Kevin: If I've learned one thing during the pandemic, it is that our communities are more important than ever. Even in isolation, we relied on family, neighbors, local workers, and professionals to see us through our darkest days. And it made me wonder about our school communities.
I want to know how school leaders are building and leveraging communities to support all their students in good times and in bad. I want to know more. I want to know if schools with strong communities fared better during the pandemic than those without and are there lessons we can learn to develop stronger partnerships moving forward. This is "What I Want to Know."
To learn more about how strong school communities are conceived, built, and maintained throughout time, I'm happy to be joined by the founder of Achievement Prep, Shantelle Wright, and the CEO of The Oaks Academy, Andrew Hart. Shantelle Wright is the founder of Achievement Prep, a network of charter schools founded in 2007 and located in Southeast Washington, D.C. Since then, the school has won awards and been recognized for closing the achievement gap for low-income students. Prior to Achievement Prep, Shantelle practiced commercial real estate law. She's a graduate of Hampton University and the George Washington University School of Law. Shantelle, thank you so much for joining this show. I have so much respect for you, and, you know, we want people to hear from great school leaders, and you're an amazing school leader, so thanks so much for joining.
Shantelle: Thank you for having me. You know, Kevin, I appreciate you. You set the foundation for us, so just trying to keep it going.
Kevin: There's a lot I want to unpack, but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about your background. And, you know, you were a successful lawyer, but before that, you had some dreams you wanted to achieve. Talk about how you grew up and what led you to moving from a legal practice to starting a charter school.
Shantelle: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, honestly, this is all homage to my mom. So I grew up in Rochester, New York. Single mom. Very much so like the scholars we serve. We didn't have much, but for my mom, education really was the greatest equalizer. I always grew up saying I wanted to be a lawyer. So not to date myself, but at the time, the show "L.A. Law" was out, and I was like, "That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to know my rights. When the police pull me over, I'm going to know what they can and can't do."
And so, you know, when I grew up, the real ways of making money were you either were a doctor or lawyer. There wasn't this Silicon Valley, Google, Facebook, all of that. When I said I wanted to be a lawyer, my mom said, "Good, that'll be money. That's good. That's a good career." And so my freshman year, I had to do work-study because I didn't have much, and my work-study actually put me at a preschool. And I said, "Oh, my goodness, I want to do this. I love this. I love working with these children." And I remember freshman year, Kevin, I told my mom. I said, "Mom, I know what I want to do." And she said, "What?" I said, "I want to be a teacher," and literally, to quote, my mom said, "Teachers don't make no money. You're going to law school."
And so I grew up in a time where you did what your parents told you to do. And so I went to law school, which is how I ended up in D.C., and I went to George Washington University. Very expensive school.
Kevin: The most expensive college in America.
Shantelle: Is it?
Kevin: People don't know that. All the great colleges, George Washington University is the most expensive college. The four-year program [crosstalk 00:04:29] in the country.
Shantelle: Yeah, yeah. Well, the law school wasn't far behind, I'll tell you that. That's why I went to law school. But I was always tutoring. I was always mentoring. I was always working with some children. And I got to the sixth year in a law firm, and you got to decide, are you going to go for the partner track?
Kevin: Go for partner.
Shantelle: Yeah. It's what you do. There was really this dichotomy—do I make money or do I do a life of service? And while I wanted to do a life of service, I couldn't afford to, but I spent six years making good money. And I said, "You know what? The partner is not what I want to do." I was always, you know, mentoring. I was mentoring at a local charter school. I didn't even know what a charter school was, but we were mentoring in Southeast D.C. and I said, "You know what? I'm going to actually take this leap of faith." Now, you know, my mother wasn't happy. My ex-husband at the time was an educator. She thought he had put me on drugs or something because, when you grow up in a black community and you're poor, you don't work to do what you want to do. You work to make money.
And so that's how I ended up in the movement. And when I did, I think I was shocked at the amount of bureaucracy in education honestly. Those looking at education from the outside look at it with rose-colored glasses, and you think that the center of attention is children. And there were more adult issues happening in anything I've ever seen. And so I thought, "You know what? I'm a lawyer. Let me study this charter school thing. What is it?" And then I had the audacity to think, "I can open up a school."
