CharterFolk Contributor Peter Thorp – Once a Charter Person, Always a Charter Person, No?

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Peter Thorp.

Peter Thorp

I provide Peter’s bio below.

In his 5 decades of educational experience, Peter Thorp has completed the “trifecta” of service–23 years of independent boarding schools; a dozen years as the founding principal of Gateway High School in San Francisco (now celebrating its 25 anniversary) and at the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA); and since 2010 international work in Rwanda, Ethiopia, and most recently in yet another start up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In other words, Peter is failing at retirement at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico (ranked 51st in the country for its educational quality) as the volunteer college counselor at a local International Baccalaureate (IB) public secondary school.

Once a Charter Person, Always a Charter Person, No?

A public-school graduate myself, I spent 23 years in independent boarding schools, the last 5 of which as the head of school in Southern California. I always had some ambivalence about my work, knowing that the impact I was having was mitigated by the fact that were I to get hit by the proverbial bus, I knew my students would be well taken care of, nevertheless.

When in 1998 the opportunity came my way to be the founding principal of Gateway High School in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance to create a school in the public sector with some of the attributes of independent schools—a program defined by a mission that resonated with the local community, attracting both families and teachers to that mission, and through close student/staff partnerships, a commitment to serve every student as well as possible, given the quite meager resources provided by the state of California.

No doubt you, too, had to weather considerable obstacles and opposition to your start up. I arrived in San Francisco in early July and immediately reached out to those families who had been enrolled in the school, assuring them, that “I was on it,” the “on it” being securing a facility. Things looked favorable as given our mission—to be a college prep high school with a focus on serving students with learning differences—the then superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), who was a former special education (SPED) teacher, supported our charter and in the 25 years before my arrival the public-school student population had declined from 80,000+ students to mid-50,000. So, no problem getting a facility, right?

Wrong! I won’t belabor the details of our search for a facility, but I will share that with each week when I wrote to our students and families, assuring them that the District said they would assign us a facility in the next couple of weeks “for sure,” my credibility headed further south with each passing missed deadline. In the end, we found where we were to be located—a one-year solution only on the fourth floor of another SFUSD school which was sufficient to house our first ninth grade class of 100 students, just 48 hours before our arrival that we were coming. And the principal of that school learned we were coming only 24 hours in advance.

Challenging and frustrating as that was, my faith in the need for a Gateway was confirmed by the fact that not one of our families gave up on us that summer and transferred to a different school. No matter how many obstacles arose, I felt obliged to serve those students and families who had given us their trust when in fact there was no reason to do so.

This month, Gateway will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary, appropriately taking pride in the impact it has had not only on the students who have attended Gateway, including its impressive college matriculating record, but because it has become a true partner with SFUSD offering complementary services to what the District is doing to support SPED. I salute my successor, the recently retired Sharon Olken, for all that she and her team members have accomplished in the past two decades.

I moved on to work for CCSA and CEO Caprice Young in 2007. During that time, I had two roles—as Chief of Staff managing various parts of the operations and given my independent school experience, serving as a governance consultant to several charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs). My premise was always that the “Achilles heel” of the charter school movement was governance even more than finances, facilities, or program. By sharing all the mistakes that I had made, I’d like to believe I made a difference, for some schools and therefore their families and students.

In 2010 my peripatetic makeup led me to accept the position as the founding head of school of Gashora Girls Academy in Rwanda, a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) secondary boarding school. While I had traveled extensively (now 69 countries), I had not worked internationally, so I had a steep learning curve.

That said, I brought my suitcase of never-forgotten charter school lessons with me.

1) Build a school with a compelling mission and they will come, no matter where you are in the world.

Our initial mission was to create a school of eventually 270 students in 3 grades that would result in girls completing secondary school, often a shockingly low percentage in the developing world where girls are burdened with domestic chores.

2) Be sure to have a marketing plan if you are in a competitive situation for students.

In our case, we knew that the typical “mattress” in a Rwandan boarding school was a thin piece of foam rubber. Our business manager in Dubai ordering school supplies, furniture, etc., had the brilliant idea of buying real mattresses. Whenever I took a family on a tour, thinking I was dazzling them with the school’s vision and my years of experience, it only took a brief tour of a dormitory and without fail when the girls saw the mattresses, they asked “Where do I sign up?”

3) Hire a mission aligned staff.

This was my biggest challenge as it turned out. As we all know, the single most important variable in achieving school-wide success is the quality of that teacher in that classroom on that day. We were required to follow the suboptimal Rwandan National Curriculum, and the language of instruction was English; Rwanda, however, was then a Francophone country, and there were not sufficient teachers who could speak English well enough, so I traveled to Uganda to recruit teachers there.

