By Reily Connaughton, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Master of Public Policy, Class of 2018
In 2016, Massachusetts education advocates were divided over a ballot question that would have lifted the cap on the number of charter schools sanctioned by the Commonwealth. Throughout the campaign many voters and organizers became disillusioned with the level of debate.
The truth was stretched, allies were turned against each other, and entire schools were looked down upon. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the election, the divide has remained and politics continue to plague discussions around the best way to educate our children.
In this environment, I believe it’s important for young people to share their stories to dispel harmful, and unproductive myths that are used to create a one-sided narrative. A narrative that in no way represents my own experience at a charter school.
Earlier this month, I graduated from the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy with my masters degree, and I firmly believe that my high school, the Foxborough Regional Charter School (FRCS), prepared me for that journey better than my traditional district school could have.
There were three ways in which FRCS uniquely prepared me:
First, FRCS maintained a culture of achievement that challenged students and brought out the best in me and many of my peers. Teachers would be given time at assemblies to explain the higher-level courses and discuss why taking AP classes was so critical to furthering your academic career.
The smaller teacher-to-student ratio gave them the opportunity to learn our strengths and weaknesses on a case by case basis and helped guide us. I was a relatively average student in middle school, and without this mentoring, I most likely would not have engaged with AP courses, which I believe best prepared me for my UMass undergraduate career.
The focus on college prep and empowering of teachers to take on the role of individual mentor (especially in the higher-level courses) was meaningful, and effective. I saw first-hand the impact it had on my class and the years before and after me.
My peers and I were also exposed to another key, and unique part of the curriculum at FRCS. From kindergarten through senior year every student is required to take a Spanish language class.
By the time of graduation many students are fluent in the language, have taken the highest-level courses available, and have been involved in the Spanish National Honors Society. Students who don’t perform at those levels still leave the school with a degree of understanding that will help them interact with a diverse community, increase job prospects, and test out of lower level Spanish courses in college.
The curriculum at FRCS also emphasizes the teaching of Hispanic and Latino cultures around the world. In a country where the Spanish-speaking population is the second-fastest-growing racial group, it is imperative that students are well-versed in the language and the culture.
Lastly, but most importantly, Foxborough is a vastly white, mostly upper-middle class suburban town. Many surrounding traditional district schools, including the school system I would have been in had I not enrolled at FRCS, follow those some demographic patterns.
But FRCS does not. As of 2017, the student body is 42.1% African American, 37.2% white, 10.2% Asian American, 5.2 % multi-race, and 4.9% Hispanic. In recent years, the enrollment of English Language Learners has increased by 177%, and the number of low-income students has increased by 87%. In both categories, FRCS matches or exceeds all local districts.
The incredible diversity at the Foxborough Regional Charter School is one of its biggest strengths. It gives students, and gave me, unparalleled exposure to communities and cultures outside of their own. And in the 21st century, where we know diverse groups of people make better decisions than homogeneous ones, it’s an economic imperative that students have the skills to work within diverse teams.
In these times, when leaders (like those in the White House) are trying to sever the ties in the social fabric between different races in America, I can’t think of a more important background for a student to have.
I often hear about the mistakes and problems that exist at some charter schools, but I rarely hear the uplifting stories that mirror my own experience. I attended a charter school that held me to ambitious standards, helped me partner with my community, exposed me to diverse groups and ways of thinking, and gave me the skill set to achieve my MPP in five years.
Despite what some would have you believe, there’s a lot to learn from the FRCS model, and I’m thankful every day for the perspective and opportunities that my school gave me.