CharterFolk X Vol 20 – James Nortey, Steadfastly Supporting Charter Schools, District Schools, and Justice More Broadly

Good morning, CharterFolk.

It’s my great pleasure to start off the year recognizing James Nortey, Board Chair of Austin Achieve Public Schools, as CharterFolk Extraordinaire.

James’s personal story is one that deeply resonates with our work as a movement. The son of immigrants from Ghana, James went on to get a great education – a bachelor’s degree from Baylor, a JD from Harvard Law School, and a Master’s in Technology Commercialization from the University of Texas – which he is now putting to work improving opportunity in the home state where he grew up. In addition to becoming a practicing attorney at Duggins Wren Mann & Romero LLP, James has played a leadership role on such organizations as the City of Austin Planning CommissionLeadership Austin, and the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce.

For one with the range of interests and passions that James has, it became natural that he would gravitate toward efforts to improve public education. That led him to join the Board of Austin Achieve, a PreK-12 charter school serving over 2100 students in East Austin.

Being a supporter of traditional public schools as well, James joined the Board of the Austin Ed Fund, a foundation dedicated to supporting the improvement of the Austin Independent School District.

As John Armbrust, CEO of Austin Achieve, describes James’s contribution:

In terms of bringing a deep, deep commitment to engage the entire community including all public school providers, charter and district, to improve opportunity for all students, in particular those who have been historically underserved, there is no one who surpasses the example being set by James Nortey.

In 2015, James announced his candidacy for Travis County Commissioner.

Given James’s progressive bonafides, it should have been a natural that all wings of the Democratic Party would have embraced his candidacy. In preparation for his race, James stopped all his service on governance boards, but protectors of the public education establishment let James know that, despite his clear efforts to also support traditional public schools, the fact that he had served on the Board of Austin Achieve meant that they would strongly oppose his candidacy. James forged on with his campaign, one that prominently featured the critical need to provide low income students access to the same educational opportunity that other students in Travis County are afforded.

Many report James’s service on the Austin Achieve Board probably cost him his race for county commissioner. But has that in any way slowed down James?

Not in the least.

He’s only doubled down on his commitment to both charter schools and district schools, becoming the Board Chair of Austin Achieve and the Treasurer of the Board of the Austin Fund. Not so long ago, he and the then-Superintendent of AISD coincidentally showed up at a board meeting wearing identical attire …

… reinforcing the notion that, while we may come at problems from other angles, among people truly dedicated to improving public education for all students, there is much more that unites us than divides us.

Meanwhile, James’s contribution at Austin Achieve and in the broader community has only become more vital in recent years. During James’s tenure at Austin Achieve, the Board has helped steward the implementation of a new restorative justice program that has allowed the school to serve its community even more effectively.

James has also provided key leadership to Legacy 44, a PAC that provided approximately $250K in political contributions in the 2020 cycle to progressive Democrats in Texas who are strongly supportive of charter schools.

And he continues to volunteer in the local community, often tackling deeply vexing issues, such as his efforts to push the Austin Police Department to improve their policing practices.

James’s life demonstrates a level of steadfast support for charter schools, for all public schools and for justice more broadly to which all of us in Charterland aspire.

It’s yet another reason why we are honored today to recognize James Nortey as a moving example of CharterFolk Extraordinaire.