Kevin: Well, and that's about the time we met. I'll never forget. You were doing your research. You came, and I was still in office then. And we met and you talked about your vision. From the very beginning, even when you built your board, it was clear that you were on a mission. So you started this school, and you started it in Southeast D.C. Now, I think Americans... You talk about rose-colored glasses. I have to say this, Shantelle, that two-thirds of American high school graduates are neither career nor college-ready. That means they don't graduate in grade level, two-thirds, and that's according to Department of Education's statistics. All American school-age students, two-thirds are neither career nor college-ready.
But when it comes to kids of color, it's even more stark. In part of the area I represented and where you started your school years ago, there were incredible deficits. You've gone through the process, getting all your permitting, getting the charter, going through the bureaucracy to get going, when did it hit you after you opened your doors how big a hill you need to climb for those kids?
Shantelle: So often school leaders, and I think this is the mistake that happens a lot of times, is you think the work is the bureaucratic stuff. You think the work is getting approved. You think the work is getting past the political statements and all of that. The work is really getting the community to embrace you and understand you. The work is really talking to people who have been in these communities, and have done this work, and understand what's happening.
And so for me, the bureaucratic part was the easy part. I was a lawyer. I could figure out what form I needed and what my rights were. But the real work was, how do I really attack the problem I'm trying to solve, right? Because when I started, part of the research was doing a needs assessment, and we were talking, at the time, single-digit proficiency in that area. Like, literally, where a school could be filled with 300 children and less than 30 are proficient and grade level, and I thought, "This is crazy." And I will tell you originally I wanted to open up an elementary school and I said, if I was honest, I was like, "Because it's easier for me as the adult, they're fresher. It's like Play-Doh. You don't have to work through anything," but the need in that community was hitting those middle school scholars. It was getting them before we lost them.
Kevin: I'm often amazed when these superintendents have their reform plan, three to five-year plan, or school leaders have their plan. They always put the community engagement, the parent outreach piece at the bottom. And they do it unwittingly. They're well intentioned, but they say, "Well, I want to make sure we've the right curriculum. I want to make sure we do the teacher preparation and improve teacher training. I want to make sure that we have our systems in place." And they have this list of things, but I'm amazed at how frequently the engagement in the community is at the bottom so much so that, as you go through your priority checklist, you know things at the bottom often get short shrift, and you led with that. And how important was that? In fact, you started this three-generational piece. Talk a little bit about that.
Shantelle: With three-generational work, we talk about that a lot at our organization, and what that means and the belief is, if we change the life of our scholars, it will in turn change the life of their parents, and it will change the life of their future children. That is what the work is about, and I am living example of that. Because I got the education that I did and had the opportunity that I did, I'm able to take care of my mother in a completely different way. My boys live a completely different life, you know, than what I grew up with and what I was exposed to. And so understanding that obligation of generational change that would happen through this school, you can't do that without engaging the community.
And this is where folks said to me like how did we start off so strong. What I know is that if you get people to believe in our community, believe that what we're talking about is possible, support them to do what's possible, you can put any curriculum you want in front of them. You can put any hurdle you want in front of them, and they will soar. But if you don't do that work, then you've got a lot of pretty plans. You've got a lot of great things, but you can't get the results because you haven't done the work of building those relationships. And one of the things that frustrates me so is that we assume that people who are in poverty, or people who have a lack of opportunity don't know what they need. We've got to come in and tell them, right? We've got to come in and say, "This is the type of school you need. This is the type of program you need," as if somehow poverty has just, you know, made you blind to what it is that you know you need in your household or what your child needs because you don't have opportunity.
And for me it was just the opposite. So everyone, the first five years of our existence, if you went to Achievement Prep, I sat on your couch. And if you didn't want me to sit on your couch, we met at the grocery store, we met at the library, because it was important for me to know what you've been through, what is it that you want for your child, what is it that you are seeking, even for yourself as an advocate for your child, what does that mean, what have you gone through within this community that we are going to face, because in essence, schools are parents from whatever time your school day starts to whatever time your school day ends.
Kevin: When you talk about the savior mentality, which I think has really hurt the ed reform movement and the charter movement, where folks come into these communities and say, "Look, we know what's best for you," I call them drive-by educators, and they put that parent piece at the bottom of that list of priorities. And as I said, you did the hard work in engaging community, but I want to go back because even when you do the hard work, there's still that built-in suspicion. It takes consistency. It takes time. Can you think of any examples where you had to overcome that suspicion and it ultimately worked out?
