It’s difficult to imagine teachers and their spouses mortgaging their homes and using their savings to fund a school facility, but it happened in the 1990s during the first wave of public charter schools to open in the state.
Although the General Assembly passed a law allowing the innovative and creative public schools to exist, legislators refused to provide a penny in funding to help the fledging campuses obtain facilities. Seven local teachers put up their houses and nest eggs as collateral for seed funding at a school that would start as K-5 and then add grades as enrollment and demand grew. The bold move paid off for those vested in a better education for children. It set the tone for risk-taking educational experiences at Francine Delany New School for Children in Asheville.
Located on a wooded four-acre neighborhood campus, the 160 students in grades K-8 attend the public charter school. It has no principals or administrators. It is run by the teachers. Among the student body, 44 percent qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, and 25 percent live in circumstances that fall below the poverty level.
Francine Delany, a local icon and the namesake of the school, would be proud. She was a trailblazer, the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1966. From that point forward, Delany became a public school educator and administrator who worked tirelessly to help younger generations.
Delany also invested her life promoting public school reform, including the novel idea of charter schools. She worked with local educators in the hope of creating a charter school that would give teachers great autonomy. She passed away in 1992 and did not live to see the dreams of innovation in the form of public charter schools come to fruition.
When the school opened in 1997, the founders decided to honor Delany by naming the school after her.
FDNSC prides itself in offering creative teaching techniques designed to produce self-learners with both critical and creative thinking skills. Learning is taught hands-on at the school. Children go on service trips to work at a food bank, packing bags to help students in poverty. They use no textbooks. Each class has its own library and the students have a proven track record of reading one novel a week.
Second grader Maddy Andrews reads well above her grade level, and to her reading is an adventure rather than a chore. Her mother Emily co-chairs the parent-teacher organization and has invested her heart and soul in the school. She feels “lucky” that her daughter was picked from the long waitlist and subsequent lottery.
“We visited all the charters in the area,” she said. “We saw all the schools and all the options. We love the mission here. Social justice is being taught and being kind to each other. It really fits in our family. We’re where we are supposed to be. I feel so blessed for Maddy to be here.”
The school has been so successful that typically there are 15 to 20 children applying for every spot available in the classroom, which is granted through a lottery system. Currently there are 218 students on the waiting list, with the numbers growing every day.
Elementary teacher and Title 1 coordinator Elana Froehlich has been at the school since its inception. She decided to make the switch from teaching at a traditional public school after finding out that the teachers would govern the school. She said the idea of no administrators on campus was appealing.
“There is a directorate and a council,” she said. “Everybody’s invested and we choose what to do. It’s all well thought out and relevant to both the students and the teachers.”
Former FDNSC teacher and parent Ted Duncan said decisions affecting the school are more connected to the classroom resources. The budget is invested in the classroom, which encourages innovative ideas and practices that start from the ground up, removing the obstacles teachers often face in traditional public schools.
“They wanted to have a teacher’s voice,” he said. “The teachers wanted to teach in a way where the kids were going to get it.”
That is something that attracted second grade Teacher Melissa Murphy to the school in 2002.
“All the teachers were learning together and teaching with a consistent philosophy,” she said. “I was intrigued by the idea that all teachers were teaching with a consistent philosophy that I believed in. That was important to me.
Duncan, who now works as an administrator at a traditional public school in the area, said accountability is the key to success at Francine Delany.
“They are much more up close and personal than in traditional public schools,” he said. “It’s more intense. You know the school, the children, and the parents. The teachers know everything and have a desire to do better and see how it affects the classroom.”
Most important, Duncan said more than 80 percent of families with children volunteer at the school. Last year, at least 170 volunteer hours were recorded each month.
It’s the unique and cutting edge community schools similar to FDNSC that drive the success of the students, said Eddie Goodall, president of the North Caroline Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Since the General Assembly has lifted the 100-school cap on charters statewide, Goodall said he looks forward to adding more charter schools to the ranks. More than 30,000 children across the state are on waitlists in the hope of attending the nontraditional schools, he said.
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.