CharterFolk X Vol 2.3 – Charvez Russell, Playing Every Role Necessary to Ensure that Parents and Communities Can Choose Better Options for Their Kids

Good day, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to recognize Charvez Russell, Executive Director of Friendship Academy of the Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as CharterFolk Extraordinaire.

Charvez hails from a long line of educators. Growing up in rural Mississippi, as he reported in a recent interview, he saw that his grandfather, his father, his aunts, his uncles and his cousins have all been deeply involved in education, playing virtually every vital role including school principal, teacher, custodian, bus driver and even high-ranking administrator in the state education department. So it was natural that when Charvez moved to Minnesota after getting his degree from Mississippi College, he was drawn to education as well, becoming a teacher in Minneapolis public schools.

Minneapolis is a city where public school performance has long been thought to be inconsistent, with some communities feeling well-served and others feeling that their kids were not getting the quality education they deserved. Belief that schools needed to improve has been particularly strong in the Black community. After the passage of Minnesota’s first-in-the-nation charter school law in 1991, many groups began to realize that working to found a charter school was one of the best ways to create improved educational opportunity for Black students. One such group was from the Powderhorn neighborhood in south Minneapolis and coalesced around a vision for creating a charter school that would hold higher expectations for students than those held by traditional public schools in the area. As school Co-Founder Wendy Hines explained it:

I worked as an accountant with a group that had a day care, and the kids came out of the day care flying high. And then they went into the public school system, and all of a sudden they were well ahead of their peers, but they were not well received …. What followed was a movement of parents …. who recognized that children were not getting what they needed in many instances from the public schools. So we started this quest to start a school where children could clearly thrive.

Thus was born Friendship Academy of the Arts …

… which opened as an elementary school serving 37 students.

In its early going, the school faced academic challenges but within a few years Friendship had become recognized to be one of the best public schools in Minnesota serving a high percentage of low-income students.

The school’s academic program always balanced high expectations for students and adults with a deep commitment to culturally sensitive project-based learning. A hallmark of the school became its annual “Wax Museum” where students study and impersonate famous figures from history …

… a project that has continued to this day and has become so well known that it has been adopted by many other public schools in the area.

In 2014, Charvez was named Executive Director of Friendship Academy. Bringing the full range of expertises he learned from family members growing up in Mississippi – from instruction, to operations, to deep community engagement, to interface with the highest ranking public education officials in the state – Charvez has helped lift Friendship up to whole new levels of success and impact. Two years after he arrived, the school was named a National Blue Ribbon School.

Two years after that, in response to requests from parents, the organization expanded into middle school grades. And two years after that, the organization broke ground on a new campus (right in the middle of the Covid pandemic, no less) …

… able to fully showcase the school’s entire program including its renowned focus on the arts.

Simultaneous to helping his school make great progress internally, Charvez has provided vital leadership in the broader community during a period of immense challenge. Friendship Academy is located just a mile and a half from the intersection where George Floyd was murdered.

Since Floyd’s death, Charvez has worked to bring together a diverse group of people to forge a shared path forward, including extensive engagement that Charvez has done in the faith community where he is also a leader.

“We don’t need saviors,” Charvez Russell, a Black Baptist pastor, told the group in June. “What we need are partners. … Yes, we need your help right now. Yes, we need your help cleaning up. Yes, we need your resources. But we also need long-term partners who are going to help us stand up for God and tear down the systems that hold people down.”

Charvez has also been playing a key leadership role at the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools where he serves on the Board of Directors.

A particular challenge for the charter school community in Minnesota over the past few years has been the advancement of a lawsuit meant to desegregate the state’s public schools …

… a suit that, if not decided carefully, could have terrible impact on schools like Friendship Academy. So it is requiring special ongoing attention from the association.

The threat that a highly successful school like Friendship – a school that was founded on parents’ awareness that the traditional public school system was failing their students – might be forced to send students back to that that very same system has required a strong response.

It has come as a surprise to no one that that response has been best-championed by Charvez Russell, the kind of leader who can give voice to an entire community.

Publishing op-eds …

… testifying before the legislature …

… and getting his whole school community involved by training the next generation of advocates.

The fight goes on. Minnesota’s courts are yet to rule on the desegregation case. However the case is ultimately decided, we know that the strongest argument in support of Black families having the right to determine where their kids go to school is the presence of outstanding schools like Friendship Academy led by extraordinary leaders like Charvez Russell who play whatever role is necessary to support his community, including giving voice to the hopes and desires of thousands of parents whose kids are better served by Minnesota charter schools.

It is why so many see Charvez Russell to be a shining example of what the charter school movement is all about, and it is why we could not be more honored than to recognize him today as CharterFolk Extraordinaire.