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Charter School Alumnus: Education Should Be About Children and Their Families

• Briana Gilchrist

Briana Gilchrist spoke at the 2017 National Summit on Education Reform.

Education for me has always been about investing in lives. The lives of children, the lives of their families and the lives of the community. If we can use education as the entry point to revitalize communities, we can literally change the game…for the better. So what does investing in education mean? It’s not just about making the grades or teaching to the test. It’s about putting forth an intentional effort to address what outside factors may be affecting a student’s ability to learn in the classroom.

Some of you may have heard my story about how my public charter school saved my life. That is not just because this school pushed me, but Marion P. Thomas Charter School (MPTCS) was intentional about supporting me and extending that same support to my family and many other families. My mother, started off as a volunteer parent trying to do what was best for her children. Shortly after, the school realized how critical parental engagement was to grow a school and hired my mom as a parent liaison. It is important for parents to be directly involved in their child’s education. This parental support becomes the community buy-in, and schools built around the needs of the community are the kind of schools needed in urban communities.

Getting parents involved sounds like an easy task right? But how can we engage parents who are busy working and managing the intricacies of family life? The answer: creating a position that focuses on connecting parents with the school and other resources. My mother became the first Parent Liaison of MPTCS. This may not seem like a big deal, but it greatly impacted my family and, most importantly, my mom. I watched my mother blossom into a leader who became adamant about supporting students and families. She coordinated parent workshops and trainings; she helped parents understand the needs of their children and become their best advocate. I watched her give students clean uniforms, wash their faces, fix their hair, give them food and help with their homework. I watched her track down local resources to connect the parents with local programs for housing and affordable child care. I watched her care for these children and families as if they were her own.

To me, that is what education should be about, educating and supporting children AND their families. For some students, school provides their only sense of a traditional family environment, and their time spent there is the only time someone is pushing them, motivating and encouraging them. Schools sometimes provides the only meal a child may have during the day. That’s why public charter schools are so important. They give local communities the opportunity to educate and nurture the whole child. They build future leaders and advocates, and sometimes these schools are the only thing keeping some children off the street. Public charter schools have the flexibility to customize programs to meet the unique needs of their students, which is largely affected by the community they live in.

When you talk about helping students who may live in poverty, it’s not just enough to push them “to and through” college. We have to equip students and their families with the skills they all need for college and careers. My old school’s model is, it takes a village to raise a child. So let’s be intentional about who we include in the village.

About the author

Briana Gilchrist

Briana Gilchrist attended Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark, New Jersey. She now serves as the Press Assistant at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Previously, Gilchrist was a fellow at Marion P. Thomas Charter School where she worked in the central office learning the organizational structure and operations in running a community based charter school. She is passionate about urban revitalization through education; she believes that true economic development is at the intersection of public policy, education and entrepreneurship. Gilchrist earned her Bachelors of Arts in Planning and Public Policy and Africana Studies from Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey.