CharterFolk Contributor Cameron Curry – What I Learned Along the Way

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are delighted to share a Contributor Column from Cameron Curry, CEO for The Classical Academies in Southern California.

We provide a bio for Cameron below.

For the past 25 years, I have enjoyed the opportunity to create great places for students to think, communicate, and achieve.  Harnessing the flexibility of independent study in California, while utilizing great facility options across North San Diego County, our schools have served thousands of students since our inception in 1999.  Since that time, our efforts have been award-winning while offering transitional kindergarten through 12th grade programming that is personalized to meet the individual needs of all students.  

In 2011, I authored the book, Charter School Leadership: Elements of School Success, and I always enjoy helping, encouraging, and supporting other leaders in their quest to provide choice in public education.  Not a day goes by that I don’t take stock in what we are doing for students knowing the power of storytelling, the need to elevate our success, and the ability we have in helping traditional school districts meet the diverse needs of a community.   

Having served on the Membership Council and Board of Directors of the California Charter School Association for eleven years, I know the work that has transformed the state in the number of students and families enjoying charter public schools.  I enjoyed a term on the State’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, (ACCS) and helped make decisions that assisted many of the schools in our collective work to support the State Board of Education.  Advocacy continues to be a priority for me and it is something every school leader needs to do in spending time in support of their students, families, and community.  

Cameron will be stepping down from his role at Classical at the end of the school year. He was recently recognized with The Legacy Award by the California Charter Schools Association.

Congratulations and many thank you’s to Cameron for decades of great service to the charter school movement.

Let’s get to his column.

What I Learned Along the Way

April 19, 2024, marks the 25th anniversary of my introduction to charter public schools as I helped shepherd the charter application for The Classical Academy to its approval at our local school district.  I was then appointed the first Board president for the newly approved school, and just a few months later, left my job with the city and took a job running the business side of the organization.  In that first year, like most charter school leaders, I would be fixing a toilet, then escorting students between classes, and at the end of the day handling traffic control in the parking lot. In between all that fun, I would be completing my day job.  The skill set of any charter school leader needs to be varied, broad, and the key to success is flexibility. 

What I have learned over the years can be boiled down to three simple leadership lessons that were forged in growing this organization in North San Diego County, from just a few students in 1999, to over 5,300+ in 2024.  The rough and rocky road of managing a startup charter school to a thriving organization of seven campuses has led to a beautiful place for students, families, and our community. 

Local, Regional, and State Engagement Matters.

I cannot say this loud enough or long enough; a charter school leader must be involved in local, regional, and state advocacy.  You do not have the luxury of sitting back and thinking that someone else will carry the banner of quality, accountability, and excellence and represent your interests to the best degree possible. That is your obligation to stand up and speak for each of your students, families, and school team members.  Only you know the specific needs of your community and you have the responsibility of standing up, showing up, and speaking up on their behalf to ensure that they have a voice at the table.

When is the last time you attended a local school district or city council meeting to speak during public comments to share your appreciation of their support for your school in the community?  When is the last time you had your student leaders do the same?  When is the last time these board and council members were invited to a school event to see your operations up close and personally? If you want to gain local leadership advocates, make sure these elected leaders know you and your students.  Now, that same approach needs to be taken regionally with local elected leaders and then to elected state leaders.  Each of these groups are people you need to meet, and it doesn’t take that much effort on your part to make it happen. What is needed is you scheduling time to make it happen.

Each of our elected state leaders have local offices.  Have you been to visit?  Have you contacted that office and requested a visit from the elected leader?  If they are not in town, have you requested their legislative aide that handles education come meet with you and your team?    Have you called their state office and asked for an appointment to meet with the legislator?  Have you planned a visit to that state office and asked a family or two to join you?  These are just the simplest of steps that a charter school leader can make by taking 30 minutes out of a day to make telephone calls, and one or two days out of the year to schedule and attend a meeting or two at the State Capitol to interact with your elected leaders. 

People in the Organization Are Still Your Greatest Asset.

Who are the members of your team?  Yes, you know their names and their positions and roles, yet who are they and why are they so important on your team?  A leader of any charter school, or larger charter organization, has the people on his or her team doing the most important work of serving students.  Even those positions that do not have direct interaction with students are there to support the people and the work that benefits students.  The entire charter school team have one collective goal; make great things happen for the students in their care.  If the school fails to be brilliant at the basics, then the stories cannot be told about the excellence in student performance, teacher instruction, innovation, or how students are becoming better thinkers, communicators, and achievers.