Shantelle: You know, families said to me all the time, "But we've heard this before. We've been here before. Charters have come and gone," or, "This school has come and gone." And I said, "Okay." I said, "Well, we're going to be here. Like, this is not a temporary facility. We're going to actually invest in this community." So I don't know how and why people gave me money, but they gave me money to build out this beautiful, you know, campus and facility and investing in there.
But I think about times where I said, "You know, I'm going to be available to you. If you have something, you have a concern, you'll be able to call me." And people said, "Okay. Yep, sure. So will I call the main office?" I said, "No, you call my cellphone." And I remember one time [inaudible 00:12:25]. She was like, "Okay, can I call your cellphone?" I said, "Yep." And I said, "Here's my number." She was like, "Okay." Literally, I saw her walk to the corner and then dial the number to see if it was really me. And I said, "Yes, Ma." She was like, "Oh, I just wanted to make sure that this was really your real number," you know? Like, when you get back with your date and they're like, "Is this really your phone number?" I said, "It absolutely is my phone number." And I said, "I'm going to be here every morning when you drop your child off, and I'm going to be here in the afternoon." I ran a school where it was people-first, paper-second.
Kevin: And I don't want people to be misled. I mean, this approach that you took, it bore fruit. You are one of the most incredibly successful school leaders in the country particularly with the population of students you serve and the deficits they had coming in. Many, as you alluded to, you know, were 5%, 10% proficiency level, two or three grades behind. D.C., as it happens to be the case, is one of the toughest jurisdictions on charter school oversight. Many charter schools lose their charter because of poor academic performance. They grouped the D.C. charters into various tiers. Tier 1 status are the highest achievement charter schools in D.C. For the population you serve and the size of your school and you weren't part of a national network like KIPP, or Imagine, or BASIS, you were a Tier 1 charter school which meant that you received and achieved some of the most profound and striking results for some of the most challenged population of students. How much of that would you attribute to that overall approach we've talked about?
Shantelle: I attribute 99% of that honestly, Kevin, to the school culture and the community that we created. We intentionally did the work of meeting our scholars' needs, helping them to believe and know who they are, so that they could believe that what we were putting in front of them was something that they could succeed and that they could do. We had to do and schools continue to have to do in 9 months what should have happened for a child in 2 to 3 years. And so how do you do that without blaming the child, without blaming the parent, without blaming the circumstances?
In my mind, schools are hospitals. Every time a child walks in, we decide what goes in and out of their brain. We decide how smart they will get in our care and without our care, and just like when you walk into a hospital, yes, they take into consideration all the contributing factors, but they have got to serve you and heal you. That is how we approach school. All of those factors are very important but they are in front of us now. They are our patients. They are who we are responsible for. We must heal and serve them.
We approached it in that way, and so much of it was about what we said to scholars on a daily basis, telling them that they're brilliant even when the test scores don't necessarily show and say that, helping them to see and track their progress, right, because so often, when I am two and three grades behind, moving up one grade doesn't really mean anything on the test. But we said here moving up means something. So if you did that, then you can definitely do this.
Kevin: Growth matters.
Shantelle: Right, it matters. It matters tremendously. And every time we underestimate that, it takes away from a child even feeling like what you're asking them to do they can attain.
Kevin: So, Shantelle, I have one last question. This is what I really want to know. What tips can you share for aspiring school leaders on how to build and maintain a vibrant school community?
Shantelle: Yeah. I would say the first thing that I'm going to say is you need to talk to the community. If you are afraid of the community that you're going to, then find another community. And then when you go, you need to find the mayor of that community because every community has somebody who has the intel and...
Kevin: The unelected mayor.
Shantelle: Yes. Let me be clear. See, that's what I've said. Those of you who've been in the hood, you know there is an unelected mayor of every neighborhood. There is somebody, and it's usually a black woman who has all the information and the detail. Go and talk to them but just as important internally think about the culture that you want to create. Think about what your outcome is, and think about how you bring the scholars and the families along in creating that reality. Don't assume that you know. Don't assume that poverty and lack of opportunity mean that folks don't know what they need because they do. They do. You just got to talk to them.
Kevin: Yeah. Shantelle, as always, it's great being with you. Thanks so much for joining.
Shantelle: Thank you for having me, Kevin, and you keep doing the great work you're doing. Whenever you need me, I'm here.
Kevin: Thank you.
Shantelle: Thank you.
