Richard Buery, the KIPP policy chief who helped launch New York City’s universal pre-K program, is the new president of Achievement First, a charter network with 37 schools in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island.
Buery will report to Dacia Toll, who will become the network’s sole CEO. It’s a notable get for Achievement First, which saw co-CEO Doug McCurry announce in 2019 that he would be stepping down and is now navigating both the coronavirus pandemic and a broader reckoning around its schools’ culture and discipline.
Buery has a long history in the charter school world, but has also been frank in addressing criticisms of the movement. He featured prominently in a New York Times article last year that focused on how charter networks were working to reduce suspensions and serve more students with disabilities.
“Achievement First, like KIPP, like lots of others, have been undergoing a really tremendous journey around what does it mean to truly be a place where children can thrive,” Buery told Chalkbeat. “Not only what does that mean in terms of academic rigor, but what does it mean in terms of school culture, and creating supportive environments, and supporting young people’s social emotional learning, supporting special needs students.”
Founded in Connecticut in 1999, Achievement First is one of the country’s larger and most academically successful charter school networks. Its schools consistently post high test scores, and research has confirmed that the schools improve student achievement. The schools also place a high premium on college attendance.
Achievement First is poised to continue to grow, having recently received a $9.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to do so. But charter schools in general have seen opposition grow over the last few years, and one of Achievement First’s Connecticut high schools has faced persistent challenges.
The New Haven Independent reported in February that the principal of Amistad High School underreported suspension numbers, which the school had been under pressure to reduce. Achievement First’s investigation into those claims confirmed part of the Independent’s report, a spokesperson told Chalkbeat. Board documents indicate that the principal was given a two-week unpaid suspension.
The network promised broad changes, acknowledging criticism of the schools’ strict behavior codes — and sometimes high suspension rates — as oppressive to the schools’ predominantly black and Hispanic students. “We started Achievement First to address the racism we saw in education,” wrote Toll and McCurry then. “But we were too slow to recognize and address the way racism, the smog we all breathe, manifests in our own schools and network.”
Today, Achievement First says one of its new values is “leading for racial equity.” Buery says he wants to help put that into action.
“Institutions like Achievement First do have capacity to change, and do have a need for change,” Buery said, “in everything from ensuring that our leadership and our teaching staff reflect the broad diversity of the community that we serve … and making sure that our disciplinary practices and our cultural practices treat students with respect.”
Buery is keenly aware of the political challenges charter schools face. He founded a charter school in the Bronx and served as a founding board chair of Achievement First East New York in Brooklyn. (He met founder Toll when they were both Yale law students.)
But Buery also served as deputy mayor in New York City under Bill de Blasio, whose stance toward charters has ranged from cool to hostile. Buery worked, with seemingly limited success, to bridge the divide between warring camps while also helping to launch the city’s universal pre-K program.
Buery said that opposition to charter schools is sometimes overstated, and pointed to polls showing that black and Latino Democrats are more supportive of charter schools than white Democrats, and research showing that charter schools don’t hurt — and may help — the performance of students in district schools.
Now, Buery says he wants to find common ground by fighting for more resources for all public schools.
“In most cases, we would all be better off coming together and advocating for more resources for the education sector generally so we don’t have to all get thrown in a pit and fight each other for scraps,” he said.