CharterFolk X Volume 2.1 – Julia Meyerson, Returning to Her Hometown to Prove that Demographics Do Not Determine Destiny

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are delighted to kick-off our second year of CharterFolk X by recognizing the extraordinary contributions of Julia Meyerson, the Founder and Executive Director of Vista College Preparatory Charter School in Phoenix, Arizona.

Born and raised in central Phoenix, Julia joined Teach For America after college and taught in Brooklyn. She then moved to the Democratic Governor’s Association in DC where over four years she rose to become the organization’s policy director. While she was there, the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University released a new study showing how dire public education problems were in her home state, especially for students coming from historically underserved communities in the urban core of Phoenix.

It was a report that documented the sad fact that vast swaths of the public education establishment in Arizona had come to accept the premise that “demographics is destiny,” that a child’s background determines his or her prospects in life.

It was a level of crisis that galvanized Julia to make a bold new move. As she reported in her “Phoenix Story” published last year:

While I absolutely loved my job, I was not doing enough work with education policy or education reform. I knew I wanted to go back into education and I wanted to do so in a meaningful way. Understanding that our public school system in Arizona is at the bottom of most national rankings, especially for students in low-income communities, I decided that I wanted to leverage my experience in Teach For America and in policy at the Governors Association and start an elementary school in my home state.

So she joined the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship …

… and spent a year visiting some of the highest performing charter schools in the nation, allowing her to see the possible in urban education. That led her to articulate the first belief that has become the cornerstone of the organization that she went on to establish – Vista College Preparatory Charter School.

It’s a deeply held organization-wide conviction that demographics do not determine destiny.

Eight months after the Dropped study was published, the Vista College Prep charter was approved.

And eight months after that, the school opened its doors with 60 students in kindergarten and first grade. A lot was riding on how well Julia and her new team did.

Prior to Vista College Prep opening, Arizona’s charter school sector had not yet demonstrated an ability to generate high levels of learning in historically underserved neighborhoods in Phoenix. As the New York Times article described it:

“We have this promise of shaping our charter schools based on the needs of our communities, but we haven’t made good on it,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona school superintendent and state legislator, who helped write the state’s charter school law. “We didn’t force the issue of quality in the early days.”

Within a few years, the level of quality emerging from Vista College Prep was simply unmistakable. Unprecedented academic outcomes were happening relative to the performance of all traditional public schools in Phoenix …

…. with Vista College Prep’s students of color exceeding the performance of Arizona’s white students statewide.

Such results created a surge in parent demand for Vista College Prep schooling, leading the organization to open additional sites that have gone on to become National Blue Ribbon schools …

… and to develop new school buildings …

… even in the middle of the pandemic.

It all comes back to demonstrating Vista College Prep’s core belief. Not just at one school, but across a growing network of multiple schools:

Demographics do not determine destiny.

But it’s not just in the way that the school generates outlier academic outcomes that Vista College Prep demonstrates its core belief. It’s also in the way that the organization has balanced exemplary instructional practice with deep sensitivity to the needs of the communities it serves. It starts with the very special relationship that has formed between Julia and Vista College Prep Board Chair Charles Mitchell.

Here’s how Charles described his first meeting with Julia in a recent interview.

Demographics do not determine destiny. Whenever I hear that story [of the founding of Vista College Prep], I get goosebumps, because when Julia and I met that day, when she walked out of my office, I said whatever this young lady wants me to do, I am all-in.

When recently asked who have been the most influential people in her life, after citing her mother and father, Julia chose Charles …

When I think about where we could have gone in that very early stage and I mean there was no building.  There was nothing in that very first year. And when I think about the guidance and mentorship and the support that Charles has truly provided me personally – yes, the school and all the things for the school – but me personally, and knowing that he had my back … it would always bring me back to: This is possible.  We will make this work …. He is my first call for anything related to the school and I can’t even tell you how much that that means to me …. Charles is an incredible person.

Julia’s and Charles’s partnership is another example of the school’s core belief: demographics do not determine destiny. When relationships this trusting and committed can be formed across lines of demographic expectation as Julia’s and Charles’s clearly has, that is precisely when extraordinary accomplishments are catalyzed, like the founding of a charter school organization that has become broadly recognized to be, not just one of the strongest academic performers in the entire state of Arizona, but is also recognized for having an intimate understanding of the unique challenges that its school community faces, resulting, as Charles describes, in kids knowing that people “really care about them and what their prospects in life turn out to be.”

Finally, when it comes to living out the organization’s core belief, we would be remiss not to mention Julia’s relentless advocacy efforts on behalf of the school, and indeed on behalf of all charter schools. Coming to Vista College Prep with her background at the Governors Association, it was natural that Julia would bring her passion for policy to the work. That has led her to testify before the Arizona legislature …

… and to push for changes in state law that have resulted in high performing charter schools like Vista College Prep becoming able to access hundreds of millions of dollars in new facilities financing at rates that were not available previously.

At the heart of many policy wins for Arizona charter schools in recent years has been the strong respect and partnership that has grown between Julia and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. This is the governor during his State of the State speech in 2020.

When it comes to what’s next [in Arizona public education policy], we plan to focus our resources on the places it can make the most difference: Targeting the achievement gap in low-income schools. We’ve reduced waitlists and expanded and replicated success. In Maryvale, a new Vista College Prep is evidence. More than 90 percent of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The school is a recipient of the prestigious National Blue Ribbon award for closing the achievement gap. This is what equal opportunity in education looks like; this is what we need more of in the state of Arizona.

Pretty heady stuff.

But what makes it even more noteworthy?

The fact that it comes from a Republican governor speaking about a remarkable school whose leader started her charter school journey from the Democratic Governors Association, showing that even in this highly politically partisan world that we live in, at Vista College Prep, demographics – even political demographics – do not determine destiny. Bound by a shared belief that absolutely all kids can achieve at very high levels, coalitions that transcend political difference can come together in support of improved educational opportunity for all.

At the heart of all this progress is an extraordinary leader whose commitment to the belief that demographics do not determine destiny has made her a shining example of what the charter school movement is all about.

It’s why we couldn’t be happier than to recognize Julia Meyerson today as CharterFolk Extraordinaire.