CharterFolk Contributor Naomi Shelton – Committing to Community Schools and Leaders of Color

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today it is our pleasure to share with you a contributor column from Naomi Shelton, the CEO of the National Charter Collaborative.

I share a brief bio below.

Naomi’s career as a leader in the education sector spans policy, advocacy and programmatic initiatives with a deep focus on both K-12 and post-secondary education. Prior to becoming the CEO of the National Charter Collaborative, she led community engagement efforts at the KIPP Foundation where she defined and executed strategic partnerships in support of KIPP schools and communities across the country. She also spent seven years as the Director of K-12 Advocacy with the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) where she established and raised funds to expand the UNCF’s K-12 initiative working with HBCUs and strategic partners including civil rights and faith-based organizations.

I have known about Naomi’s strong work for many years and was delighted to learn of her appointment as CEO of the National Charter Collaborative. It is a pleasure to be able to share her thoughts with CharterFolk readers. I thank Naomi for penning such a thoughtful post about how to best support the next diverse generation of leaders coming to the charter school movement.

Committing to Community Schools and Leaders of Color

The charter school landscape has made tremendous gains for students and families seeking educational options along with school climate and culture offerings that meet needs that far too often went unanswered in traditional systems. The call to action was answered and countless founders sprung into action to create innovative models, with authorizing and applications following suit.

With thirty years under the charter law belt, we have seen tremendous progress in charter network growth, the formation and refining of accountability measures, and increased funding and philanthropic support for this work. Trial and error. Research and development. Growth, expansion and replication. Still many lessons to be learned. Over this time people of color have also been in, around and leading in this work: a robust network was born out of teaching practices championed by Harriett Ball.

Educators like Lagra Newman at Purpose Prep in Nashville, Tennessee founded a single site school rooted in her track record of leadership, classroom experience, and personal mission and vision. 

As the country continues to grapple with systemic racism, video evidence and data collection are now spreading awareness of the violence and trauma that many people of color process and face daily in America, making these transgressions more difficult to ignore. America sits at an inflection point – we continue to uncover where, when and how racial biases show up in all of our systems. So, while it had been easy to turn a blind eye to inequities, we are forced to face the fact that no system is immune: policing, lending, healthcare. Even Ben & Jerry’s can see how inequities show up in public education

Thirty years in this work and we must re-evaluate and evolve to eliminate the barriers in the sector in the ways educators and social entrepreneurs sought to address barriers to high quality education for chronically underserved students and families. The charter sector has approached its “Second Great Awakening”. Cue an analogy that my high school religion teachers may or may not appreciate.  The “gospel” of charters has reached countless families and caregivers seeking alternatives to meet their children’s academic and social needs. Leaders, educators, funders, and supporters have been brought into the work, but to further expand the reach of this effort, we must recalibrate to see true change in outcomes for the sector and education overall. How? The support for leaders of color must evolve beyond pathways to leadership of existing organizations to include a “grow your own” or a “for us by us” movement. 

During the 2020 racial reckoning, a number of schools that serve Black and brown students were called to the carpet for harmful practices, forcing many who had turned a blind eye to become aware of the problematic and racially steeped biases in this sector. Many now rush to write Black Lives Matter statements, rush to address race, equity, diversity and inclusion efforts by hiring or training, and acknowledge transgressions of bad actors and problematic school culture and norms. Leaders of color watch this outpouring of focus and funding and collectively shake their heads. 

For years, while Black, brown and indigenous leaders designed, founded and ran schools focused on serving the communities they intrinsically understood, their white counterparts were offered more opportunities to expand despite their failings to reflect and connect with communities. New Profit’s report …

… highlights the access to capital and multi-year funding challenge faced by leaders of color. 

Over time, racial biases have deepened, creating barriers to application review and approval for school founding teams led by people of color. The system that precipitated the need for charter schools created a space that perpetuated inequities. Research shows the implications of inequitable practices exist not only for students and charter school leaders of color, but prospective school founders. Essentially, authorizing bodies have become comfortable approving schools that fit a mold, spurring the replication of models that veer further from the innovation and supports that meet the needs of students and communities. 

The National Charter Collaborative was born out of the disproportionate revocations and closure of charter schools led by Black and brown leaders. The organization’s co-founders — Trish Dziko and Kim Smith — recognized a dearth of financial support, resources, and access to critical networks puts far too many schools steeped in culturally relevant practices at risk of poor standing in the eyes of authorizing bodies at best or non-renewal, revocation and closure. The worst case scenario impacts not only students, families, and communities, but the sector. Removing bad actors affirms a commitment to accountability, but allowing schools to flounder when resources and supports exist is self-sabotage. 

In the last year and a half, we’ve seen a groundswell in supporting people of color. Many of the recent announcements of new leadership in the education sector highlight outstanding leaders of color. This is one way to address and acknowledge the importance of diversity. But we must do more. We must focus on the next iteration of this work and the generation poised to lead. Let’s collectively encourage our colleagues, policy makers, funders and philanthropic partners to support leaders of color from inception to sustainability. 

Support single site charter leaders of color with funding, leadership development, and other resources to create conditions for growth and success. NCC created a community for school leaders operating in silos to share best practices and unpack challenges while centering the lived experiences of leaders, their staff, and their students. Our inaugural Manati Fellowship cohort

… engaged leaders based in Washington, DC as a collective to:​ 1) create an authentic and close-knit community​, 2) identify a shared problem of practice​, and 3) design a shared solution to expand an aspect of their school​s. We will continue to deepen this work and expand the supports offered, as this is a necessary function of sustaining high quality schools. Additional concerted advocacy that speaks to the challenges single site charters face is also a necessary to improve conditions. 

Spur pipelines for new schools and founders of color committed to designing community schools. Earlier this year NACSA kicked off its Communities at the Center campaign …

… outlining a set of six principles for authorizing to create the best education systems for our students by putting community needs at the center of its work. Communities and families come with ideas and passion to do what works for children — they often lack the investments to see those ideas come to life. NACSA recognizes “as charter schooling and authorizing center on the aspirations and needs of communities, a range of new and different outcomes could emerge – all leading to excellent educational opportunities for students.” NCC is committed to exploring and solidifying partnerships that create pipelines and opportunities for aspiring leaders of color to meet the needs NACSA has identified. However, the sector has several layers of interrogation to meet this challenge. 

The sustainability of the charter sector depends on the collective approach to this work and who is at the table for the next thirty years. Are we willing to expand school models and deepen support and engagement of community focused schools? Are we willing to awaken to what’s possible for children, families and communities who may sit outside of the norms we’ve established? Will we support the next generation of Harriet’s and Lagra’s to have even greater impact in the next chapter of our work? 

As we collectively consider these questions, the National Charter Collaborative is committed to strengthening leaders of color in this work, creating pathways for new leaders, and we look forward to doing this work with our larger community. 

To learn more about our work visit, follow us on social platforms, and follow me on Twitter @NaomiSheltonDC — let’s get to work!…