and solidifying partnerships that create pipelines and opportunities for aspiring leaders of color to meet the needs NACSA has identified. However, the sector has several layers of interrogation to meet this challenge.

The sustainability of the charter sector depends on the collective approach to this work and who is at the table for the next thirty years. Are we willing to expand school models and deepen support and engagement of community focused schools? Are we willing to awaken to what’s possible for children, families and communities may sit outside of the norms we’ve established?Will we support the next generation of Harriet’s, Lagra’s, and Tim’s to have even greater impact in the next chapter of our work?

As we collectively consider these questions, the National Charter Collaborative is committed to strengthening leaders of color in this work, creating pathways for new leaders, and we look forward to doing this work with our larger community.

Naomi Shelton is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Charter Collaborative

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