Acting on a Courageous Decision

Dear Harvey,

I have been working since 1995 on the Lynn Community Charter School project. I have been leading in the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) since 1993 and have been in RC since 1995. In the summer of 1995 I led a leadership group for teens in Lynn (north of Boston) where I have worked for the last eight years in a "mental health" agency. My co-leader was Thomas Wall (also an NCBIer and RCer). We taught naturalized RC to eight young people. I had also been teaching naturalized RC to my students in an Adult Bachelor's program at Lesley College, and their learning had been taking off. I began thinking: "What would it be like if we could work with young people every day and keep reminding them how good and smart and powerful they are?" I had heard about charter schools but didn't know much about them. Then in the summer of 1995 I read your article on courage and integrity in Present Time. I was deeply moved and made a decision to look for an opportunity to act on my beliefs. When I heard in December that the last charters of the twenty-five Massachusetts Charter schools were going to be given out in February, I immediately decided to submit an application.

I began by recruiting Thomas Wall, and we set out to build a "founding coalition" for the school. All of our RC skills were needed as we listened to people's fears and discouragement about Lynn and the local schools. Our mission statement, as written in our charter, begins: "To build a community of students, teachers, parents, business owners, and community members who will commit to each other's growth on a daily basis." On this premise we recruited parents, teachers, and community members into the project-seventeen people who had never heard of RC but were drawn to this hopeful message.

The charter document (eighty-five pages long, thanks to government bureaucracy) is a testimonial to the love and commitment of the North Cambridge/Davis Square Co-Counseling Community. While I did most of the actual writing, many Co-Counselors believed in the project and in me and gave me hours and hours of sessions on my writing. There is no way I could have written what amounts to a master's thesis in six weeks without that resource! There were twenty-three applications for three remaining charters in the state. Some groups had been working on their proposals for two years, others had highly prestigious backing (public television, universities, corporations, etc.). Our group had each other.

"Insiders" have told me a lot of different stories of why we received a charter, as opposed to one of the other groups. The one I believe is that the committee (at the Department of Education) simply liked us and thought we could actually do what we said we'd do. They have talked openly in the media about our "peer counseling" program. (The governor gave us the charter in a televised press conference, and we have been in the papers a lot.) We are sure they don't really have an accurate picture of exactly what kind of school they have chartered, but clearly they like us.

At first I believed I should talk openly about the use of RC in the school. Later I was cautioned to use more naturalized language and teaching, at least at first, because of possible attacks. Now I have gone back to my original openness about RC, based on recent encouragement within the RC Communities to "go public with RC." My experience is that people tend to become more confused and suspicious if something seems hidden or mysterious to them.

Our talking openly about RC has become a kind of "litmus test" for board members and teachers. We have lost some people because they couldn't figure out how this resource could make sense in their lives-or, I should say, because we hadn't figured out how to give them a hand with that. I have been personally attacked, mostly as a white owning-classer, and have had to figure out a lot about my own goodness and the goodness of this project to keep going.

We have now enrolled 150 students (our year-one maximum) in kindergarten to fifth grade, for September, 1997. We have more than seventy young people on a waiting list. We worked hard to recruit young people and families from all of the diverse communities in Lynn-African American, Latino, Haitian, Russian, and Asian, as well as white. Nearly half of our students are students of color, which reflects the demographics in the city. We are now recruiting and hiring teachers, looking for at least that same ratio. Teacher recruitment has meant not only searching for qualified teachers of color, but also teachers who could embrace the principles of RC and who looked like they could figure out how to use RC in their own lives. This has been challenging, especially keeping our board members, who have not all become RCers yet, unconfused as to the criteria for hiring. All teachers are required to take a fundamentals class, and RC will be used on a daily basis in the school.

We will start our first fundamentals class in June, training parents to lead parent support groups as well as teaching teachers and board members. What we will have to figure out in order to counsel teachers, parents, board members, and students well will certainly move us forward both in our counseling abilities and in our own re-emergence.

One of our biggest challenges has been finding and renovating a building for the school. The state will give us an operating budget based on the per-pupil amount for our city, but no funds for the building. Over several months we were able to build a relationship with a local developer and his brother who own the former welfare office building in Lynn. They are now doing the renovation-a half-million-dollar project-and we will pay for it out of our lease over five years. There were extensive negotiations about this arrangement, but throughout we were able to hold out a positive picture of the school and their involvement in it that I think was irresistible! I have begun to build a relationship with a commercial banker, a woman who is very excited about what we are doing and wants to help us. Meanwhile I am discharging on all of the messages I got about how white owning-class men should be doing what I am doing with money, and I'm feeling more powerful all the time!

There are so many other stories to tell, Harvey, but most of all I wanted to say that you inspired me to do what I always wanted to do and just didn't know how-to act on principles. Your direction to make courageous decisions and then act on them, as opposed to "waiting until you're ready," has made a huge difference in my life and in the lives of others around me. Building an RC Community in a school will be the most challenging thing I have ever done but clearly the most worthwhile, as I will have to discharge racism, sexism, disability oppression, oppression of young people, and class patterns in order to keep going.

Thank you again for your courage and integrity that called to mine.

Lisa Drake
Lexington, Massachusetts,
USA


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07