First Person

It takes a village to raise a charter school

My journey to create a school for pregnant and parenting teens began in early 2012 with two questions.

First, was there a need in northwest Aurora for a school tailored to the unique needs of young parents as anecdotal evidence suggested?

Second, could a small alternative charter school for students with complex needs be financially viable?

The first question was easily answered with a resounding yes. The enthusiasm and encouragement I received from people working with teen parents in the community and others in the field propelled me down the path I’ve been on for the past three years. The data backed up what I heard and learned anecdotally. Despite the overall drop in teen birth rates over the past 20 years, the teen birth rate in Denver and Adams Counties was still 50 percent higher than the state and national average. Hundreds of teens in the Aurora community are dropping out of school each year due to parenting obligations.

The second question was more difficult to answer. Having started another charter school, I knew the challenges of the charter financial model for small alternative high schools. We knew from our research that the charter schools that served this population best were small and that they provided a variety of academic and non-academic supports. The resources needed to effectively serve the students and their families exceeds per pupil revenue (PPR) and fundraising would always be a necessity.

While it still felt like a leap of faith, I came to believe that the school could be viable — through partnerships.

New Legacy Charter High School would not be opening this fall were it not for a number of key community partners and supporters.

Finding a suitable facility proved to be perhaps the greatest challenge. After looking at a number of buildings in original Aurora that needed significant work and wringing our hands and hearts trying to figure out how we as a brand new school might finance the needed improvements, we were fortunate to connect with the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC).

ULC is a Colorado non-profit committed to preserving urban land for community benefit. ULC has done a ton of great work in Denver and had been looking for an opportunity to work in Aurora. With any partnership, there must be alignment of mission, purpose, and a value proposition for both parties. We found both with the ULC.

Although building schools is not something ULC had done before (and it typically does construction through development partners instead of directly as it has done with New Legacy), this partnership seemed to be a special circumstance and all the pieces fell together. The school’s building – designed to house a high school and early learning center – is currently under construction at 2091 North Dayton Street in northwest Aurora and is scheduled for completion in early August 2015, just in time for the start of the school year.

Our partnership with ULC will continue for many years as ULC will be the school’s landlord through a long-term lease.

I would never have imagined a small alternative school like ours could open in a new building, but the reality is that we could not otherwise find a suitable space in northwest Aurora that could be retrofitted. The ULC has positioned us to serve our students well and to be a part of the northwest Aurora community – we are beyond grateful for their support. The building is being designed with a community room that will be available for use by community groups in the evenings and on the weekends.

Our work with ULC is one example of a partnership that helped answer Question #2, but there are many other partnerships at play.

During this journey, I have been continually honored by the community of people who share my belief in the potential of teen parents and support the school’s vision by volunteering their time, connecting us with potential students, offering financial support, and sharing their skills on our board, advisory council, and committees. I have found that when there is an identified need and a clearly articulated plan to address that need, people come alongside you to support it.

The highs and lows of the last three years have been many, but what makes this work possible and energizing for me is the students. They first inspired me when I visited a small school in Montrose called Passage Charter School in the early 2000s. And now as I get to know the students who have applied to attend New Legacy and who have been participating in our Youth Leadership Council, I continue to be inspired.

They are resilient, they respond well to feedback and support, and they are motivated to create a great legacy for their child. They remind me that I need to continue digging into my own “grittiness” to overcome challenges. On those days when the journey is difficult and anxiety-ridden (and there are many), I think of our future students – their strength and potential keeps me going.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.