CharterFolk Contributor Debbie Beyer – Unapologetically Charter

Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Debbie Beyer, the founding Principal and Executive Director of Literacy First Charter Schools.

I provide Debbie’s bio below.

Debbie has worked in the classroom of both public and private schools. She has taught in and developed effective bilingual school programs and curriculum. Debbie is a pioneer. Seeing the need to provide options for parents in the education of their children, Debbie started Del Rey Schools, a homeschooling program that provided support services and accountability for homeschooling families. Currently, Debbie is the founding Principal and Executive Director of Literacy First Charter Schools (LFCS) located in East San Diego County which now, in its 21st year, serves 2000 students and their families. LFCS has four separate school sites serving students K-12, including a homeschooling program. Literacy First is an example of educational reform and parental choice at its finest with outstanding test scores and huge community buy-in. Literacy First has been recognized as a California Distinguished School multiple times. Debbie has served as a Board Member with several non-profit organizations and was awarded the Charter Star Award by the California Charter School Association.

Unapologetically Charter…

Who could know where the dreams of a young college girl would lead?

Mine have led me on a journey one step at a time to be unapologetically “charter”.

The journey began in a farm school in the middle of a New Mexico cotton field and across the road from thousands of acres of pecan orchard. A culture that I had been a part of, lived just miles away from, but once in the classroom, realized that living close to this culture and loving their food was very different from living in it or serving the families of it.

The next chapter moved me to Southern California into another diverse and underserved group of students. A newbie teacher, working alongside teachers that were much more mature than I. There would be so much to learn, but after visiting the “teachers’ lounge” once, I determined that I was never going in there again.  These were not my people. 

So, I shifted over to a private school, the altruistic ideal. However, people pay here, and equity was not their cause. My people weren’t here either. 

Homeschooling in the 80’s was the new revolution.  As a young mom, I decided that was the choice for my family and on the way, I realized I could help other mothers do the same. These were my people, but homeschooling wasn’t realistic for all families.  However, as my children got older and education became more of a discussion in our country, it was becoming clear that our one size was not fitting all. Reagan’s “Nation at Risk” report stated as much. American education was failing our children. 

After having served in public, private, and homeschooling, the question became “What if there were an option to do all the things right that I found objectionable in the other traditional systems?” Would it be possible to develop the “more perfect” sort of school?

And then appeared the idea of “charter schools”. This magical idea that schools could be started by concerned citizens, teachers, parents, or organizations to serve the specific needs of their community. This seemed like the melding of all the ideas: a little bit public, a little bit private, a lot of innovation, a lot of freedom only bound by the lack of a dream, the vision, or a leader.

This seemed a perfect idea! And the next journey began. That was the year 2000. The foreboding was clear. It was a struggle from the first moment. The local district was less than interested in a charter school and just didn’t want to talk about it. The neighborhood where the dream was first planted was in an area where there was a significant majority of refugees that had fled Iraq. Their culture was very different from anything I really knew.  But my experiences in the cotton field of New Mexico had prepared me for this day and this cultural connection. They soon became my friends, then my allies, and now, after all these years, family.

The charter for Literacy First was finally approved on appeal by the County Board of Education, less than 12 weeks before school was supposed to start.

At that point a small but dedicated team made magic out of old desks, portable walls, used textbooks, and big ideas. 

It was magic and it was hard, and we had the joy and privilege of building a program that met the needs of our students, families, and staff. It made sense and more than that our program delivered results!

Now 20+ years later, we can say the same thing. The struggle has not changed, our enemies have gotten bolder, and the determination to maintain the original ideal of a place that could do things that made sense to all parties: parents, students, and teachers, as well as have impact, has only gotten more intense.

And…in California the struggle to keep us from that dream has only gotten more.

Charters were meant to provide choice for all parties involved: parents, students, and teachers. That choice is part of what in America we call a free market system. You can choose. That choice makes us all better. If there is a better product somewhere else, you can choose to go there. Charters are supposed to be hotbeds of innovation. Continually asking “why?” and making sure that our best practices are indeed “best practices” and research driven…that was the intent of “charterness”. Charters are supposed to be replicate-able models because of the freedom allowed for this ideal of “charter”.

We have seen in our area that local public schools have changed their programs, their calendars, and their school structure because of our presence in the community. Local churches have changed their summer programs because of our calendars. All boats have risen because there is a choice and people have chosen. And competition in education as in the marketplace, benefits everyone. Charterness has provided the impetus to push others to examine what they do and why…and change.

This is where the idea of “charterfolk” comes in. LFCS works not because it is a public school.   It works because it is a charter school. These are two very different entities. It works because all parties involved from the top to the bottom are sold on the mission, vision, and values that were established in the first charter document that was approved over 20 years ago. It works because we hold ourselves accountable to being more, producing results, and staying true to the original intent of charter: innovation, research driven, and replicate-able. As a team we routinely ask ourselves “why?” meaning is what we are doing true to who we have said we are, what we have promised our parents we will do and yes, to the tax payers of California.

For newbies coming to LFCS and entering the charter world, understanding the difference and the why is most often not understood. While candidates may come to us because of our reputation, understanding why the reputation is a must. We spend a week before school starts every year and days throughout the year transferring our ideals to our new staff. It is necessary in order to preserve the nature of our program, and the reason for our success. It’s not accidental or incidental. Training on the unique nature and the WHY of LFCS by the veterans has become tradition. Sharing our history, our stories, our highlights, and our low lights allows those ‘newbies to charterness’ to begin to understand, this is not your average “bear”.  This work is too hard, too important, and too special to not be a part of for the right reasons. Being “charter” is a calling. It’s not for everyone, but for those that are in it, it must be owned.

My journey to charterfolk evolved because my steps have taken me into all the school worlds, and I made my choice. For those of us that are in the position to continue to grow this movement, we must be vigilant about imparting this magic downline to the newcomers to the movement. A new teacher fresh out of college doesn’t have the history or experience to know the difference. Likewise, other teachers or leaders seeking employment in the charter world may be just looking for a job, not a unique opportunity to have impact in an educational reform movement. We must be clear about this mission in order to preserve the future and purpose of the charter movement. Charterness requires conviction. It’s not for the faint of heart or the casual bystander and this is where I found my people. An unlikely mix of dreamers and educators all connected with one cord: providing educational options for all families so that all boats rise, and every child has a chance at a future that is filled with purpose and hope.

This is unapologetically charter!