Want to lose some weight? Start a charter school.
It has been my pleasure and honor to launch a charter school with a collaborative of parents, grandparents, educators and concerned citizens in Pottsville, PA. This has been a two-year journey so far, and as I reflect upon the journey, one thing is clear to me. Before moving forward on a project like this, anyone remotely interested in such an undertaking better know what they’re in for. It’s a ride!
That’s why our original five-member team met with a charter school guru one evening in August, 2008. Our consultant, Harold Kurtz, came primarily to do one thing: SCARE US. It was as though we were sitting around a campfire listening to frightful ghost stories. After hearing all kinds of sad, daunting accounts, we were a bit jittery. Harold did his best to make it clear that starting a charter school would NOT be easy.
He was right. It has been challenging, especially lately, and my weight loss is a testament. Normally, I eat to comfort myself when I’m anxious, which fits my personality type. But this is no ordinary, everyday stress: I am rarely hungry and don’t even snack!
Don’t get me wrong. The stress is not all negative. Gillingham Charter School Collaboration has over 40 founding members, 10 planning board members and over 20 business relationships. We pre-enrolled over 200 students. We wrote a 100 page application. We hosted a curriculum design fest, hosting 10 designers from the United States and Canada, all affiliated with Childlight USA. We aligned the curriculum with EVERY SINGLE state standard. AND we did all this without the state’s charter planning grant of $50,000, which was cancelled in 2009.
Unfortunately, though, lack of money was not the only negative stressor. Our first charter was denied by the Pottsville school board in March 2010, and then the revised charter that we submitted was denied on July 21st. School board members threatened to boycott our business supporters. During school board meetings, we were laughed at and mocked. To top it all off, the local newspaper hammered us. Every single criticism, whether true or not, was printed with few of our rebuttals. After the school district made intimidating, misleading phone calls to the parents who showed interest, a reporter came knocking on our doors for interviews. We shared how the superintendent tricked parents into thinking that the document they signed was immediately withdrawing their children from school. The article was never printed.
Nonetheless, Harold and our attorney, both of whom are experienced with charter law, are confident in our application, so we are currently appealing the board’s denial. In 60 days, our team gathered 980 signatures from persons in the school district just to be able to appeal. We only needed 428! The petition hearing was on November 22. We await the judge’s ruling.
It’s amazing that we’ve been able to get this far, but Harold wasn’t kidding: This is nerve-wracking work. He can now add some of our anecdotes to his collection of ghost stories.
But why must this be so difficult? We just want to help…offer something good for kids and their families. I just need to constantly remind myself and the Gillingham Charter School collaboration that Change is never easy.
Thus, we look to the Gillingham story as inspiration to carry on. The noble Gillingham family safely conducted escaped slaves through Pottsville on the Underground Railroad, bucking the powers that be in the 1800’s, affecting change. We’ve chosen their name for our school and have decided to struggle through the good and bad stress for the sake of the children of the 21st century.
We struggle (and lose some weight along the way) to offer a”Relational Education” that is based on the ideas and philosophy of Charlotte Mason. Perhaps we are the first US charter school to do so. I’m not sure. We hope that we aren’t the only US charter school or the only UK free school to do so, though! Since Mason’s philosophy is, in my opinion, true to the way humans learn, it fits all persons, breaking all barriers: age, sex, nationality, background, religion, class. Charter and Free Schools present to all Mason educators (private, public, home and university) an incredible opportunity, one that I implore the broad Mason community to embrace and support!
© 2010 Nicolle Hutchinson, M. Ed., University of Pennsylvania
President, Gillingham Charter School Collaboration