Challenging and Complimenting Charter School Movement / Joe Nathan’s Column

by Joe Nathan

This column originally appeared at


Alia Jackson and Pierre Fulford are just two of the millions of youngsters who have gained from charter public schools. On July 29, they joined with former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Howard Fuller and almost 200 Minnesota parents and educators to discuss what is working well and what needs to be improved with Minnesota’s charters. The conference was co-sponsored Cargill, CliftonLarsonAllen and the Center for School Change.

Fuller’s central goal is more excellent schools, not just more charter schools, he said. Fuller supports the charter movement as one part of an overall strategy to help more young people, such as Jackson and Fulford, succeed.

Pierre Fulford, left, and Alia Jackson with former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Howard Fuller, right. (Photo by Marisa Gustafson, Center for School Change)


Fulford explained that he had attended seven high schools before he found one that “fit” him. He loves music, hands-on learning and a project-based approach. After struggling in other high schools, he succeeded at the High School for Recording Arts, a charter school in St Paul. He’s now graduated, earned a college degree and returned to HSRA to work with other, younger students.

Jackson, a 2014 HSRA graduate, has earned national praise for her singing. She also found that HSRA was a great place for her to attend. She helped write and choreograph a video, posted on YouTube (view it at, that promotes dual-credit courses.

Fuller talked about the charter movement at its best and worst. At best, it’s helping educators, families and community members create schools that are helping youngsters identify and develop their gifts, and in some cases, do far more than they thought possible. Those schools are, as Fuller put it, helping “students prepare to compete with the best competitors in the world.”

But that’s not all. Fuller believes, and I agree, that the best schools help “young women and men learn to participate in the transformation of their world.” So he was delighted that Fulford has returned to work at the school that helped him. Fuller praised Jackson for using her musical talent to inform and encourage others to participate in some form of dual-credit.

He praised HSRA and other excellent schools for identifying and building on students’ strengths, not just using a “deficit approach.” He stressed the need to move beyond test scores, “to measure self-control, curiosity and grit.”

Fuller also described problems with some charter schools.

“We got some crooks and some scoundrels – they are in it for their economic reasons,” he said. “They mask it by talking about kids. We need to call out these people and remove them.”

He also challenged educators “to deal with race and class.”

“Too often we tiptoe around them,” Fuller added. “But they are real, and they do have an impact on students.” Some charters call themselves “no excuses schools.”

“Poverty, hunger and homeless are real. Of course they will have an impact on students,” Fuller explained. “But we can’t say that because of those problems, students can’t learn.”

Fuller pointed out that the real innovation of the charter movement was making it possible for deeply committed, talented educators, families and community groups to work together, to create new, potentially more effective schools. He praised Minnesotans for developing the first charter legislation.

He concluded with two key points: “I want to thank those of you doing this hard, very important work. Thank you for being open to what needs changing as well as what is working.” And he wanted to remind educators how fortunate we can be: “Think how much God has blessed us to be there for those kids.”

Fuller offered relentless reminders to all educators: Remember your purpose, build on students’ strengths and reassess what you are doing, what’s working well and what needs to be refined.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.