Starting a charter school from scratch is tough enough. It’s even more difficult if you’re competing with guns and gangs for the attention of your students.
But Blackstone Academy, a charter high school in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, that faces just that challenge, is successfully beginning its tenth year.
How? asked Kyleen Carpenter, MEd ’08, head of the school, its co-founder, and an alum of AUNE.
“We firmly believe in the power of relationships with students, with teachers and with families, and in overcoming obstacles to being academically successful. How can you do your homework if there’s no heat in your house? So we help the families get heating assistance. We go there” says Kyleen.
Aimed at keeping kids from leaving school early, Blackstone’s dropout rate is four percent, compared to an average of twenty-five percent to thirty-five percent in the surrounding area. Graduates go on to top schools like Brown University, Smith College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Holy Cross, Wheaton, the University of Rhode Island, Gettysburg College, Providence College, and numerous others.
A Fake Administrator
Before co-founding Blackstone, Kyleen taught Spanish in private schools for nine years and was a class dean at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts. But she still felt like a fake administrator. She held a master’s in education, but had no real training in leadership.
“After a few years at Blackstone, I looked around at programs in the area with principal certification programs,” Kyleen said. “But I thought, I’ll die if I have to sit in those classes and read research studies from the eighties. I knew it wouldn’t work for me.”
She heard about AUNE through a postcard in the mail. “When I started to look at AUNE, I saw they were using a language that spoke to me, she said. She went to an information session on the principal certification program, where she talked with Susan Dreyer Leon, core faculty member in the Department of Education, for several hours. I knew it was a fit with everything I wanted the philosophy, a lot of independence, how the portfolio was structured, the small size, the schedule. I applied, I got in, and I was thrilled. Every piece of the structure worked for me.”
Kyleen had grown up on a farm in Connecticut, the first to go to college in a working-class family of farmers and factory workers. She was always nerdy, she said, and earned a full scholarship to Amherst College. The elite private school was a shock to her but turned out to be a perfect fit and opened up a new world.
After Amherst, she taught in private schools and earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While looking for a summer job, she saw a flyer about teaching urban kids through the SPIRIT Educational Program. “I was pulled toward a needier, more diverse population, especially since I spoke Spanish,” Kyleen said. She taught in SPIRIT from 1995 through 2002. Then she created Blackstone Academy with six other SPIRIT teachers (four of whom still work at the school).
“The school’s birth was turbulent. It was horrific getting it off the ground,” Kyleen said. “If anyone knew how hard it would be, they would never do it. The group of teachers wrote the charter in 2001 while working in other jobs, thinking they had five years to get the school up and running. Instead, they found out they would have to open in fall of 2002 to get state funding. I’ll never forget that moment,” she said. “Were we willing to let this opportunity to slip through our fingers? We said, unequivocally, ‘No.’
We had no building, no kids,” Kyleen said. “I had never been an administrator before, and [the staff] was me, two history teachers and a secretary. We had to deal with lunches, with busing. We had furniture that was donated and old equipment. We got the kids who had already been suspended from other schools.”
“By the time the school opened, eighty-five students had enrolled. These were kids that we were scared to take into the community because there was no school culture yet; they didn’t get it. I loved all those kids but they were really tough fights and gangs and police and all the worst stuff you can imagine.
Still, halfway through the year the school moved into a building. The next year, the student body doubled and the number of faculty more than doubled. Every year we get better at what we do,” Kyleen said.
Learning to be part of a community
Blackstone now has one hundred and sixty-five students, and the SPIRIT Educational Program is an integral part of the school. One great strength that program has brought to Blackstone is the concept of community engagement. Part of Blackstone’s mission statement reads: Our students develop the skills to solve problems and use their voices in ways that lead to success in the academic, social, and professional arenas. They demonstrate their achievements through a process of discovery, presentation, and reflection shaped by active engagement in community life.
Students must participate for two years in organized Community Improvement Projects, learning how to become agents of change in their communities. One example: The Immigration Project that, through books and PowerPoint presentations, teaches faculty and guidance counselors about the difficulties that undocumented students face in gaining access to college.
Kyleen says her leadership model gives everyone involved students, families, teachers, community members, staff say in the process. That way, when decisions are made, everyone is already bought in, she said. It’s a model she absorbed at AUNE.
“At AUNE, I definitely learned how to better recognize the leadership qualities in those around me so I can capitalize on them, both for the betterment of Blackstone and for these individuals’ own self-improvement. The program also helped me realize that a good leader never has all the right answers, and that listening is just as powerful as speaking.”