Sometimes Getting in the Game is More Courtship than Combat

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Good morning, CharterFolk.

We are coming down to crunch time for Biden’s announcement for US Secretary of Education nominee.  I hope all of you will take a minute to sign Margaret Fortune’s petition opposing Lily Eskelsen Garcia for that role.

I have written previously about the existential risk that Garcia would pose to our movement as Secretary. Margaret’s petition is a great way to register our opposition.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

Among the more memorable calls I’ve gotten in my days working in charter schools came from one of my closest high school friends. Trent cut straight to the point.

“Dude, what have you done to my wife?”

Whereupon he went on to explain that ever since Gisele had gone to a Summer Institute at High Tech High and returned to their hometown of Durango, Colorado committed to making a charter school, they had become town pariahs.

“We can’t even go to the coffee shop without people accosting us about her damn charter school!”

Pariah or not, one way or another, Animas High School opened in 2009.

Mountain Middle followed soon thereafter.

In the beginning, Gisele and the group of founders had to put up with all the usual accusations, like they were siphoning dollars away from traditional public schools.

It forced Gisele to become an advocate, penning op-eds in the local paper.

Within a few years, though, when the school’s first graduating class secured admissions to colleges and universities including Stanford, Brown, Amherst and others …

… most of the resistance subsided. As the article says …

Initially antagonistic relations with Durango School District 9-R have transformed, with Animas finding a firm friend this year in Superintendent Daniel Snowberger.

Now it’s a place that is claimed with pride across the community.

A year ago, Trent hosted a reunion of high school friends in Durango. Gisele took me by to see Animas where I had a chance to meet Sean Woytek, the Head of School.

I came away impressed by everything I saw there. As far as measuring up to a true commitment to project-based-learning High Tech High style, it’s hard to find a place that surpasses Animas.

But if there is one thing that is definitely not High Tech High about the place, it’s the school’s facility.

It’s ironic because I know that when Gisele and her group met with Larry in San Diego at that Summer Institute all those years ago, they would have heard his mantra:

If you want to make a High Tech High like school, first you have to get a building.

Well, that wasn’t something they were going to be able to pull off in the early going in Durango, so they started in a strip mall.

This article’s description of the Animas school community finding ways to make things work in that original facility is classic:

Perhaps the strongest indication of the barracks-forged camaraderie that Animas seniors enjoy is their ardent affection for their unusual school building …. Walking through the school in its current incarnation – a former strip mall facing the highway – can feel like walking through a three-dimensional crossword puzzle where every word space is far too short for the necessary letters …. During a recent calculus class, the problems the students were doing seemed less daunting than figuring out how any more people could fit in the room.

Eventually they got themselves out of the strip mall, but the temporaries I saw them in last fall were still woefully inadequate. I asked Sean and Gisele what their game plan was.

I would describe their answer as “getting in the game.”

By that I mean, the advocacy game, the politics game.

It started with their application for a state facilities grant, something they had failed at repeatedly, but they felt like they’d gotten smarter at it and had a better chance this time. A few months later this decision came out.

Which helped massively, but which still left a multi-million dollar hole.

The rest would have to come from local bond dollars, but, in Colorado, a state-authorized charter school had never been included in a local facilities bond before. That didn’t stop Sean. He’d been laying the groundwork for years. In a development he called “a first date,” the local school district had included Animas in a local mill levy in 2015. After five more years of outreach and courtship, and after five more years of the area’s three charter schools building enrollments large enough to make their school communities a collective force at the ballot box, the time had come to pop the question.

Would the district include them in the upcoming bond?

The district’s answer was a game-changer.

Which led the charter school community in Durango to go full-in behind the bond. As Sean described it, “the charter school community became the driving force engaging voters before the election.”

It led to this result …

… two state-authorized charter schools and one locally authorized school securing $2.5M each in facilities bond funding, a first for the State of Colorado.

CharterFolk, sometimes “getting in the game” involves more courtship than combat. Sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing your own heft, building relationships, and knowing what to ask for.

There are still many hurdles to get over before Animas finally has its permanent home, but Sean’s confident enough to have already invited me to the ribbon cutting scheduled for September of 2022.

It will give me the chance to celebrate a great breakthrough, one I hope many other charter schools in Colorado and across the nation will emulate.

And it will give me a chance to enjoy a cup of coffee with Trent and Gisele, savoring the flavor of no longer being a pariah.

I will also delight in finally being able to answer the question, “Dude what have you done to my wife?”

My answer will be that I have done nothing but watch with admiration as Gisele Pansze has become a shining example of CharterFolk getting in the game.