Meet Charter Trailblazer Jason Wray
A 20-year U.S. Army veteran, Dr. Jason Wray is the superintendent of Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy, North Carolina’s only public charter military school. Prior to coming to Paul R. Brown, Dr. Wray served for eight years as the principal of East Bladen High School.
Located in Elizabethtown, Paul R. Brown opened in 2013 and serves 200 students from five counties. In addition to its unique status as a military charter school, Paul R. Brown is a funding trailblazer: Last month, Bladen County commissioners approved the school’s request for $70,000 to renovate the gymnasium, making Paul R. Brown the first N.C. charter school to receive facility funds by direct appropriation from county commissioners. Such funding is possible because of a new law—the outcome of a strong advocacy push from the Coalition—that allows county commissioners to provide facility funds to charter schools.
Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Dr. Wray about how charter schools can optimize success with facility funding requests, impacts of the new law for the charter movement, and more. We include the full Q&A below.
You’re a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the former principal of East Bladen High School. What drew you to a public charter school?
Jason Wray: East Bladen is about eight miles from Paul R. Brown. I’ve known Colonel Lloyd [Paul R. Brown’s founder] for about ten years. I graduated both of his boys from East Bladen High School. So, when the opportunity arrived to move to Paul R. Brown, it just felt right for me to do that. I had been at East Bladen for eight years, so the time to move was kind of ideal. I fit right in, with my military background and a military school.
Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy serves an economically disadvantaged student population—and it’s the state’s first and only public charter military school. Tell me about your vision for this school and the students you serve.
Jason: The vision is to give the students the opportunity to be successful. We provide transportation to the students; we go to their doorstep and pick them up for school. Parents appreciate that. We serve five counties: Bladen, Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Columbus. That’s huge to cover such a wide area and bring 200 kids to this school every day. That’s something that most won’t tackle, but we’re willing to do that to give kids a chance to be successful.
How does the military school structure help instill character traits such as integrity, honor, and self-discipline?
Jason: It helps get kids on track. For a lot of kids at Paul R. Brown, their parents bring them here because of a reason: They’re not interested in school; they don’t want to attend school. But one thing I tell the teachers and the staff is, “Don’t mistake behavior for ability.” Just because a kid gets in trouble doesn’t mean that kid doesn’t have the ability to succeed and do well in school.
That was Jason Wray: I got in trouble, and I didn’t do well in school. But things change and people change, and mindsets change. So, that was one of the things that drew me here—to give the kids a second, third, fourth, or even fifth chance to be successful.
Let’s cover another first: Paul R. Brown is the first North Carolina charter school to receive county facility funds. In an historic first for the state’s charter movement, Bladen County commissioners voted last month to allocate $70,000 in county funds to renovate Paul R. Brown’s 75-year-old gymnasium. What does this mean for your school?
Jason: The funny part about it is I really didn’t set out to be the first. Once the law was passed [allowing county commissioners to allocate funds for charter facilities] through the General Assembly, I thought … there probably wasn’t a chance to do anything this year. But I was working on the gym and trying to set aside some funds to do that, so I reached out first to the Office of Charter Schools. They directed me back to Lindalyn [the Coalition’s executive director]. I called her and said, “This is what I want to try and do.” She gave me some tips and ideas for how to approach it.
It was really about what kind of relationship we had with the county commissioners. Are you a stranger asking them for $70,000, or are you someone they know has put in work in the community and offered assistance financially? Paul R. Brown does a lot of community events, we post colors at the town council meetings, and we have great relationships with local businesses. There are nine county commissioners [in Bladen County], and I think for five or six of them I have graduated their kids or grandkids from East Bladen.
So, I could walk in there, and they could see a familiar face and we could have personal conversations. That was part of the battle. Then, I had to understand how to put together a product that convinced them to support us. Because again, it had to be something they voted to support; it wasn’t required by law.
What we did was lay out a plan to show that we put a lot of financial support into Bladen County. I laid out all of the vendors. Over the last 18 months since I’ve been here, we’ve spent $783,000 just on Bladen County [vendors] alone. We all know county commissioners are about the purse. We wanted to show them we were really investing in this community, and we needed some help to get this gym renovated so our parents, kids, and community could be proud.
That data about the vendors, and every dime we spent on them, was a huge selling point. They were really impressed by it, and I think that turned a corner for us.
What could this new flexibility for facilities funding mean for the state’s charter movement?
Jason: A lot of the charter schools across the state have, like us, moved into pretty old buildings. That’s what was available, and you have to take what you can get. Right now, charter schools have to foot their own bill for facilities updates or renovations, and they just don’t have the funding to do those things.
Show the county commissioners that you’re doing great things in the community—helping and investing in the community. Work with commissioners on how you can invest in the community, not only financially, but also as a volunteer.
How would you characterize the opportunities ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools?
Jason: There’s a huge market for charter schools. Every day there’s a new kid coming through the doors at Paul R. Brown. Parents are seeing value in smaller classroom sizes and the personal touch that a charter school can bring to education.
When I was on the public [district] side, I never saw that. Now being on the charter side, you see the advantage with your child needing a smaller, more personal setting—parents can pick up the phone and call the charter superintendent or school director to have a conversation. You don’t get those things on the public district side unless something is going wrong. There’s a huge advantage for charter schools. That’s why charters are growing the way they are, because parents are now turning to a small classroom and school setting for their child.
What do you see as some key or ongoing challenges ahead?
Jason: When you come to a charter school, most folks in the building wear four or five hats. I’m the director, the superintendent, and the data manager; I also drive school buses. That’s true for everybody in this building. You have to wear multiple hats to be successful in a charter school. You don’t have the resources of 40-50 people on your staff to get things done. But the state still requires you to get those things done. In that, lies the difference. That’s my main takeaway in moving from a public [district] school administrator to a charter school administrator.
What do parents need to know about charter schools, and how can they work to help and advance the state’s charter movement?
Jason: Parents need to get more involved with the charter school and understand the process. There are a lot of misconceptions about charter schools. I even had some myself before I came over.
Public charter schools are held to the same expectations as regular public schools. They do the same end of grade tests and end of course tests. All of those things are required. There are no shortcuts for charters the way people assume there are.
I had a misconception that charter schools could do whatever they wanted to do—that they could spend money wherever they wanted to spend it. They’re required to follow those same structures. That’s important because that keeps charter schools in line and accountable for what they’re doing. I think that’s important for parents to understand and know.
What would you like Coalition members and other charter operators to know about you and your approach to leadership? And is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
Jason: The main thing I would say is if you are a small charter school, you have to advertise—what you have available, what you do, what your mission is. If you don’t do those things, no one will ever know.
We go to five different counties. But none of our buses had Paul R. Brown written on them. We were in Cumberland County picking up kids, but parents didn’t know. So, we got the buses painted and put our name on them. And that’s when the kids really started to come. Other parents saw the military uniform and knew that child was doing better, so they said, “I’m going to go talk to that parent.” That’s how you get the word out.