An Unexpected Trip Affords the Chance to Meet the Very First CharterFolk

Good morning, CharterFolk.

It was great to hear the story of Austin Achieve’s 10th anniversary celebration in John Armbrust’s Contributor Column yesterday. CharterFolk returning to their hometowns to make profound contributions to public education is a recurring theme we find across the charter school movement. And as John points out, so too is listening to the communities that we serve so that we can make our schools’ offerings to students and families even better over time.

Congratulations to the entire Austin Achieve community for having made so much progress over the past decade.

Just keep going.

As fate would have it, my path crossed this week with someone who has” just kept going” in our movement for three decades.

Today’s post centers on the stroke of luck that brought us together.

Let’s get on to it.

Meeting the Very First CharterFolk

Readers who are new to CharterFolk may not know I make it a point to visit charter schools wherever I go.

When I started at CCSA in 2009 we had over 600 charter schools. I had this notion that, if I kept at it over time, I could find a way to visit them all. So I made it a habit to visit 60-70 school per year. But because the charter school movement grew so much, after a decade of visits, I had a longer list of schools to get to than I did coming in the door.

But the more visits I made, the more committed I became to making them.

Because I came to see that there was no better way to understand what is happening in our movement than to simply visit charter schools and to get to know CharterFolk.

I’ve gone on now to visit charter schools in many states, and their equivalents in many countries.

The poor people who have had to abide my obsession are my immediate family. Almost every family vacation has been interrupted by my desire to get to this or that school. The time in Alaska when I insisted on visiting the charter school in North Pole (in my Aspire t-shirt no less) …

before taking the kids to Santa’s workshop …

… I will probably never be forgiven for.

Quentin, the little tyke above, is now 17, and as some CharterFolk readers may remember

… is a soccer player.

These days he’s right in the thick of soccer recruiting for college, and a coach made a request last week that Q come to an ID camp in St. Paul, Minnesota.

So we went.

I don’t know a whole lot about St. Paul. But I do know one thing.

It’s the place where the first charter school in the United States was founded in September of 1992.

So while other parents were dutifully attending a session about admissions and financial aid, I ducked out to indulge my obsession.

I showed up unannounced.

As the Wikipedia picture of the school confirms …

… there isn’t much signage at City Academy. So I wasn’t sure where to go. Then a side door opened and out stepped …

… Milo Cutter, the school’s director.

And founder.

That’s right. This year, Milo is marking her 30th year of service at City Academy.

Her contributions to our movement have been recognized again and again.

Milo is literally, the original CharterFolk.

CharterFolk #1.

She welcomed me into her office and set about bringing me up to speed about the latest goings-on at the school.

Over time City Academy has evolved to serve 120 high school students. At one point they grew to serve 140, but students said the place was getting too big and was losing its sense of intimacy. So they shrunk back down again.

We talked about all the open teaching positions in surrounding school districts, a problem that City Academy isn’t struggling with. The average length of service of the school’s teaching staff is seventeen years. Most of the faculty have advanced degrees, and all engage in teacher inquiry projects which they turn into an annual publication.

We spoke about the school’s experience during Covid. They went remote in a matter of a couple days while surrounding schools took several weeks to do so. City Academy ended up going back in-person the next fall and never went remote again. Through it all, Milo had to document anew what they were doing to offer hybrid instruction to those who wanted it. After dozens of hours of new compliance busy work and tedium, City Academy somehow ended up with a second whole charter they can use should they ever want to open up another program. But it’s not what the organization wanted, and Milo doesn’t foresee the place ever making use of it.

The experience was emblematic of the problem in the charter school movement that Milo is most worried about these days:

Excessive regulation.

Over 30 years, Milo has seen bureaucracy and hassle having nothing to do with serving students well grow completely out of control. She says the school has found ways to adjust, but she worries that if things stay like this or, heaven forbid, even grow worse, it could suck the very life out of the charter school movement.

Near the end of my visit, a young man showed up. He was a graduate who had encountered some recent difficulty in life and was there to re-connect with past teachers. Milo was delighted to see him and to learn that he had overcome whatever his challenge had been. They ducked out into the hallway to share a private moment. I couldn’t help notice that the word “chartered” was prominently emblazoned on the young man’s t-shirt.

Before leaving, I wanted to get a photo. The school’s no-branding ethic is so strong, there literally wasn’t a sign with the school’s name that we could pose in front of. Then Milo remembered that there was a sign in a hallway commemorating the fact that Bill Clinton had visited the school.

Just as I was leaving another student approached. She was a senior who was headed to the roof to attend to the school’s colony of bees. Milo introduced us and pointed out that the young woman’s uncle had attended City Academy in its earliest days, and now everyone in the next generation, nieces, nephews, sons and daughters had all attended as well. The young woman said that she was the youngest and would be the last to attend City Academy.

“The last of your generation,” Milo responded. “Other generations are yet to come.”

A few minutes later I was driving away full of reflections. Perhaps the most deeply resonant one was this:

If you want to find out what the charter school movement is all about, there may be no better way than simply visiting the original charter school and spending a little time with the original CharterFolk.

Milo Cutter.

CharterFolk #1.