Gashora’s founders—two amazing women in Seattle—charged me both with following Rwandan requirements so our students would quality for national universities, while creating a learning culture that might prepare students for study in Western universities. My wake-up calls included appreciating fully the hegemony of the National Exams in Rwanda (and most African countries). The typical class was rigidly “chalk and talk”; in fact, it was considered inappropriate for a student to ask a question in class! In such a framework, you would expect, teachers, principals, and school proprietors judged their effectiveness on how well their students performed on the exams. I got major push back from our teachers on our vision of what we called “whole girl” education—academic excellence, augmented by developing leadership skills and passion in extra-curricular activities such as sports and clubs. I believe you can tell that I have enormous pride in this effort, as no doubt so many of you do with your accomplishments (a special shout out to Casey Taylor and Achieve Charter Schools in Paradise, CA comes immediately to mind). Our girls’ debate team eventually won the national championship, surprising everyone nationwide and truly pissing off the boys’ school teams. Our girls went on to win East African competitions and a few years ago the team competed internationally.

Gashora Girls greeted by the school’s founders after arriving in Seattle as they begin their journeys to universities in the USA.

Gashora Girls greeted by the school’s founders after arriving in Seattle as they begin their journeys to universities in the USA.

The teachers believed that I had no idea about the importance of the National Exams. To them, every moment taken away from National Exam preparation was lost time. I will admit that I never successfully convinced the entire staff about the inherent value of unleashing girls’ potential.

Empowerment through martial arts.

Empowerment through martial arts.

I was an art history major in college and am fond of saying that a degree in art history and $4 will get you a latte at Starbucks. But my educational philosophy was spawned by Michelangelo—“When I look at the block of marble in front of me, I don’t envision the form I must carve on that block; rather I see what I need to chip away, to release the form inside.” How true was that of my Rwanda experience. In a part of the world where perhaps 5% of young women go on to university, at Gashora Girls Academy it’s 93% in our ten graduating classes; alumnae are studying in at least 30 countries, including every Ivy League and many highly selective colleges in the USA, having earned upwards of $130 million in scholarships. Girls from our first graduating class (don’t we all have special connections to our first graduates?) are doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesswomen, a helicopter pilot, and just recently our first alumna member of Parliament! And two years ago, one became Miss Rwanda (a contest far more focused on intelligence, cultural knowledge, and reconciliation than just looks).

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda attending the Gashora Girls Academy's first graduation in October 2013.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda attending the Gashora Girls Academy’s first graduation in October 2013.

Happily, my Rwandan successor was more successful than I was at recruiting Rwanda teachers who happily more easily “got it” about whole girl education. More united in their work, the teachers have supported our girls to become among the nation’s highest exam performers, while continuing their impressive extracurricular achievements.

4. “Jack and Jill be nimble, Jack and Jill be quick, Jack and Jill jump over the District (or Ministry of Education) policy stick.”

Being a flexible, creative, and nimble problem solver is required of any charter leader. With Gateway, after 3 years of inadequate facilities in two separate facilities, the second of which had no elevator in a 3-story building, (requiring me to build the entire class schedule to accommodate Kelly who was wheelchair bound), we were offered what then appeared to be a permanent solution in a former middle school (and which in fact did work out as Gateway’s permanent site) and were given 24 hours to accept the offer or not, which had certain conditions. Our board and I were pressed to make an “executive decision” not following our usual, more inclusive, community-involved process.

In Rwanda, on several occasions, the Minister of Education made a pronouncement that had an important impact on program without any advance notice. One example is being told, well after the school year began, that we needed to add Kinyarwanda, the local language, to the curriculum (an inclusion I support in any country) with no support in finding teachers or budgetary allocation. And as Gashora was a private school, we had an enrollment process based on merit, but when a general’s daughter applied, our merit criteria broadened, shall we say. The upside is that in the country where a million people were slaughtered in the 100 days of 1994 genocide, we were confident that our security was tight!

And in my last two years working in Ethiopia, the Ministry there, too, is in the habit of issuing mandates—ironically, the most recent one is that no longer are we required to teach Amharic, the most universal of the 109 languages spoken in the country, for the National Exam. So we are having to reassign our Amharic teachers to other duties. And more shockingly so, just recently the Ministry put forth a dramatically revised curriculum for the National Exam. Imagine how our seniors—our first graduating class this June—and their teachers are feeling given that one’s National Exam results are the keys to one’s future “kingdom.”

My 2022 Ethiopian advisory group.

My 2022 Ethiopian advisory group.

These outcomes directly stem from a “charter mindset”—knowing what’s needed, knowing how to leverage most effectively limited resources, and most importantly creating a culture of learning that underlies everything that takes place. I, and my Rwanda “Gashora Girls” (and now students in Ethiopia and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, where I’m just now commencing work), are and will be the beneficiaries of all of us who believed that there was a different path to the highest educational outcomes, especially for those poorly served students, families, and communities and who had the vision, courage, and fortitude (and were perhaps muy loco!) to build a better mousetrap.

It has been an honor and a joy to have learned lessons from my charter experiences in California, and to have taken those lessons to communities of great need and unlimited potential in Africa.

Bringing the French Revolution “to life” during project demonstration day.

Bringing the French Revolution “to life” during project demonstration day.