I used to say that I am a charter school founder but not necessarily a charter school supporter. My first experience in charter schools was opening Raleigh Charter High School, and the wonderful education that goes on there taught me that it was the quality of the education that was important, not that it was a charter school, per se.
In fact, one of the reasons our little team of four moms put in that charter application was because we couldn’t get our kids into Enloe High School, our county’s academically gifted program. We didn’t care where it happened; we just wanted our kids to get a world-class education.
Over time, though, as more and more long-faced acquaintances told me they couldn’t get their kids into Raleigh Charter, I began to suspect that education was a lot more complicated than was known to my little mom-world. That maybe form does equal function, as the architects say, and that designing a school to achieve a certain goal – like world-class education – is part of the answer. I began to believe that it was schools with a “mission” and laser-like focus that were key to a quality education.
In 2004, the Raleigh Charter science chair and I began to offer that “world class” kind of learning experience to students across the state via a little science education nonprofit called Contemporary Science Center. We had a strong mission to share what we’d learned from our charter school and the ability to focus intently on it. With over 83 percent of students coming to us from rural, low-wealth counties, we had our eyes opened to the hunger for a quality education experience and how successful it can be if structured correctly.
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In our custom lab in Durham, we got to see how any student from any county in our state would come alive and become engaged and enthusiastic when put in front of high-level content and teaching.
So in 2012, we opened another charter school to offer the same quality of education to any student from any county.
That’s when I learned about the discrepancy in the level of education students have in our different schools and counties. Students come to us at Research Triangle High School from 11 counties and over 60 middle schools, and they come having had about sixty-eleven different levels of preparation. Not enough of them are solidly prepared for a college-prep high school.
Kids come to us smart, and quick, and interested to learn (well, mostly – they are 14 years old). But the vast majority of students entering high school in this area – the Research Triangle! – are not prepared for the work required in a college prep track. Only 21 percent of N.C. students take Algebra/Math 1 in eighth grade, the natural predictor of college preparedness.
So, with our hands full with the broad spectrum of students we targeted, we learned to examine and brainstorm and shift. Every. Single. Year. We joked about using the Silicon Valley word, but we “iterated” like crazy. If we wanted to educate every child who came in our door, we learned very quickly that we were going to have to make changes not just annually, but every chance we could. We discovered, painfully sometimes, that constant reflection, flexibility and change are requirements for offering that same world-class education to any student who wants it.
So what does it take to offer a “quality” education, one that is globally competitive and prepares kids truly for any college they might aim for? Schools must have a clear mission, a relentless focus on implementation, plus the flexibility and ability to iterate almost daily – based on reflection and data analysis. Schools need almost a start-up attitude to address the very broad needs of today’s students.
It is the nature – the very form and structure – of schools of choice that allows them to be that nimble, flexible and focused on whatever population is within their buildings. It is the process of innovating itself that is able to meet students’ varied needs, not any single innovation.
So today I am both a charter school founder and a charter school supporter – of focused, iterative, flexible education that defines quality as not giving up until every child in the building is learning at a level that guarantees a future for him or her. Quality requires it, and our future for America demands it, too.
Pamela Blizzard is the founder of Raleigh Charter High School, the Contemporary Science Center and Research Triangle High School. She serves on the advisory board of CarolinaCAN.