Charter school employees are some of the most dedicated, qualified, and passionate people working in public education today.  We need leaders to elevate their excellence, hold them accountable, and work to ensure that the roadblocks to their success with our students are removed or greatly limited.  Our school employees need to be cared for, reminded of their importance, and given lots of opportunities to shine through our work as leaders.  That shine is seen through encouraged and available professional development, acknowledgment at team meetings, recognition in team communications, and with team meetings and annual awards.  All of this is tied to the intentional work by school leaders to build and sustain a positive workplace culture.

It is also incumbent of that school leader to empower his or her team to share leadership when it comes to that workplace culture.  It is the collective responsibility of the entire team to contribute, value, and sustain that positive workplace culture for the benefit of everyone.  The leader cannot do it alone and having the buy in of the team is the catalyst to ensuring that what we state as an organization is actualized through the efforts of many. This is a daily task for each employee to embrace in knowing they all have an obligation to be positive, contribute, and support one another. This also includes when a team member is not doing well, they must speak up or be spoken to so that support and care is given to value and hold the team member accountable.   

We need all team members engaged in the work of accountability so that we are caring for and telling each other the truth so that the workplace culture supersedes individual moods or personal situations.  Having and keeping a positive mindset in any school role can be a challenge.  Teachers on the frontline with students, their individual learning needs, family dynamics, hunger, abuse, and neglect are real issues in our classrooms. On the business side, our office teams are dealing with multiple details, finance reports, audits, district reports and requests, state reporting, and obligations to our parents and guardians with immunizations, record keeping, and maintaining the privacy of all students.  If we as leaders fail in our work with our employees, the success of our charter schools is compromised because our people are of great importance and our best asset. 

Telling Your Story is a Daily Obligation. 

You know the smiles that come across the faces of parents and guardians when they attend a student, parent, teacher conference and hear how well their son or daughter is doing academically, socially, and emotionally.  What is also shared is how well they are contributing in class and how they are a caring and kind individual.  Then the teacher shares a story or two on where they see the student needing to be challenged and any shortcomings that need to be addressed in their learning.   Nine times out of ten, these are very positive meetings, and they are happening for every student in every classroom.   How are you as a charter school leader telling, sharing, and elevating that story of the collective success of your students and your program?   

It is an expectation that students in your school will be thriving.  Most likely, parents and guardians enrolled their children into your program because they wanted something different, something that addressed a need not being met elsewhere, and your school was the solution they were seeking.  To that end, a school leader must tell the individual stories of success, the groups of students flourishing and why, and the events and activities that define your school culture are essential to be told so that the greater community has an awareness of that success.  Your team must have a way to funnel those stories to you or someone on the team responsible as the depository of celebratory significance. 

Most schools use social media, submit stories to local publications, or have parent volunteers that help organize student stories and write articles for the school newsletter where these details are shared.  In some cases, schools use their website to post students success, and those same websites can collect email addresses where the school leader can include local, regional, and state leaders so that when the school newsletter is posted, these individuals are emailed copies too.  This is a simple way for elected officials to be kept in the loop with your success with little effort on your part. 

School leaders, when is the last time you penned an editorial for publication on the difference your school is making when state and national news breaks on learning loss, absenteeism, or other negative trends in education?  If we want our constituents and policy makers to better understand the difference our schools are making, you have an obligation to step forward and make your voice heard on the issues that you are very familiar with in public education from a charter school perspective.  So, you are not the best writer when it comes to communication.  I am guessing that someone on your team is and how are you catalyzing their talent to spread the great news about your student and school success?

It all comes down to what are you doing daily to capture these stories.  Does your team know the value of sharing these stories of success?  Do your parents know that having their son or daughter’s story told is a way to promote the school, grow enrollment, and bring more resources and opportunities to the school for the benefit of everyone?  When a school leader takes the time in their busy schedule to ask consistently for student success stories, the team is used to feeling comfortable in submitting names, stories, and photos that will be used for the greater good of the organization.  Remember, individual student successes told over and over build a brand and a strong reputation that your school is truly making a difference for students and families.  This is what we want to see, read, and know about every charter public school from coast to coast. 

As I process my retirement from public education in June of this year, I know that strong advocacy, great employees, and consistently telling our story has made a huge difference in the growth and sustainability of The Classical Academies.  We are a trusted brand and have a stellar reputation in the marketplace of school choice and quality educational options.  Our parents and community members know what we do for students, the quality of programming we offer, and the difference we have made to improve the educational landscape of public education.  To every leader reading this post, what you make a priority happens.  My encouragement is to keep advocacy, great people, and telling your story at the forefront of your leadership work in charter school land.  I promise, it will make all the difference in your ability to maintain a great public charter school in your community.