How to Open Doors

Spring is fading into summer, and graduation rituals serve as our signposts. Graduates pivot towards the future, and many will offer thanks to teachers and parents pivotal to their success.

I’m right there with them. I was recently named as a new inductee into the National Charter School Hall of Fame. Who did I think of first, in gratitude? The countless educators, parents, advocates, and authorizers I have been privileged to work with during my career. I have accomplished nothing on my own and everything in collaboration with others.

I’m proud to join 32 charter school “pioneers and innovators” that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has inducted into the Hall of Fame over the past decade. For the last 15 years, I’ve been leading a group that supports authorizers to open and oversee great new charter schools. This award is certainly recognition of the importance of authorizing.

But for me, personally, it’s much more than that.

I think about my years as an authorizer, and the teachers and other school starters who left the shelter of the known to create new schools. I think of the parents who chose these new schools and entrusted them with their hopes and dreams.

I think of two Chicago Public School teachers, Kim Day and Diana Shulla-Cose, who worked across the hall from each other, teaching middle schoolers on Chicago’s south side. They believed that academic achievement and social and emotional learning couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be separated. They wanted to create a school centered on this belief.

So, almost 25 years ago, with a $1,000 grant from the Chicago Teachers Union, in the basement of this overcrowded school, they opened a school-within-a-school. They welcomed the brave families and introduced 50 students to A Disciplined Life: an education model that teaches the mind and the heart. More families wanted in so they expanded into two donated classrooms at Columbia College.

Then the charter school idea arrived in Chicago. Kim and Diana decided this was it: an entrepreneur’s chance to drive innovation, and give kids the school they deserved. After long days running their small school, they’d lug their 10-pound laptops to a local diner and get to work on their proposal for a full-blown school.

I received that proposal in Chicago Public Schools’ fledgling charter school office, where I was blessed to work for a school board, superintendent, and mayor who just wanted more good schools, regardless of who ran them. Perspectives Charter School was awarded one of the first charters in Illinois and opened in 1997 in a refurbished warehouse, serving 150 students.

They just celebrated their 20th anniversary. Now, nearly 2,000 students attend five Perspective Charter Schools. Their students do on average 1.5 to 2 years of learning for every academic year, and 97 percent of students are accepted into college. Parents practice the principles of A Disciplined Life alongside students, and watch their children rewrite their futures.

These are the teachers and parents that came to mind when I learned I had been chosen for the National Charter School Hall of Fame. I share this award with them and with thousands of other educators across the country who work tirelessly to educate our youth.

This is how I see it: authorizers open doors to opportunities, but we don’t do it alone. Authorizers own the solemn responsibility of deciding which charter schools open, expand, or close. Authorizers hold the keys to the future for thousands of students.

But we don’t teach those thousands. Our ultimate success depends on all those working in schools. It’s about the school leaders, teachers, and parents who write schools into existence and then sustain them. Together with them we work to ensure families have accessible, autonomous, and accountable public school options.

That’s why it’s so important we get our work as authorizers right.

As they celebrate their 20th anniversary, Kim and Diana say it’s harder than ever to secure the necessary support and resources to give kids what they need. The work doesn’t get easier, which means we must work smarter.

Let’s keep those teachers, parents, and students constantly before us, our signpost to get us where we’re all trying to go: great charter schools.