This blog post was written by Susie Miller Carello, Executive Director, SUNY Charter Schools Institute.
At the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute (SUNY), we believe that all students, regardless of where they live, deserve access to a high-quality public education.
We also understand that, just like every child is unique, so is every neighborhood. It’s important that this diversity is reflected across all dimensions in our schools, from the leadership and staff to the instructional models, practices, and services.
That’s why for the more than two decades since the passage of the Charter Schools Act, the SUNY Trustee’s Renewal Policies and the Institute’s practices and approach to authorizing–from initial application for a new charter through renewal–have been firmly rooted in the idea of community-centered schools.
As part of our new application process, for example, the Institute closely analyzes an applicant’s efforts to engage with and collect feedback from the community regarding its prospective school. This includes demonstrable evidence of both local support and prospective family demand. In preparation for school visits, the Institute team researches and reviews neighborhood demographics and available community assets. Once on the ground, staff often walk the surrounding area to get a sense of the community.
The strength of this approach is reflected in the practices of the schools we authorize.
Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School is one shining example. They utilize a whole child approach that integrates a rich (and rigorous) academic curriculum, and comprehensive services that target academic, SEL, and health and family needs. With expanded learning opportunities, including both afterschool and summer programs delivered in partnership with local organizations, Children’s Aid has become a community hub for Bronx families. And by creating preferences in its recruitment lottery, the school ensures the students who would most benefit from its model can attend.
Family Life Academy Charter Schools, one of the highest-performing charters in New York State, is also among the most deeply rooted in its local community, having been founded in partnership with the Latino Pastoral Action Center. Through outreach efforts to local religious and community centers and an immersive English Language Learner (ELL) program, Family Life Academy is uniquely tailored to the needs and experiences of its local immigrant and bilingual populations.
And in times of crisis, the benefits of community-based schooling really shine through. When COVID-19 struck in March 2019 and school buildings began to shutter, SUNY schools were uniquely prepared to meet the moment through direct action. Bronx Charter School for Excellence, a family of middle schools focused on preparing young students to succeed in top high schools and college, raised $60,000 in May alone to provide critical resources for families, including groceries. Others established food pantries and micro-grants to alleviate issues of economic insecurity that threatened to curtail even the best-laid educational continuity plans.
As we look to the future, we share these stories not just to inspire, but to serve as a guide as we chart the path ahead. Schools are meant to be a resource for the community. As such, we work to hold schools accountable for being that resource. We look forward to continued learning from our schools and other organizations.
If our goal as authorizers is to create more great seats for kids, we must remember that transformative schools are not created in a lab. They emerge and evolve based on the unique needs and aspirations of the local communities we serve. They are led by those who listen, engage, and truly understand those communities best.
Read more about how this commitment to collaboration #WithCommunities happens in practice and why it’s critical to advancing quality education systems. To read the full guide for educators, school leaders and advocates, visit WithCommunities.org.