Lessons from the Field: How Charter Schools Can Become Neighborhood Schools

One of the criticisms of charter schools is that they come into a neighborhood and supplant the traditional school, without serving as a ballast of a neighborhood. “Schools are like churches around here,” a Newark mother once explained to me. “Our parents went there, we went there, and now our kids go there.”

KIPP New Jersey, with seven schools in Newark and one in Camden, is trying to change that model of disaffection.  Last week I chatted with Shennell Barnes McCloud, a lifelong Newark resident. Now she's  Director of Advocacy at KIPP NJ, and has developed a strategic plan that strives to strengthen parent engagement by offering opportunities for leadership, professional development, and community pride.

Shennell started her work last summer with a “listening campaign.” She met with groups of parents and heard about their desire to integrate charter schools into the fabric of the neighborhood, as well as their need, as she said, “to set themselves up personally for success.” They wanted a voice and they wanted empowerment.

Those visits with parents evolved into a KIPP-wide strategic plan to form Parent Partnership Teams, one for each school in Newark.  Parents were trained through KIPP’s new Parent Leadership Institute, and then those parents became teachers by offering that training to other parents. Currently, six schools have solid Parent Partnership Teams and two are still in development.

Shennell discovered that parents were most comfortable communicating on FaceBook, so now each Parent Partnership Team has its own Facebook page. Updates on community activities, seminars, and school news are posted daily. She said, “every day we’re able to post information for parents to make sure they know about all events...and so that we can quickly respond to the needs of parents.”

Parents were also eager to meet their own professional needs, so KIPP NJ is in the process of creating Parent Resource Stations in each school so that parents can get assistance in job-hunting and resume development. These Stations will be fully operational next month. KIPP will also offer financial seminars for parents and community members. . Current topics include setting up household budgets and saving for college.

The ambitions of this strategic plan go beyond KIPP's neighborhood charter schools, with plans to spread  these opportunities for parent engagement and empowerment throughout the city. “Our parents want to be active,” Shennell said. “They want their voices strengthened. This infrastructure allows parents to fully engage and make sure their voices are heard on both the school and the civic level.”

She continued, “Our schools initially were schools within the community but not really community schools. But now we’re able to say that we’re not just here because we have a facility but because we’re addressing the needs of community members. Parents from all levels are speaking out and growing as leaders….This is an important watershed moment for charters in this state.”

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