Sallie B. Howard School Archives - North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools

Q&A: Charter Leader Sandeep Aggarwal on innovation and the power of study abroad

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What does one of the state’s oldest and most innovative charter schools have to teach other charter schools about school success? Which strategies work to close achievement gaps?  And what steps can parents take to help their child’s charter school?

 The Coalition’s communications director, Kristen Blair, spoke recently with Sandeep Aggarwal about these and other questions. The assistant director and dean of business, technology, and cultural affairs at Sallie B. Howard School of Arts & Science, Sandeep is also vice chair of the Coalition’s Board of Directors.

Established in 1997 as one of North Carolina’s first public charter schools, Sallie B. is now in its third decade of serving a majority-minority student population in Wilson, North Carolina. Over 1,200 K-12 students benefit from Sallie B.’s performing arts-based curriculum, international faculty, and innovative study abroad program.  

We share the full Q&A with Sandeep below.

Kristen Blair:  You’ve been at Sallie B. for almost 20 years now! What drew you to a public charter school?  

 Sandeep Aggarwal: When I first came to the U.S., I landed at Sallie B. directly from New Delhi, India. I did not know I was going to a charter school. Few other teachers came with me from India, and [they] were placed in the county school system; I came to Sallie B. Howard School, a charter school. I realized very quickly that I loved what we were doing here—doing things innovatively, without much bureaucracy, hierarchy, or spending too much time making decisions, and all of this with great love.

SBHS has a wonderful arts program where all students get an opportunity to express themselves and pursue their passion. We’ve adopted Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and that fascinated me. The whole environment, with our culturally diverse faculty, was very intentional and innovative. Sallie B. Howard Charter School offered the kind of environment that I needed, which allowed me to bring my gifts and talents to help the school in many areas. It was a win-win situation!

One of those components was study abroad. I learned about the study abroad program when I first came in 2004—and that study abroad was a part of the charter application for Sallie B. Howard School in 1996. In my first year here, 2004, I led a trip of 10 middle school students and few faculty members to India. We went to Pinegrove School where I had worked in the late 1990s. I helped SBHS in establishing a sister school relationship with Pinegrove, and after two decades, the relationship has only grown stronger. Pinegrove School is in the Himalayan foothills of North India.

Sandeep Aggarwal (right) stands with SBHS leader Pratibha Rani, the elementary school principal (middle), Pinegrove School student host guides, and student participants in the SBHS Fall 2023 Study Abroad Program.

Could you share more about your trip this year to India, and how study abroad deepens student learning?

Sandeep: The study abroad program was inspired by Sallie B. Howard’s own travels. She was a teacher, and she would use every opportunity to travel around the world. She always said, “Travel is the best teacher you can have.”

I’ve been doing this travel/study abroad program since 2004—19 years now—and we have taken our students to almost every continent on the planet! We budget for this expense in our yearly budgets and receive help with grants at times. Students don’t pay anything except for their own passport fee and souvenir expenses. It is a competitive process to be selected for this program. Students have to write a research paper, respond to a set of reflective questions, procure recommendation letters from their teachers, and then finally interview with the leadership team at school.  Top 10 students are selected using a rigorous and fair selection process. This process itself is a great learning and growing experience for our students.

[Previously], we would travel abroad with our middle school students for about three weeks. The goal would be to visit a school and stay as much as possible with local host families versus hotels. Visiting a school allows our students to experience education firsthand in a different culture. We’ve been very successful at doing that. We have found host families almost everywhere we go. That is the highlight of the trip. Though the students remember the great sights—like the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower—what they remember most are the connections they make with the people in the host families and the school they visited. I have seen many such friendships continue for years. Such travel and building international connections widen the horizons of our students and help them become global citizens.

Students and staff from Sallie B. Howard School, accompanied by Indian host family chaperones, visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Now that we have a high school, we have shifted our travel abroad program to be a semester-long study abroad program for the high school students, changing “travel abroad” to “study abroad.” This year, we took a group of students to India as our first true study abroad for 10 weeks. For these students, who are 16-17 years old, to travel that far—about 10,000 miles away, to a different culture, different languages, different food, different time zone, different system of education, different everything—was life-changing.  Such an experience deepens student learning by providing them with firsthand experience of being global citizens. It takes a lot for a young person to be successful in a totally foreign environment. Life skills and a deeper understanding of our world are developed. Students return with a transformed way of thinking about almost everything.

SBHS students experience Indian culture by being welcomed at Pinegrove School with flower garlands.

