“Eyes on the Prize” Presentation on being named to the Hall of Fame, National Alliance of Public Charter Schools

“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”

Presentation by Joe Nathan at National Charter Schools Conference, July 3, 2019.  Nathan was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Charter Public School Alliance.  Here’s a copy of his remarks to conference participants.

“Walk up” music

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on” (Southern civil rights song)

(“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on”

The only thing that we did wrong was stay in the wilderness too long

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on

The only thing that we did right was the day we began to fight.

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on.”)

  • – – – – – – – – – –

Thanks.  I deeply appreciate this honor from National Alliance especially since we’ve agreed sometimes and disagreed sometimes.  Thanks also to all of you who have and are working so hard to make a big difference in youngsters’ lives.

As we think about the road ahead, I’d urge that we remember the words of the great civil rights song – “Keep Your Eye on the Prize”  What do I mean?

As we reimagine schools, and prepare to celebrate July 4 and fundamental American values, I think back to my public district middle school in Wichita, Kansas.  One day I wanted to hear a man named John Howard Griffin, who was speaking at a morning prayer breakfast.  Griffin was white and had dyed his skin.  His book, Black like me, stunned millions of Americans, including me.  Missing an hour of school to hear him was fine with my parents, but not with the school.  They regarded him as a dangerous person out to destroy America.

I was too stupid to skip. I remember sitting in my first period class, listening to a lecture about the Constitution, and then answering questions at the end of the textbook’s chapter, I thought: “School is getting in the way of my learning.”

So how should we re-imagine education, and what is the prize?

Here are 6 parts of the prize, based on lessons learned over last 49 years of work with student, families, educators & community.

It’s NOT just more students attending charters, reducing wait lists, & more strong charter laws, though those are important goals,

#1 FIRST it’s in part, virtually all young people graduating who have persistence, courage, creativity, commitment and dedication, like Rosa Parks.  (Incidentally isn’t it nice to be on same side as Rosa Parks who tried to start a charter during the last decade of her life?

We help youngsters develop commitment and dedication to others in part by asking every youngster, starting at age 5, to combine classroom work with community service.

*For example, the inner city students 5-8 I worked with who designed and built a playground for their (district alternative) school. They had $0 budget & so had to get donations.  The day 6 truckloads of donated sand arrived was a big day in the life of the 5-6-year-old “sand committee” members

  • For example, David, an angry, alienated student who was placed at this school after assaulting a teacher. We got him involved in a class where youngsters helped solve consumer problems adult referred to us. This was part of a class called “Protect Your Rights and Money.”  David had some good and bad ideas – like the time he suggested writing down the problem, taking it to the car dealership, wrapping it around a brick and throwing it through dealership’s window.  That would have created another problem, not solved one!  Gradually David learned to use his anger and skills to help others.  He was in a photo that a newspaper printed about class.  David came to me a few weeks later, said he “often thought he might get his name in the paper, and perhaps his picture.  But he never thought it would be for something good.”  His life was transformed. More about David a little later.
  • 2. Second, the prize is in part having the community view school as a place that’s helping strengthen the community right now – often in collaboration with others. For example
    1. Charters & district, along with city and county are working together to dramatically reduce the number of homeless families and students.
    2. Charter has created a playground that will serve community, not just school.
    3. Great examples can be found at the website, www.whatkidscando.org

3.Third, the prize is in part, helping every youngster develop their identify, and develop their individual skills, talents, and interests.  Some of the finest chartered and district public schools start the year with an individual conference to hear families’ knowledge/hopes for their youngsters.  This shows educators are willing to listen, learn from and partner with families and students. In these wise schools, that conference helps produce an individual plan for each youngster.  There was a session here on this – strongly encourage doing so.

4. Fourth, part of “The prize”  is helping youngsters not only graduate from high school but also graduate from some form of 1, 2 or 4-year post-secondary program.

  1. Great way to do this is to help virtually every student earn free college credits while in high school – via AP or IB, or by taking courses on a college campus as Mn’s Post Secondary Options Law, Washington State’s Running Start Program, or Florida’s Dual Enrollment program. – some students earning a 2-year degree as they graduate.  Even without a state law, some charters have over half of their youngsters earning dozens of free college credits before graduating.
  2. Research shows that dual credit courses have MOST positive impact for students from low income and potentially 1st generation college families
  3. Incidentally, we’ve created an organization,  People for PSEO, to help promote dual credit. The board chair & majority of the board members are people of color.  Their voices are critical. Having more leadership from communities of color is vital.
  1. Fifth, it’s vital to have clear goals, widely understood, and using multiple measures to assess progress of strengthening community and solving. Test scores are not nearly enough.   Jim Griffin of Colorado, who was here, is doing some great work on this.
  2. Sixth, we need to call out, challenge and urge action be taken against those within chartering who misuse public funds, and violate the public trust. Laws in some state have been revised to provide more transparency and accountability – but more work is needed on this.


  1. Finally, we need to understand and promote the idea of chartering: an expansion of fundamental freedoms in American like freedom of the press. What is more American than saying:
    1. You are allowed to create something new and potentially more effective if
    2. You willing to be responsible for results and
    3. You are willing to operate within some limits. Freedom is not unlimited.

We ought to support and encourage people with district schools who want to create new, potentially more effective schools.  There are many terrific, caring educators in district schools. They also should have the opportunity to create new options.

But let’s remember Apple did not ask permission from AT&T to a develop cell phone. Chartering must include the ability to go to an authorizer that is other than a local board.

Chartering builds on fundamental American freedoms that made American a place where people from all over the world want to live.

Before concluding:  a brief update on David, who I talked about earlier.  He graduated and went to work with the recording artist Prince.  Together they produced a Platinum record.  But David wanted to work with young people like himself.

So he founded a chartered public school, the High School for Recording Arts.  This school works with young people, many of whom are homeless, some of whom have been in gangs.  They produce you-tube videos that are so well done that companies like Verizon Wireless and State Farm Insurance have contracted with them to produce videos.  Junior Achievement gave the school a few years ago for having the best student-run business in the country.  The school is transforming the lives of its students.

Some HSRA students recently testified in the St. Paul City Council about the need to deal with the homelessness issue.  They and some district students helped convince city councils to work with then on this.

SO – the prize is NOT just more chartered public schools, or stronger charter laws.  Those are valuable tools and worthy goals.  But ultimately “the prize” is

  • Many more young people with attitudes and behavior like Rosa Parks
  • Schools that help every youngster develop her/his capabilities
  • Schools with clear, widely understood goals, using multiple measure to assess progress.
  • Many more youngsters, especially people of color, graduating from some form of higher education
  • Stronger communities with fewer problems

The prize is more active, positive citizens and a more just, equitable society.Schools like HSRA help illustrate what’s possible, and necessary. 

 Schools can’t by themselves solve all our problems.  But we can make a huge contribution to reaching “the prize”.

One other point. On July 4, 2015, I had a massive heart attack.  If I had arrived at the hospital 15 minutes later, I would have died.  This really focuses your attention!  So, I try and you might consider spending 5-10 minutes daily on what I’d do if this were the last day of my life.

Rosa Parks and the millions who joined her remind me – remind us – that  keeping our eyes on the prize – expanding opportunity & promoting justice are two of the most important things we can do with our lives

As I conclude, would you please read this with me?

“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on

The only thing that we did wrong was stay in the wilderness too long

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on

The only thing that we did right was the day we began to fight.

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on.”

Thank you.