Good morning, Charter Folk!
Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Dr. Christopher Manning, Founder and CEO of Buffalo Creek Academy (BCA).
I provide a brief bio for Chris below.
Chris Manning grew up in Pasadena, California and Phoenix, Arizona. He served 13 years in the United States Air Force, where he lived and worked in Montana, New Mexico, Washington D.C., South Korea, Germany, Kuwait, and Japan. He remained overseas after his military service and became an educator. Chris taught within and led various schools in Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh.
During his time abroad, Chris was completing his dissertation in which he focused on how to develop strong community relationships, it was then that he decided to return to the United States and found a school. He then joined the BES Fellowship and founded Buffalo Creek Academy Charter School in Buffalo, NY.
Chris holds an AA in Criminal Justice, a BA in Military Management and Program Acquisition, a M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Technology, a Post-Master Certificate in Educational Leadership, an Educational Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership, and a Doctoral Degree in Management. In addition to his formal education, he completed a year-long Certificate of Advanced Education Leadership (CAEL) program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a year-long Fellowship with Building Excellent Schools as a 2018 Fellow (post-doctoral).
Many of you may remember Chris from the February CharterFolk Oxygen Bar with Linda Brown, Lagra Newman and Chris Manning on Resiliency, Persistence and Just Plain Stubbornness in Support of Improved Public Education For Those Who Need it Most. It was such a great interview, generating requests for more on Chris and other leaders exemplifying resiliency.
There are so many interesting aspects of Chris Manning’s life. His path from charter high school graduate to United States Military Service to international private schools to United States charter schools is a great story; one we will likely tell in the future.
Today, Chris is going to share a brief story of his “spirit school.” The phrase “spirit school” was used consistently in the Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship to describe the school that within two to three minutes of being on the campus you just knew they had it right – the culture, academics, intentionality, and buy-in from students and adults. As a BES Fellow, your spirit school is not one you want to replicate but one that has something so inspiring you wish to incorporate it into the school you are building from the ground up.
Have you ever visited a school that you felt was your “spirit school”? If so and you would like to write about it here at CharterFolk, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be delighted to share more stories about how visits to extraordinary charter schools have changed people’s lives.
Honoring My Spirit School, A Visit to a Charter School that Changed My Life
In Fall 2018, I was a new Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellow participating in the first of many rounds of school study “rotations.” As a Fellow, I was traveling to various cities across the country with my cohort, studying high-performance schools. We would conduct what was called “thin-slicing” of each school. That is, we would have to observe different aspects of the schools and then breakdown the data and identify trends and systems. These narratives were translated into best-practices, many of which we were supposed to adapt for our own new stand-alone charter schools.
Along the way, we’d be pressed by our coaches to identify our “spirit school.” The one school that spoke to our very souls as school leaders. Although most people in my cohort were either alumni of the Teach for America program or former charter school leaders, I was new to the high-performance charter school world. Coming from private British international schools abroad, it was all new to me. High-performance charter schools are in a world all their own.
I was not completely sold on the whole idea initially, that is, until I went to visit Purpose Preparatory Charter (Purpose Prep), founded by Lagra Newman in Tennessee. It was there that I witnessed a school that spoke to my very soul—it was my spirit school. At the time, the school enrolled students in the primary grades. Although I knew that I was poised to found a middle school with students who would be much older than the students I was observing, it did not matter.
The systems that I witnessed and the culture of the school were all aspects that could not escape from my mind once I saw them. We were standing in the central auditorium when it all started. Before any student arrived, the entire school staff were in the room listening to Lagra Newman, the founder and head of school. After their morning meeting, the teachers all broke into smaller groups and started practicing different parts of their lessons for the day.
They each took turns greeting the students with excitement and explaining the task at hand. The teachers were coaching one another as they practiced, and they all seemed to move comfortably in this culture of coaching. What was most significant to me was the intense level of intentionality that was present in every aspect of what I was watching.
It was clear that the teachers had high performance expectations of one another, and they held each other accountable. They were equally adamant about practicing in front of one another to gain feedback. It was truly an amazing sight. Just when I thought that I was blown away, the students started to arrive.
They were greeted with a handshake and a smile by Lagra Newman, and then they entered the threshold. There was classical music playing softly in the background as the students started to arrive. They’d come in and without a word, head towards their designated coat rack, and take off their backpack. The students would take out their homework folder, set it inside a box adjacent to the rack, and then head to their seat at their designated breakfast table. Each student would have their breakfast and then immediately start their “brainwork,” which was placed on the table for them.
Once it was time for breakfast to end, a teacher entered the center of the room, and the show began. The students were all quiet and focused on the speaker as she asked each class to sound off with their classroom chant. The students were very animated during the chant. It was obvious that they were proud and competing to see who did their chant the best. The teacher, who was center-stage, kept them at the edge of their seat and positively narrated what she was seeing.
Towards the end, it was time for the younger students to depart. They all stood up when their teacher signaled them to do so, turned in unison, and departed—while singing a song. I was floored. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I thought I had seen it all, but there was more, I had yet to see everything come together in the classrooms.
Once we entered the classrooms, I saw it. The students were energized and ready for their activities. The teachers were opening their lessons, just as they had practiced with one another earlier that morning. I spent the rest of the morning moving from classroom to classroom observing the various systems at play. It was early in my fellowship, so I was not jumping into curriculum and academic programming just yet. At those early stages of school study, we were studying school culture. Up until that point, I had studied schools with strong cultures, however, this just felt different. The level of buy-in from the adults and students alike was unlike any other place I had seen up to that point. Admittedly, I noticed some distinct similarities when I studied North Star Academy in Newark, NJ later that year. However, my first experience with such an approach was at Purpose Prep, and that impression never waned.
I cannot say that Buffalo Creek Academy Charter School, the middle school which I founded at the end of my fellowship, is anything like Purpose Prep. We strive for a high-level of buy-in from our students, and we endeavor to develop a strong coaching culture among our staff. Our students come to us at a more advanced age, but we still want them enchanted when they walk in the door. The pandemic era of schooling is definitely different from 2018, to say the least. However, the one aspect that we have honed in on is the intense intentionality behind our “day in the life” and culture program.
We launched during the global pandemic, and we had to operate according to the Sue Walsh mantra of “the school is not a building,” during our first year. We had to be innovative and nimble. Instead of allowing our chairs and desks to collect dust inside of our storage, we rented U-hauls and delivered all the classroom materials (including a desk and chair) to each student. We brought our school to them, literally.
We conducted our quarterly recognition ceremonies on their front porches, which always featured an appearance from our mascot—Buffy the Bulldog. We purchased vans so that we could distribute material and deliver meals. We worked diligently to establish a routine and culture that could be transferred (as seamlessly as possible) into our building.
If you need a smile, check out these 30-second videos of at-home student recognitions conducted during the pandemic:
In 2021, our 70 students grew to 140. Fifty percent of our students were new to Buffalo Creek Academy. We had our work cut out for us. However, this task was made easier by the fact that the other 50% of our students were already familiar with the BCA culture. Visitors who have toured our school have always loved our morning sequence, which (like in 2020) includes our students reciting our new day chant, it goes like this:
A teacher says, “it’s a new day.” Everyone beings to cheer and celebrate, and then we recite the chant:
“I’m here to sharpen my mind and carve my path today! [Clap Clap]
Getting ready for the road ahead, I’m gonna’ make my mark today! [Clap Clap]
Distractions are not welcome, so don’t get in my way! [Clap Clap]
I need you and you need me, so let’s get it done today!” [Clap Clap]
We then use this energy to move right into our morning classes. We still have a number of smiling faces doing the chant from their home as remote learners, and we have many inside the building. The biggest difference is hearing and feeling the thunder in their claps between stanzas.
My spirit school left a mark on me. I continue to honor my spirit school by incorporating characteristics of their intense intentionality in our “day in the life” and culture program. We at Buffalo Creek Academy continue to improve our intentionality. We endeavor to establish a strong coaching culture, like the ones I studied at North Star and Purpose Prep. I hope that my school will one day leave a mark on a future founder and become someone else’s spirit school.