Show and Tell: Why Public Charter School Leaders of Color Are Visiting Capitol Hill to Tell Stories of Communities, Student Success — and Their Need for Support

A Vanguard Academy student uses emergency simulation equipment while earning certification as a 911 technician — in high school. (Vanguard Academy)

Correction appended Feb. 23

When Narciso Garcia visits Capitol Hill this week, it’ll be a toss-up as to which of the two stories he plans to tell will stick — hopefully uppermost — in the minds of the senators and congressional representatives he meets with.

Superintendent of a small network of public charter schools in Pharr, Texas, located near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, Garcia will tell one very persuasive story about what lawmakers in Washington have done for his students. Specifically, he is using federal funds to ensure that every graduate of Vanguard Academy’s high schools has both a diploma and a career certificate that will open doors to a good job right away.

One example: Garcia has spent Carl D. Perkins career and technical education funding to purchase equipment to allow the local fire department to train and certify his high school students as 911 technicians.

He also has an equally persuasive story about one of his most urgent needs: Over the past two years, Vanguard has grown from 2,700 students to 4,200 in six schools. Families are clamoring to enroll their kids, in part because the schools posted the third-highest results on Texas’s annual student assessments last year. To meet the demand, Garcia needs funds for new facilities — something he must now tap his general education budget for.

It remains to be seen, though, whether those stories can top his own. Before Garcia became an educator, he was a migrant farmworker, picking sugar beets and other vegetables all over the country with his parents and siblings. He keeps a picture of them on his desk to remind him what’s at stake for the families, virtually all of them low-income Latinos, that entrust their kids to him.

Garcia is one of 45 school leaders who will spend Feb. 25 and 26 in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ fourth annual School Leaders of Color Capitol Hill Action Initiative. Among the 125 meetings the delegates hope to take are group sit-downs with leaders of Senate and House of Representative committees and caucuses that are key to advancing K-12 policy measures.

Ron Rice, senior director of government relations at the alliance, said the goal of the event is to counter misconceptions circulated by charter school opponents, who often describe the schools as “corporate” or profit-seeking. Lawmakers are far less likely to hear leaders of color talk about their own educational experiences and their schools, he said. And, particularly with the election of new Democrats to office, unlikely to know which constituents value charter schools.

“Most of the parents of our kids are Democrats,” said Rice. “Poll after poll after poll shows blacks and Latinos in particular want these schools. State and local leaders need to listen. Members of Congress need to meet these leaders.”

The founder and executive director of the Tulsa Honor Academy, Elsie Urueta Pollock, will also make the trip to Capitol Hill. “There are a lot of misconceptions nationwide and in my community about charter schools,” she said, “and I hope to dispel some of those to my representative.”

She, too, plans to talk about the need for facilities funding, but first she intends to describe a sign that hangs in a main hall at her middle school, whose majority-impoverished students outperform their peers academically in district-run schools — and, in some grades and subjects, students throughout Oklahoma.

“It says, ‘Where a nerd can be a nerd,’” said Urueta Pollock, explaining that making nerdiness cool is part of creating a school culture where studiousness is prized.

As part of a recent request for permission to expand, Tulsa Honor had to demonstrate community support. School parents collected more than 5,000 signatures in 10 days, she said. The cost of renting and renovating a new building equals 25 cents of every dollar the school gets from state and federal sources — a hardship “particularly in Oklahoma, where funding is already so low.”

In Savannah, Georgia, Latrisha Chattin’s Susie King Taylor Community School is diverse by design, enrolling a student body that is 60 percent economically disadvantaged and 40 percent affluent. Right now, the school maintains that balance by offering free transportation provided by the county and by recruiting in both publicly subsidized pre-K programs and communities where families often choose private schools.

Chattin, too, has a wish list — hers is topped by the need for a nurse, a counselor, and a school resource officer. Because of facilities costs, Susie King Taylor also has 25 percent less to spend on these jobs than its traditional district school neighbors. Chattin would like the school’s authorizer, or sponsor, to provide the support personnel.

She also plans to talk to lawmakers she meets with about what it means that her school is run by a woman — and by the only charter school leader of color in the city.

“Not only is it important for people in Savannah to see a young, black woman with a Ph.D. as a leader,” she said — her visibility is crucial for African-American students, who are more likely to come from homes where parents and grandparents did not go to college.

Chattin is not unique in being the only charter school leader of color in her community. Nationwide, the nonprofit National Charter Collaborative includes only 550 or so leaders of color of single-site charter schools.

As for the leaders making the trip to D.C., Rice said he hopes they take home an understanding of the value of sharing their stories. “They don’t do a lot of campaigning. They don’t do a lot of trying to influence opinion,” he said. “But the reality is they are under fire from people who are saying that they have no merit.”

“These are authentic voices,” he said. “They rolled their sleeves up. The quality of their work is what is going to make their stories.”

Correction: Latrisha Chattin is Savannah’s only charter school leader of color. The county provides bus transportation for Susie King Taylor Community School students.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provide financial support to Tulsa Honor Academy, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the The 74. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation also provide financial support to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and The 74.

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