When I started a public charter school in my hometown of Douglasville, Ga., eight years ago, it never occurred to me that what our founding group of teachers was doing ever would be considered in a negative light. In a million years, I couldn’t have imagined that the existence of our school and others like it might be construed as a denigration of the work of other educators, or that it would become a political hot potato.
OUR FOCUS AS a founding group was on children and families. Our purpose was to take advantage of the privileges of chartering – flexibility in exchange for accountability – and to teach children in an environment that reflected the innovative educational philosophies we had studied in college and graduate school.
As teachers, we were excited to bring options to our district and felt truly empowered to be able to teach in a way that we just couldn’t do under traditional constraints and hierarchies. Finally we were going to be able to actually do the stuff that teachers talk and dream about all the time.
I will never forget our first planning meeting after our charter was approved. We met to select an amazing group of educators with a similar vision. Large sheets of chart paper were hanging all over the walls – a blank slate for our little school. When the question was asked, “What will our vision look like in action?” the silence in the coffee house was deafening. Not even crickets chirped.
It was incredible to actually have all this flexibility. But having taught in a structured system throughout their entire careers, our committed, willing and innovative educators were not conditioned to consider how that flexibility actually could be used. So we imagined it together: What will it look like, feel like, sound like and smell like as you walk through the front door of our school?”
THAT WAS THE beginning of Brighten Academy’s culture and of the amazing innovations and empowerment of educators that we, and other charters around the state, have fostered in our schools that has led to excellent outcomes for kids.
These days our team of vocal, committed and empowered teachers, parents and now students are primary drivers in the decisions of the school. The shared goal for every child – regardless of race, economic status or even disposition – is to exceed, because “does not meet standards” is not a part of anyone’s vocabulary.
Brighten’s teachers are paid on the state salary scale and get 33 percent of the local supplement their counterparts earn in the traditional schools. Our teachers have a lot of extra duties because we are a small school. They work long hours in horizontal and vertical teams, participating in Saturday volunteer work days, and regular schoolwide events. We don’t have a gym or an art room, or a teacher’s lounge.
OUR TEACHERS deal with frustrations just like any other educator does, but I believe the reason that so many teachers and parents are attracted to the charter sector is because everyone feels empowered at the school level to deal with issues. They are not awaiting dictates from higher-ups who are so remote that their solutions rarely are meaningful. At Brighten and in other charters, our staff, teachers, parents and kids work together as a family.
I am proud to be a part of the charter sector in Georgia that is focused on providing quality public school options to families and demonstrating how true local control – by parents and educators – can improve public education in our state and nation.
(The writer is vice president of school services for the Georgia Charter Schools Association.)