Kevin: Andrew Hart is the chief executive officer and former head of school of The Oaks Academy, a private school in Indianapolis. The Oaks is a nationally recognized model of diversity, community renewal, and academic success. Andrew also developed Herron High School, a charter school also in Indianapolis. Andrew started his career working in marketing and business development at Eli Lilly. He also taught in Romania at the University of Bucharest.
Andrew, welcome to the show. I am so excited to have you on. You run, as I've told you before, one of the best schools I've seen in America. But before we talk about The Oaks Academy and how you got there, let's talk about you. You've had such an interesting career—politics, education, business, an executive at Eli Lilly. What led you to settle into this education world?
Andrew: Way back to undergrad, I mean, I thought, "Boy, I'd love to find myself in the classroom." And I thought, "This is where the action is, is working with young people." I just thought it was a matter of time. And so it took me a while. It was rather circuitous, but I finally found my way through Indianapolis, arrived here after finishing a graduate degree, and was working at Eli Lilly as you said in a business development role, marketing, and was introduced to The Oaks through one of the founders. He and I were actually on a flight together, and he kind of nudged me gently and said, "You know, we're starting a school. You should get involved." Well, when your supervisor says get involved in a school or to do anything, you say, "Yes, sir. Kinda how high?" I said, "I'll come by."
And so my wife and I, this is before we had children, on a bleary and you know how...
Kevin: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: ...January is in Indianapolis, I drove up to The Oaks Academy, our first campus, in a neighborhood that I could only describe as vacant. And we drove up to the school and my wife looked at me as if to say, "What on Earth are we doing here?" And I said, "Just trust me. Let's go find out what's going on." So we walk in the door and begin to meet some of the families, some of the founders. The school was founded in '98. I can say it was nothing short of a moment of conversion where I thought, "Okay, this is what I want to do. I want to get involved in this school in some way." I knew by the passion of the people that I was meeting, by their vision not only for the children that were in that school but also for the larger community, it was compelling, and I stepped in and have been serving in a leadership role at The Oaks since. So it's now been coming on 20 years.
Kevin: So where was the campus located when you first went there, that January in 2000?
Andrew: It's located where our first campus is currently located at 23rd in Park in a neighborhood that is now identified as Fall Creek. That's a relatively new name that's been assigned but interestingly as you and I have talked about in the past, historically a very significant neighborhood for many, many reasons.
Kevin: And I've written about that.
Andrew: You have. One of the reasons is because, on a fateful night, April 4th, 1968, the day that Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Robert Kennedy arrived in our city, and despite all warnings against making an appearance just two blocks south of us, he stood on a platform. The sheriff was saying, "Don't do it. You're going to be in personal danger." He just announced his run for president. He made a speech that has now become renowned. In fact, some people call it the greatest speech he ever gave—spontaneously called for the healing of our racial divide, and the healing of America, called on Americans to pray for peace. And that was just a couple blocks south in what is now called Kennedy King Park. And that's where our first school was started back in '98.
Kevin: And as you know, I grew up in Indianapolis, and on that fateful night, my mother, who used to take us to marches and the like, carted us down to see what she told me at the time I was a young boy, 10 or 11. She said, "I want you to go hear the next president of the United States." Little did we know during that cold, rainy... It was a misty rain. It wasn't full rain. He announced to us that Dr. King had been killed. Everyone was crying. And what was interesting about the power of his speech, his spontaneous remarks was there were 30 American cities that burned that night, and Indianapolis did not because, when we went back home, my father who was a pharmacist had come home from work, they kept running his speech over and over again on the news. Indianapolis is the only city that didn't burn.
When I visit The Oaks and I talk to families at The Oaks, I said the irony of that school that you run, Andrew, and the community that you've built, the irony is that it encapsulated the Kennedy King dream in a neighborhood that many had given up on. And I want to talk about how you built that... not just you but how the folks involved with The Oaks built this collaborative community where people are aligned across racial and socioeconomic lines in ways you just generally don't see.
Andrew: From the beginning, this was the vision of The Oaks, to restore a place where we could be in a relationship with one another, where we would have a shared vision around our own children, around their future, wanting them to have a future better than our own where there would be a greater spirit of unity. Everyone knew that it would be hard, that we would be pressing into hard issues, courageous conversations. And we knew that from the beginning. I wasn't there at the very beginning but that has continued to this day even as we have grown. It hasn't gotten any easier. This little group, 53 children, committed faculty, committed leadership, committed donor community came around this idea and said, "Let's give it a go."
