CharterFolk Contributor Joyanna S. Smith – Educational Equity is Our Collective Responsibility

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are excited to share with you a Contributor Column from Joyanna S. Smith, Chief Program and Operations Officer at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

We provide a bio for Joyanna below.

Joyanna Smith is passionate about advancing educational equity for underserved students, systemic educational reform, and parent and community advocacy. As the oldest of eight children, Joyanna’s parents instilled in her the importance of servant leadership and a commitment to serving the least among us.

Before moving to Chicagoland, Joyanna most recently served as the DC Regional Director with Rocketship Public Schools. Recognizing the transformative power of education, at Rocketship, Joyanna focused on growth and expansion of high performing public schools in Washington, DC. Before transitioning to Rocketship, she worked at the DC State Board of Education where she was appointed as the Ombudsman for Public Education in February 2014. As the Education Ombudsman, Joyanna helped parents and students resolve school complaints individually and collectively, transforming problems into solutions to promote systemic progress for all DC public school students. Joyanna’s office impacted the most vulnerable students and families, becoming a national model for Education Ombudsman work and channeling family voice into a vision for change across the District of Columbia. Working in the education sector for nearly 15 years, Joyanna also worked as the Director of Finance and Operations at an all-girls public charter school in Ward 8. Joyanna has spoken at local and national conferences and her expertise has been sought out by federal and local policy-making bodies in family engagement, governance, school discipline, and special education.

Joyanna received an A.B. from Brown University and a Juris Doctor from The George Washington University Law School.

Educational Equity is Our Collective Responsibility

In 2018, my husband and I were scrambling to find a quality school in Washington, DC for our son. We entered the lottery and were waitlisted at all 11 of our top choices, and our neighborhood school seemed like the only option. A few days after the lottery results, my husband made dozens of calls to DC charter schools, and he identified a Rocketship DC school as a viable option. Rocketship had an available preschool spot for our son, Malachi and so we submitted our enrollment materials.  Several weeks later, I was in California on a work trip, when I received a call from a Rocketship DC team member and he informed me that the space for my son, Malachi, was no longer available because the school was not going to be able to open in the Fall. Shortly after, I was hired to serve as the DC Regional Director for Rocketship DC with the immediate goal of identifying a new site for the third Rocketship DC campus so that it could open the following school year. This was a daunting task because the political climate was not favorable to Rocketship.  We were often positioned as outsiders because our schools were originally founded in California and the DC schools were fast-tracked administratively which included the approval of up to 8 DC campuses, if certain conditions were met. 

Accordingly, I had to employ a different strategy if I wanted to successfully open a third Rocketship campus. When our team identified a viable campus site, I focused on implementing a values-based community engagement approach that focused on people, regular presence in community conversations, and external community partnerships. As a regional leader with Rocketship DC and as the former DC Education Ombudsman, I understood the importance of sharing the stories of some of our most vulnerable families with citywide stakeholders and decision makers. I also understood that Rocketship DC represented an important bloc of the DC landscape, as we served some of the most vulnerable communities in DC. 

Additionally, in response to the outsider perception, we also strategically worked to align our Rocketship DC identity with our deep roots in the geographic wards and communities where our schools were located. For example, some of our leadership team and teachers lived in areas where our schools were located, and so, we built the capacity of our teachers, staff, and school leaders to tell the story of Rocketship through their eyes, as community members. We also engaged community and business leaders early regarding our vision, invited them to tour our existing campuses, and we had our parents share the impact of what we would be able to do in their communities. Early engagement efforts that spanned two years prior to the anticipated campus opening afforded us an opportunity to build trust and allow people to get to know us and become better acquainted with our work.

I have worked in education policy and advocacy for many years – but most of my experience has been in Washington, DC.  I moved to Chicago in late 2022, with the desire to engage in a more complex education environment and the potential for more impact with underserved black and brown children as Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the third largest public school system with more than 320,000 students. I currently work at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), and over the last few years, the political headwinds surrounding the charter movement have shifted and become less bipartisan, and the broad coalition that supports charter schools has eroded. Moreover, the strongest teacher’s union in the country, the Chicago Teachers Union, has created an increasingly hostile political environment. In this challenging environment, we have identified the need to focus on a multi-faceted approach to our engagement strategy to create a new cadre of allies, champions, and friends who are supportive of educational equity for all children. This engagement strategy focuses on legislative advocacy, political advocacy, district level advocacy, and community and stakeholder engagement. Our community engagement strategy focuses on changing the narrative surrounding the charter movement to demonstrate our commitment to putting students, families, and schools first with a particular focus on underserved communities.   

At INCS, we are focused on building meaningful partnerships with communities of color proximate to our charter schools and will build a sustained base of support for policy changes and advocacy campaigns. We need to activate and organize a diverse group of people who have a shared vision for their communities. The goal is to engage the pastors in the South Side of Chicago, aldermen in the City of Chicago, the community leaders, and the leaders of community-based organizations who are working on improving issues that are experienced by our families and the communities that they live in. The idea is to meaningfully engage with people who have long worked within and alongside communities in Chicago and within the State of Illinois. Thus, at INCS, our engagement strategy extends beyond education reform and elite circles and focuses on actively engaging in authentic grassroots outreach in the neighborhoods surrounding our schools, where people see us as part of their communities.   

