School is out for the year, but the Coalition is looking ahead as the summer season sets in. What can parents do to promote charter school success? And what are some key opportunities for the 200-plus public charter schools in North Carolina? Recently, the Coalition caught up with Dr. Jonathan Bryant—the chief administrator at one of the state’s largest and most established charter schools, and the chair of the Coalition’s Board of Directors—to talk about these and other important questions. We include the full interview below.
You launched your career in education as a middle school teacher, later moving to Lincoln Charter. How have those experiences shaped your investment in K-12 education and ways to optimize outcomes for students?
Jonathan Bryant: I began my career working as a coach, athletic director, and middle school teacher in the parochial system in Charlotte. My first experience of working in a charter school started after that, in 2007. As anybody who has worked in a charter school knows, it isn’t unusual to wear a ton of hats! I was no exception to that rule. When I started, I led Lincoln Charter’s Denver campus—middle and high school—and also served as athletic director.
I do think it has been helpful for me as a leader, in order to understand the dynamics of the classroom, to have come from the classroom myself. The same is true for extracurriculars and the importance they play in the development of students as they follow their passions; my athletic background was also helpful in shaping how I view the world. When you lead a building, you see all of the dynamics that happen within a school community. All of that has shaped the way I approach my job now and the way I look at public education and charter schools, in North Carolina and nationally.
How have you seen the charter movement change in the 16 years since you arrived at Lincoln Charter?
JB: It’s an apples to oranges comparison, because so much has changed. I’ve witnessed a strong era of leadership that built much of the foundation for charter schools in the state. Now that group of leaders has transitioned to include different leaders. Really, there isn’t any facet of the charter movement that has stayed the same since I started in 2007!
The support from the Department of Public Instruction has changed dramatically in a lot of positive ways. There have been other substantive shifts in support statewide; a lot of that has to do with the Coalition and our efforts. The NC Association for Public Charter Schools has offered consistency and organization as well. In addition, I’ve seen really positive developments in my work as a charter operator. There is a greater willingness, at least in Lincoln County—within the community, the local public school system, and other entities—to work together. That’s encouraging and awesome to see.
Given your dual roles as a charter operator and board chair for the Coalition, how would you characterize the opportunities ahead for charter schools?
JB: A growing number of really smart people are involved in charter schools. That isn’t to say this wasn’t a dynamic for charter schools in the past. But there are more people involved today who are really quality educators, and they are trying to do the right thing for kids and communities. I see that as an opportunity: The brain trust is continuing to develop and grow and mature.
In addition, the Coalition has enabled charter schools to speak with a more unified voice as we wrestle with complicated questions and seek common ground. That’s an opportunity as well because it’s impossible to agree with everybody, all of the time. There are nuances for every charter school, just like there are nuances for every type of school—public, private, parochial. But there are certain things we can all agree on. I’m hopeful for the future that there are continued opportunities for everybody to work together to do the right thing for the state and for kids. There are folks at the table now who are open to that idea. In the past, the work felt more siloed: us versus them; charter versus non-charter.
What are some key challenges for the state’s charter schools?
JB: There are ongoing misconceptions about charter schools, which are public and free. At Lincoln Charter, we still hear questions about how much tuition costs. That’s a continued source of frustration, but hopefully, we all as charter leaders can take time to explain who we are and what we do.
Another misconception is that any dollar that goes to a charter school will have a negative impact on somebody else. That’s a barrier in conversations we need to continue having. Education is not funded like it should be in North Carolina. So, that’s a barrier and struggle for all of us.
Why is it important to have an organization like the Coalition that exists solely to protect and promote public charter schools?
JB: In the past, charter schools have not been at the table or part of the conversation as legislation was discussed and formulated. In addition, when policies and procedures were discussed at the State Board of Education, we did not have a strong, unified, or organized voice. That’s why our organization is so important. To invoke a familiar quote, ‘If you are not at the table, you are on the table!’
Now, with the Coalition, we are at the table. We may not get one hundred percent of what we ask for, but we are definitely influencing those conversations. Ultimately, we want to make sure the decisions that impact charter schools are well-informed—not based on conjecture or relying on what you hear from your firepit friends on Friday night. The Coalition has the capacity to help inform, and I think we do that.
How important is it for the future of the state’s charter movement to have an advocate?
JB: The Coalition creates a unified voice, which is important to keep the movement strong. It helps us advocate for ourselves and our fundamental precepts of fair funding and autonomy. It also helps us communicate the benefits of charter schools. All of this serves as a catalyst to keep us strong.
Some charters perform better than others, by whatever metric you use. Hopefully, however, we are fostering a ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’ scenario—by communicating well, advocating effectively, and influencing policies, procedures, and legislation. We help establish and sustain an environment where we’re all able to be successful and have fewer forces working against us.
With the Coalition—Lindalyn Kakadelis, our executive director, and our government relations and communications teams—I have seen just how much we can accomplish in a few short years. It’s a lot of hard work; it isn’t a happy accident.
What do parents need to know and understand about charter schools, especially in the public policy realm?
JB: Voting matters. There’s a mindset that believes charter schools are not going away so we don’t really have to worry too much about them. That has some truth to it, but as a charter operator, I also know this: There are lots of actions, policies, and procedures that could make life very challenging for charter schools. So, voting is important. Being active and engaged is important. Folks who are passionate about charter schools can donate monetarily to support organizations like the Coalition. All of that helps.
What can parents do to promote the sustainability and success of public charter schools?
JB: Share your story and your student’s story. It’s always helpful for me to hear anecdotes: ‘This school changed my kid’s life or the trajectory of their path.’ That can be an easy thing for parents to do; it’s a low-barrier, value-add from a parent perspective.
There are a lot of quality charter schools doing a lot of quality things. Statistics on how we’re doing academically—proficiency, growth, graduation rate—are valuable. But we all love to hear about the success of our fellow humans. Stories about how we have impacted young people’s lives matter most.
About Lincoln Charter:
Lincoln Charter serves more than 2,300 students at two K-12 campuses in Denver and Lincolnton, North Carolina. Founded in 1998 as a college preparatory public charter school, Lincoln Charter seeks to “facilitate the development of college ready individuals through emphasis on rigorous academics” and the community expectations of “honesty, respect, empathy, responsibility, service, and preparedness.”