A charter plan — borne by low-income communities for low-income communities

Last night in St. Petersburg, I witnessed a new phase in Florida’s charter school movement. Five groups of local community activists came together to share plans for creating a charter school collaborative and incubator.

Working under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization called the Learning Village, these groups call the St. Petersburg African-American community their home and they aim to create and sustain a cluster of high quality charter schools serving primarily low-income families of color. (Full Disclosure: I sit on the Learning Village Board of Directors.) While it’s common for charter schools to operate in high-poverty urban communities, the most successful of these charter operators usually come from outside these communities. Florida has never created a system of high quality charter schools that can incubate within the state’s poorest communities.

These five groups, which include several veteran K-12 educators, a recently retired judge, a police officer, three parole officers, several small business owners, three college professors, numerous activist parents and one middle school student, have many assets. They are enthusiastic, committed, hard-working and knowledgeable about their children. But they also have an asset most urban school districts lack. They have the trust of their community. Much of the failure we see in urban school systems derives from the hostility and alienation parents feel toward their local public schools and, until trust is established, high student achievement is not possible.

Charter schools that are owned and operated by trusted and respected members of the urban community have the potential to create the necessary bonds of trust, but these bonds are insufficient. These schools also need to be well run and have highly effective teachers, and that’s where the support of a charter school incubator comes in. The Learning Village will provide back office support, leadership mentoring and coaching, teacher professional development and physical space. Learning Village leaders are meeting today with the Pinellas County School Board to discuss a lease/purchase agreement on Southside Fundamental School, a mothballed school in St. Petersburg’s African-American community. If the school board agrees to lease this building, then a huge obstacle to opening new charter schools will be overcome.

We have previously written on this blog about the power of ownership and that theme was pervasive in last night’s meeting. I’ve been connected with the Pinellas school district since the early 1960s and the one constant during those five decades has been the African-American community’s alienation from the system. But last night a sense of ownership pervaded the room. These people are ready to run through walls to ensure every low-income child of color in their community graduates college-ready. They will succeed if we give them the appropriate support, and in the process we will further redefine what constitutes public education.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.