I wish I could say being raised by two military parents and joining the military myself prepared me for the unique position I was faced with when the coronavirus pandemic forced our schools to close. Or that I drew on the adversity I overcame growing up as a Black teenaged girl in Germany.
I can’t even say my experiences as a first-year teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, one of the toughest in the nation, prepared me to mitigate the educational and socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic for students at Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte.
When I look back at these past seven months, what I credit for strategically guiding my staff and students through this uncharted territory is actually the foundation upon which this innovative public school was built.
What defines a charter school is the idea of providing access for every student to an excellent education, the idea of personalized learning, and the idea of meeting the unique needs of students. For my school community, which is composed of 90% Black students, many of whom come from low-income families, the need to deliver a high-quality public education is urgent. Our students cannot afford to lose one more day of learning—their futures depend on it.
Already one month into this school year, our community at Sugar Creek Charter School is functioning no differently than the start of every school year, albeit virtually. Our students receive five hours of live instruction, group activities, and extra one-on-one support every day. Working with my teachers, we were able to incorporate extracurricular activities for our high school students to participate in virtually, as well as lunch-and-learn workshops with local leaders, including entrepreneurs.
But this didn’t happen overnight. When Gov. Cooper announced school closures in the middle of March, we had only two days to ensure our students wouldn’t miss any instruction. My main concerns were providing the educational and physical needs of our students who are already burdened as Black and Brown children from low-income families. My staff and I immediately started reaching out to our local elected officials and business leaders to find ways to provide all our students with access to Chromebooks, iPads, and portable Wi-Fi hot spots.
The next step was to ensure we equipped our teachers with the technology and training they needed under such short notice. We set aside a few hours and practiced with each other and did our best to troubleshoot technical matters. We also called and held a virtual meeting with our families to walk them through how this instruction would look.
But it wasn’t just the instructional needs we needed to meet. We needed to make sure we could soften the blow the coronavirus pandemic would ultimately sideline our families with. We hired extra guidance counselors and social workers to provide support for both our students and their parents. We also made regular phone calls and text messages as ways to conduct wellness checks.
Meal delivery for our McKinney-Vento group of students was never interrupted. Our social workers continue to personally deliver these daily meals, and we began including extra food for the weekend. This also gives our social workers an opportunity to personally ensure these students are doing well physically and emotionally and have the resources they need to log in and complete their assignments.
The pandemic has tragically underscored our nation’s educational inequities. It has also allowed charter schools like Sugar Creek to shine because of the ways we are positioned to expand the role of school into one that serves not only our students but the needs of the broader community.
The way Sugar Creek Charter School has been able to use our flexible and autonomous school model to pivot quickly and meet the needs of our majority Black student population is just one of the reasons why the Black community overwhelmingly supports charter schools. In fact, according to a 2020 poll by the American Federation for Children, 62% of the Black community surveyed confirmed they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who aims to eliminate all federal public charter school funding.
With so much uncertainty that lies ahead this school year, there are still a few things I’m sure of. I am a Black woman, a veteran and an educator committed to the vision that every child deserves access to a high-quality school. Through this lens, the pandemic has only emboldened my support for charter schools and the belief that we need more of them. And finally, I vote.
Cheryl Turner is the superintendent of Sugar Creek Charter School in northeast Charlotte.
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