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

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.