Our plan is to take a group of high school students every year and stay on the campus of a residential school, primarily Pinegrove School. They will also send their students to us next year onwards, and we will arrange for them to stay with local host families, attend Sallie B. Howard School, and learn our way of education.

Sallie B. earned recognition as a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School for exemplary work in closing achievement gaps. To what do you attribute your success with students?  

Sandeep: The biggest thing we feel has made a difference are good instructional practices and strategies, implemented over a period of time, consistently—and not making changes too frequently. Investing in good teachers and supporting them with coaching, resources, model teaching, opportunities to observe other master teachers in action, etc., help in building capacity in teachers.

There are so many programs to teach reading or math or science or any subject. Each of those programs is successful somewhere. When a program fails at a certain school, it is not necessarily the program that is not successful but the implementation of the program that fails. In the past, we were quick to change programs when they didn’t work, without realizing that the implementation may have been faulty. We have now shifted our approach and work on deepening our understanding and implementation of such academic programs through training and coaching by experts.

There isn’t really a magic “something” out there. Everything is actually within our own buildings, provided we have good people who care for the students we serve. We strive to work towards channeling our energy toward things we agree upon doing at the leadership level, and then focus on working on those things with our teachers and staff consistently year after year.

How have you seen the state’s charter movement change in the nearly 20 years since you first arrived at Sallie B.?

 Sandeep: On the good side, the cap was lifted—we had a 100-school cap for a long, long time—and we have more than 200 charter schools now.  I’m also seeing that the Charter Schools Advisory Board [now Charter Schools Review Board] is being given more authority to do things which are in the domain of charter schools. That’s a good thing.

We have seen more regulatory creep coming in—trying to make charters do things we were not meant to do when the charter school movement started. We are held accountable for results, sometimes even more than the district system. Accountability is great, but how we reach the expected goals should be left more to the school. Education reform was the whole intention of the charter movement—to bring innovation and out of the box thinking.

So, sometimes we are told not what to achieve but how to achieve. What to achieve is certainly okay: Produce good results, make good citizens, help [students] do well on the tests, prepare them for colleges and careers, and support our parents, etc. But we are told more and more how to achieve, and that is not in the spirit of innovation and freedom [that launched] the charter school system in the beginning.

In addition to your role as a charter operator, you’re a longtime member of the Coalition Board and the current vice chair. Looking through that lens, how would you characterize the opportunities ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools? 

 Sandeep: I’m so grateful that the Coalition exists. There was nobody in that space to advocate for charter schools, and to talk with lawmakers and help them understand how things are impacting us. Lawmakers have great intentions, but sometimes they don’t fully know what’s going on at the ground level. With the Coalition’s efforts, I think we are moving in the right direction. Working with lawmakers and schools, we are bringing more awareness about what charters do, and trying to protect the autonomy of charter schools—the original intent of the charter movement. A large number of charter schools are members of the Coalition, and more are joining this group to support charter school advocacy.

I see a bright future for charter schools and our students specifically, but also overall for education in general. The work done so far really points in that direction.

 What do parents need to know and understand about charter schools, especially when it comes to policy or misconceptions?

 Sandeep: First of all, I would say charter schools are just like any other public school—free to the public. Parents don’t have to pay a penny to come to charter schools. They’re schools of choice: You don’t have to live in the district where the charter school is. You can apply to any charter school in the state, as long as they provide transportation to your area, or you can drive a child to school on a daily basis. We are held accountable on the state examination, just like every other public school in North Carolina. We are also held accountable every other year through the Performance Framework for the state.

The only difference between a charter school and a district school is that a charter is a district by itself. We have our own central office; we have our own superintendent on site. A district has multiple schools, with a central office managing schools.

With our own central office, we have the ability to do things quicker and faster and in a more efficient way. We can be more personal with our parents. The message is: “We are a public school. And we bring innovation into education, following the spirit of the charter school movement.”

What can parents do to promote the success of their child’s charter school?

Sandeep: Let lawmakers know that your children are studying at a charter school, how well the school is doing, and what’s going on there. Support the charter school. Talk to friends. On social media, post things about what the school is doing.

Myths can be widespread. After 26 years of the charter movement, people still think a charter school is a private school, and students have to pay to attend. Existing parents can help by spreading the word that a charter school is not a private school, and that education at a charter school is for no cost to the parent.

Make sure your representatives know: “My child is going to a charter school. I care about my charter school, and I would like for you to support that.”