And so that was the spark. In the first four years, we had four different school leaders. Just to give you a sense of the challenges that we're dealing with, we had several attempts to burn the building down, several arson attempts, all kinds of graffiti. But interestingly because the particular neighborhood where the school was started was pretty much gang-run, and we admitted children of gang members. They had some unspoken, even unacknowledged solidarity with the school. And so there was never any crime around the school despite what I mentioned, and that was actually, we were told, a gang initiative right. Even today remarkably. You know, our second campus is on the Near Eastside in the Brookside neighborhood, which is a neighborhood that is very challenged in many ways and have had the highest crime rate in Indianapolis, that zip code. We've had very, very limited, if any, crime around our schools.
So, you know, there was this, sort of, sense that I think we're doing good work and it should receive the support of the community, even if the community were dealing pharmaceuticals of an altogether different nature. If you look at our alumni and the families they've come around, I think it's paying off.
Kevin: How do you deal with and how do you teachers deal with complicated divisive issues of the day? We're in a highly charged political world. How do your teachers and how does your staff, when you have such a diverse community, how do you deal with those issues that can often divide even grade school communities?
Andrew: That's the $1 million question for us as a school that's almost premised on division. The divisions in our school are easy to identify when you walk in the door. You just look to see who's there, and you can assume that this is representative of a community where the divisions are just waiting to explode into view. We have a faculty who are humble, yes, but recognize that they don't have the answers to all of my life's questions nor do they have a monopoly on the truth necessarily. And so they're working with those within their parent community, within that one classroom, people who fall on the extremes and in the middle, too.
And we are seeking in those who are leading and influencing our students, those who can appreciate that their job is to be reconcilers. Their job is to be bridge builders, and it is not to plant flags and make charged speeches that are on particular social issues that divide us. I mean, it seems like any week we could choose a new issue that emerges that we could, kind of, hammer away at and force people to decide. And, you know, we just choose not to do that.
Kevin: So Andrew, this is my last question. This is what I really want to know. What advice would you give to aspiring school leaders who want to build a nurturing school community and they are grappling with issues like equity challenges? How would you advise them to build the communities in the way you have at The Oaks?
Andrew: Yeah, because I do meet with lots of school leaders who are wanting to start schools like The Oaks or wanting to build some aspect of The Oaks into their cultures. You know, if you walk down our halls, you'll meet lots of people who've been at this work at The Oaks for 15, 20, 23 years since the very start who are still working at it, feel like they know nothing more than they did when we first started. And so what does that reflect? I'll say it again. It reflects the spirit of humility, and that's, I think, a starting point for school leaders is starting from a place of humility because that, for a parent, especially given my tenure at The Oaks, it's really endearing for parents. And I think that draws in parents and allows them to trust us such that we can be in relationship with them.
The second thing which is related to that is to be very attentive to work out conflict and to work through conflict courageously but to allow tensions to exist in our schools. Like, for instance, our schools, we have all kinds of tensions built into our schools. So it's world-class education on a shoestring budget basically. That is a tension that we just have to live with. You know, we have racial tension in our school. That's just the reality and so we can live with that, but let's work through conflict and let's make sure that conflict is resolved to the point of reconciliation. So conflict can be the end of a school community, can really bring down a healthy school culture if it's not attended to carefully and often quickly. You see it spring up gossip in the pickup line, and that happens on every level at every type of school. And that needs to be addressed.
Kevin: Well, Andrew, I appreciate all that you do for our kids, and thank you for joining us.
Andrew: It's a privilege. Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: All right. Be well.
Andrew: Thank you. You, too.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also, encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Shantelle Wright is the founder and CEO of Achievement Prep, a network of charter schools located in Southeast, Washington DC. Since its formation in 2007, the school network has received numerous awards and is recognized for closing the achievement gap for low-income students.
Prior to her work with Achievement Prep, Shantelle practiced commercial real estate law. She is a graduate of Hampton University and the George Washington University School of Law.
Andrew Hart is the CEO and former head of school of The Oaks Academy, a private faith-based school in Indianapolis that is nationally recognized as a model of diversity, community renewal, and academic success. Andrew also developed Herron High School, a charter school in Indianapolis.
Andrew started his career working in marketing and business development at Eli Lilly and Company. He also taught in Romania at the University of Bucharest. He is a graduate of Washington and Lee University and holds a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.