A Wealth of Wisdom From a Charter School Pioneer

Starting a charter school is a laudable endeavor—but it’s also an arduous one. So arduous, in fact, that it usually requires a mix of arrogance and ignorance. Arrogance to think you can just rally a community and start a school from scratch. And ignorance of the hardships ahead, without which there’s no way you would do it. Every so often, however, a special person comes along who exhibits neither of those traits but bravely decides to start a school anyway. Dr. Jacqueline Elliot, the author of a new book, Passionate Warrior: My Charter School Journey, is one of those people. She is humble, determined, vulnerable, and dedicated—in addition to being a seasoned, successful educator.

Elliot started the first public charter middle school in Los Angeles, Community Charter Middle School, in 1999. Passionate Warrior begins with her mid-career shift from community healthcare to teaching, and then pulls you through the muck and euphoria of starting and maintaining great schools. “The charter movement provided me with a pathway to create a school that would incorporate the elements and strategies I knew would result in students’ success,” she says, “and the community embraced that school and asked for more.”

Teachers’ unions would have you believe that charter schools are all about privatizing public education, but Elliot’s journey is exactly the opposite. Community Charter Middle School was the first of the eighteen charter schools she founded with Dr. Ref Rodriguez, under the umbrella of a non-profit organization known as the Partnership to Uplift Communities. Its roots go back to Elliot’s time as a teacher in Los Angeles traditional pubic schools, where her efforts to improve students’ education were shut down by bureaucrats operating in a dysfunctional, inflexible culture. Even at its best, it lacked room for the innovation and belief systems required for success. And her story aptly demonstrates the pain and frustration trailblazers feel when traditional public school communities stifle efforts to improve students’ lives—and when the prejudices and good intentions of traditional educators and administrators exclude parents from their children’s education.

The only option she and others like her have is to leave. So she did. And with a true grassroots effort, Community Charter Middle School was born. Elliot thought it wrong to swoop in and make unilateral decisions, so she wrote the charter with parents, students, teachers, and community leaders. As a team, they overcame one challenge after another until the bureaucracy had no more reasons to block the school’s creation.

As Elliot explains, every successful school is a labor of community spirit and collaboration. So in many ways her story mirrors thousands of others that have occurred across the country since the inception of charter schools a quarter century ago. But where Passionate Warrior is different—and why it’s especially worth your time—is that Elliot went on to become a leader of the national charter movement. The book is therefore full of colorful, informative accounts of her many fights, struggles, setbacks, and triumphs that helped create California’s policy landscape. It ought to be required reading for anyone hoping to learn from her and follow in her footsteps. For the path will be a rough one. At one of her most desperate moments of exhaustion, a friend gave her an ultimatum: “‘It’s a roller coaster ride, and that’s just the way it is,’ she said. ‘And if this is the way it’s going to be, you had better chill out and go with the flow, or just get off the ride.’”

There is no happy ending. Charter advocacy is a constant battle, even when schools are providing parents with the options they desire and sending students to college in record numbers. There is no thank you from the movement’s many opponents. But there are from its beneficiaries—the children, many of them disadvantaged, who were given a better option than their neighborhood district school. Indeed, the book’s afterword is written by two of Elliot’s early students who have returned to teach in the schools from which they graduated. “The students knew that their teachers cared about them,” they write, “and truly believed that they could be successful.”

Passionate Warrior is a fast-paced and unapologetic journey told by a woman whose energy and belief in the power of education are unmatched. Her story, both exhausting and inspiring, has been echoed hundreds of times since thanks to her pioneering work. Even the restrictive traditional public schools at which Elliot started her career have since been converted into charters. That welcome irony is a wonderful example of the book’s overarching takeaway: The charter movement is slowly but surely improving American education, student by student, parent by parent, educator by educator.

— Caprice Young

Caprice Young is the Chief Executive Officer & Superintendent of Magnolia Public Schools and is a member of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Board of Trustees.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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