May 16, 2014

Simmons Lettre, Charter Board Partners

I had the great honor to listen to Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative speak at last week’s NewSchools Summit. Bryan is an attorney who has dedicated his life to not only ensuring equal justice to those who have been written off by their community, but to helping this country consider how we can truly work together across racial, socioeconomic, and geographical lines to ensure that we all reach our greatest potential and support each other along the way.

Bryan stressed the notion of proximity: “In order to truly be transformative, we must get close.” At the time I thought to myself—yes, I’m close. I work on behalf of urban students every day. I chair the board at Capital City Public Charter School. Check that box. Go, me.

As he kept talking, I realized that in fact, while I’m in proximity’s shadow, I’m not close enough. I talk with my school leader every week and we cover finances, governance, strategy, academic results. But I only visit classrooms at Capital City a few times a year. I have not spent a full day at school. I have heard our amazing students speak truth to power publically, but I have not recently made a personal effort to engage.

As charter school board members, we need to heed Bryan’s call for proximity. We need to get closer. We need to find the right way to spend time in classrooms. We need to learn about the true challenges and successes teachers face, and be more proximate to what our school leader has to do to ensure magic happens each day. We need to know our students, understand their stories, and have our own stories about the families, students, and culture at our school—we need to know the way school IS at our school.

As board members, we need to make sure that we are fully engaging our parent board members (every charter school board in DC is required by law to have at least two parents of current students on the board at all times). Too many times I see boards where everyone speaks but the parent members, who bring a critical perspective to the work of the board. We need to ask ourselves why that is happening, and we need to fix it. 

I know we ask a lot of you who serve on charter school boards. Make hard decisions that impact the lives of the students you are serving. Spend time in committees, as a full board, and at school events. Come to Charter Board Partners’ trainings and events. And now I’m asking even more—proximity. I’m not advising you to make promises to parents, to tell teachers what to do, or to roll up your sleeves and teach students. I’m taking a page from the incredibly inspirational Bryan Stevenson and asking you to listen to those in your care. Know their stories. Make sure you are making decisions with those voices at the forefront.

And of course I have one more ask. If you have time, watch this. I mean really watch it. It will push your thinking. I’d love to hear how.

– Note from NewSchools –

Sadly, we have no rights to the video of Bryan Stevenson’s extraordinary speech. We encourage you to watch his TED talk to get a sense of his message and work. 

You can view the rest of NewSchools Summit 2014 Sessions on our Vimeo page.

At Summit we started a conversation centered on social justice and the importance of diversifying education leadership. We asked those of you who were in the room to commit to making diversity a priority and 205 organizations did so right then and there! Go here to keep that conversation going.

You can view Simmons’ original post on the Charter Board Partners blog.