Charter schools have long been positioned as outside agitators – which is premised on working outside of the system, particularly operating with the notion that innovation happens when operating outside of the bureaucracy of district schools and local government. While external agitation continues to be a key component of our collective action for educational equity, as a part of continuing to fortify the charter sector, we must also actively focus on working within communities, particularly in communities where our charter schools are located. And, while charter schools often had to battle communities to build charter schools across the United States, we now need to shift our strategy to embrace the disruption that occurs when we build bridges through trusting relationships within communities. We must activate our communities to rally against broader forces that continue to allow poorly performing schools that do not meet the needs of children or communities to remain. Fulfilling our vision for educational equity will require the recognition that underserved communities desire choices, overall, in their lives, which includes expectations regarding safe streets, affordable housing, access to grocery stores, and the ability to pay for the prescriptions they need to survive.

In my transition to a charter school association, I believe CSAs have a unique role in the ability to help communities advocate for issues they care most about. CSAs have effectively developed advocacy campaigns regarding conditions that will provide a stronger sector such as facilities, improved renewal terms for our charter schools, and equitable funding. We have demonstrated expertise in launching effective advocacy campaigns and we continue to work with our charter schools to build a strong advocacy base that is comprised of students, parents, communities, community leaders, elected officials and others to advocate for conditions that allows students and families to thrive. In the past, charter school community engagement has been focused on spreading awareness of the offerings of charter schools or obtaining letters of support from CBOs or elected officials when there is a particular administrative action such as school expansion or replication. However, we recognize the value of furthering our reach to form and strengthen relationships with civil rights organizations, community-based organizations, and community leaders. Cultivating closer ties to the communities surrounding our charter schools will allow us to support the facilitation of community driven change. This community engagement strategy is designed to allow us to proactively build a new cadre of supporters that we can activate for specific advocacy campaigns and to be responsive to emerging threats. Engaging in this manner demonstrates that charter schools are part of a broader equity agenda for the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois. 

A few lessons learned

  1. Be Present and show up: Show up at community meetings, public meetings, and school board meetings. Look for every opportunity to share positive stories about what your students are doing. Create an engagement plan which includes reaching out to community leaders and CBOs to tour your schools, invitations to school events, and schedule 1-1s to share stories about your schools, your plans for the school year, and your vision for how your schools fit within the communities they are located in.  
  1. Schools must activate their supporters: Build an advocacy base to include your parents. At Rocketship, we built relationships with families, identified parent leaders, and developed Parent Organizing Committees (POCs) which defined a campaign around educational equity according to their school community needs. Education Organizers (EO) at Rocketship spend their time coaching parents one-on-one, leading trainings on community organizing and moving POCs to hold local and, sometimes, state leaders accountable through research meetings and large public actions that aim to spark change. Over time, our Rocketship DC parents led community conversations with elected officials who were running for office, parents engaged in research meetings with charter authorizer board members, participated in mayoral forums, and advocated for issues that they cared about such as obtaining traffic calming measures to increase safety around their schools and engaging decision-makers in DC regarding the provision of mental health services and to learn about why certain wards were still struggling to receive adequate support.  
  1. Engage in power-mapping exercises with your charter school board: At Rocketship, we had board members who were well-connected to Washington, DC. Better leveraging the network of your board members will allow schools to engage in additional spheres of influence and to broaden the reach of the schools to potentially include more friends in the work. It is important to share the stories of your schools with as many people as possible, so leverage the network that extends beyond your school(s) to get there.  
  1. Through the engagement opportunities, offer a narrative: that builds bridges designed to offer a strong vision for educating children across the State of Illinois with a goal to attract a broader set of allies and champions. We must strengthen and refine the charter school narrative in a manner that highlights the positive stories involving students and families and reminds the public that we are successfully serving some of the most underserved populations. The goal is to actively broaden our message to bring other allies and champions who have demonstrated a commitment to children into a collective vision for educational equity in Chicago and across the State of Illinois. How we talk about our work matters. 

Some time ago, I wrote “we can only achieve true educational equity if we recognize that our collective failure to provide quality schools for all children is our collective responsibility.” A multi-faceted advocacy approach encourages a new cadre of allies, champions, and friends to articulate a vision for educational equity that creates opportunities for students to achieve their true potential. In my years in education, I continued to be inspired by the deep commitment that communities have regarding their public schools. While we may continue to engage in healthy debates regarding which school models effect the most change for children, my experience at Rocketship DC and as the DC Education Ombudsman, showed me the power that students, families, schools, and communities have the power to influence the very fabric of their neighborhoods. If we truly “stay with the experience of our people” and prioritize relationships and advocacy campaigns that are focused on recognizing the assets that are already part of communities, we can help build the capacity of communities to advocate beyond the classroom on issues such as safe passage, affordable housing, expanded mental health services, and quality schools.  Further, with attacks on charters happening at all levels, a stronger engagement strategy with communities, allows us to better protect our schools and fortify our sector in Chicago, the State of Illinois, and across the United States.