Imagine a school where leadership prioritizes families’ needs while garnering teachers’ input in all of its decision-making. Sounds like a dream, but it is, in fact, a reality in the form of a K-8 public charter school in east Durham.
Amanda Bikowski lives this reality. She is a teacher at Maureen Joy Charter School.
Upon her graduation from the University of South Carolina in 2010, Ms. Bikowski got her start in St. Louis as a Teach for America teacher. She always loved school and knew that teaching is where she could make the greatest difference. Her own education journey reveals the power of a great school on the future of a child.
At the beginning of third grade, her parents made the decision to move from one neighborhood in Charlotte to another with a better school. She understands now how much that decision meant to her future. Not all parents have the ability to move to a better school. Fortunately for North Carolina’s families, public charter schools are open to all students regardless of their zip codes.
Currently the MTSS coordinator and team leader for first through fourth grades, Ms. Bikowski is thrilled to have spent the last seven years of her career as a teacher at Maureen Joy Charter School where development of the whole child through high-quality instruction, school and community partnerships, and promotion of a positive self-image is the school’s mission.
The school prioritizes every decision to best serve students, families and teachers. Ms. Bikowski says, “It’s not about what’s easier or cheaper. It’s about how every child can benefit.”
The flexibility afforded to North Carolina’s public charter schools makes it possible for school boards to be nimble it their decision-making. For example, Mark Bailey, principal of Maureen Joy Charter School, is keenly aware of the needs of his families.
Fifty-three percent of students are Latino and 44% are African American. Approximately 85% of students qualify for the federal Free/Reduced lunch program; therefore, access to the school is crucial for student success. That understanding is demonstrated in the decision to provide transportation to its students with bus routes all over Durham that are often adjusted in response to the needs of parents. Also, in recent years the school has seen an increase in its Latino enrollment. With this shift in mind, the leadership made the decision to provide all written documents in both English and Spanish. Front office staff are fluent in both languages as well, creating a welcoming environment for students’ families.
At Maureen Joy, teachers’ voices are not only appreciated, but welcomed. The leadership understands the importance of building relationships, so there is an open-door policy throughout the school. With over 345 years of experience on staff, teachers are encouraged to visit each other’s classrooms to actively observe and to provide feedback. Each teacher is assigned a coach to foster an exchange of ideas and best practices. Every in-house professional development event affords teachers the opportunity to evaluate its effectiveness so that the school’s administration can make adjustments accordingly. There are even teacher focus groups where faculty openly discuss their concerns, which are then shared with administration. Ms. Bikowski says teachers appreciate the collaborative culture that allows constant improvement for the benefit of students.
Maureen Joy Charter School’s responsiveness to students and teachers has paid positive dividends over time. The school has met or exceeded growth in all subjects the last three years. In 2017-2018, 56.0% of Maureen Joy’s students were proficient in Math and 53.5% were proficient in English Language Arts/Reading. In Durham Public Schools, 45.9% of students were proficient in Math and 46.0% were proficient in English Language Arts/Reading.
With the emphasis on students and teachers, it is not difficult to understand why Amanda Bikowski considers Maureen Joy Charter School “the best.” The flexibility to make timely decisions for families and students as well as the value placed on teachers’ perspectives makes all the difference. Ms. Bikowski encourages the leadership in all schools to tune in to students’ needs and to trust that teachers possess the professional discernment to assist in making the right decisions for their schools.
Rhonda Dillingham is the executive director of the NC Association for Public Charter Schools.