Growing up in Detroit, Re’Shawn Rogers struggled mightily with school, not learning to read until high school, he said. But an educator long burned inside of him, and he remembers holding mock lessons on his front porch for his neighbors.
“There has always been something inside of me that has said I’m going to teach something,” Rogers recalled in a recent interview. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to teach something. I always knew this was going to be my path.”
That path has now led Rogers, 31, to Schenectady, where he is proposing the creation of a K-5 charter school, Destine Preparatory Charter School, which would be the first charter school in the city in over a decade if it opens as planned to around 100 students in kindergarten and first grade in fall 2022. Rogers plans to seek a five-year charter authorization through the SUNY Charter Institute, part of the latest call for charter school proposals due Feb. 16. After a review and approval process, Rogers could win final approval for the school by October.
Rogers said he plans to lead with his personal story – the story of a young Black man misserved by a public education system and committed to helping teach youth in the position he was once in – and work in the community to develop a school that serves the needs of families in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
“I have experience that is literally what many students are experiencing right now in Schenectady,” Rogers said. “It feels incumbent on me to use my experience, use my passion to create change and offer something better for our kids.”
Rogers, now 31, grew up in Detroit, where he said he struggled to learn how to read in a public school system where he felt lost. Before high school, he moved in with his grandparents to qualify for a local charter high school, where he said he was finally challenged and supported by his teachers.
He earned his undergraduate degree at Eastern Michigan University, where he studied history, English and education, packing up his car and moving to New York City as soon as he graduated. In New York, Rogers worked as a teacher and eventually an academic supervisor for eight years at Achievement First Aspire Elementary School in Brooklyn. He enjoyed the experience but said he didn’t see himself and other people of color represented in the broader charter school network around the city.
So Rogers struck out on his own, earning a fellowship with BES, an organization that provides support to educators looking to establish new charter schools. He and the organization circled in on the Capital Region, and Rogers moved to Albany in September, thinking that city could be home to the new school.
But after starting discussions with the people in the region, Rogers said, he noticed that there was no charter school in Schenectady and heard from people suggesting he focus his efforts there. Rogers, who plans to move to Schenectady in the coming months, said he wants to focus the school’s recruitment and enrollment efforts in the Hamilton Hill and Eastern Avenue-Vale neighborhoods, seeking out high-need students, and he promised not to bar students with special needs and other learning challenges from the proposed school. He said he has met families in the community looking for more options.
“There’s a lack of choice, we’ve heard several times from families across Schenectady, they are considering moving to seek out other educational opportunities,” Rogers said. “We are asking the question why not Schenectady? Why can’t we have a high quality charter school option in Schenectady?”
The imminent school proposal also promises to thrust the Schenectady education community back into the throes of the country’s long-raging fights over charter schools. On one side, advocates for the alternative schools argue they give educators and students a chance to break free from the strictures of entrenched practices and families a choice for something different than what’s available in traditional public schools. On the other side, charter school detractors argue public school systems should be improved so that all students in a community – not just a lottery-selected handful – have an adequate education and that charter schools inevitably drain needed funding from the local district.
A charter school in Schenectady last closed its doors in 2008, after the International Charter School of Schenectady failed to earn a charter renewal from the SUNY Board of Trustees. Then in 2011, a group organized another charter school proposal, aiming to take over the Draper School building vacated by the previous charter. But after a proposal submission, withdrawal and resubmission, the idea fizzled out, and the city has gone without a charter school – or even noticeable discussion about one – in the years since.
If the charter school is approved, it will rely on funding from the city school district, at a rate set by state law, for each student from the district that attends the new school. Rogers said the school would also seek donations, grants and other funding sources.
But many people involved in public education argue under the state’s current system, charter schools invariably draw resources away from public districts in ways that hurt the students in those districts.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, said she would oppose the proposal on the grounds that the state’s charter school funding system harmed the local district. She also highlighted another oft-cited criticism of charter schools: they get to operate under more lenient rules and regulations than existing public schools.
“It’s presented like a competition: here’s an entity that’s going to come in and provide a different or better educational opportunity, and they are funded by taking money from the public school,” Benaquisto said in a recent interview. “I’m going to be opposed to a charter school proposal based on the way they are funded right now. I don’t think it’s right and fair to take money from the public school system to support another system that doesn’t have to follow the same rules.”
Jamaica Miles, a community activist long involved in Schenectady schools and often critical of district leadership, said she was open to learning more about Rogers’ plan, but she argued school improvement efforts should be focused on enhancing services and funding in the existing public school system – the only institution with a mandate to educate every last child in the city. She said she wants to see all the information to determine the impact it will have on the district and students in the community who stay in district schools.
“Every child deserves small classrooms and wraparound services, and I’m always looking for an opportunity for every child to have access to that,” Miles said. “How is it we can make sure every child has small classrooms and wraparound services and not just some of our children?”
Rogers has started to advance his proposal to different audiences in the city, giving a virtual presentation to the Schenectady Rotary Club on Thursday. He recounted his negative experiences in Detroit schools, where he said he never received the attention and support he needed. He outlined how he plans to design a school that empowers students to participate in building community and emphasizes literacy and math skills.
If approved, the planned school would start with around 100 students in kindergarten and first grade, gradually ramping up to a full elementary school with around 400 students. The school year would be eight days longer than the district’s school calendar and each school day would go from 7:30 a.m. to 4:05 p.m., significantly longer than typical school day in Schenectady elementary schools. Rogers said he is still searching for a site, looking to potentially partner with a community center or other organization for space in the first couple of years before finding a permanent home for the school.
“We are uniquely positioned to design our school based on what we believe and what the community says it needs,” Rogers said.
Rogers has started to put together a governing board for the proposed school, drawing from both Schenectady and broader Capital Region and promising more Schenectady residents would be represented on the board as it continued to grow. Members so far include: Raysheea Turner, a lawyer in Schenectady; Cherly Almonte Lare, a CPA; Joshua Koss, a local real estate agent, and; Ashley Whiteside, a social worker.
Rogers hasn’t formally opened a dialogue with Schenectady school district officials yet but said he planned to do so in the coming weeks and that he hoped to develop a constructive relationship with district leaders. He highlighted the district’s low proficiency scores in his presentation, noting all 11 elementary schools in the district score below average on standardized tests.
A pair of school board members – Andy Chestnut and Ann Reilly – joined the Rotary meeting and greeted Rogers with a handful of questions and a challenge to data he presented about academic outcomes and educational attainment in Schenectady. (Rogers’ presentation cited graduation rates the district has since improved on, among other data points the board members questioned.)
“When we put figures up, we say where they came from,” Reilly said as she asked Rogers about the data he cited.
Chestnut pointed out that no matter how many students may ultimately benefit from Rogers’ proposed school, the school district will still have thousands of students with similar needs they must support.
“Regardless of how many people that wind up going to your school, there are going to be thousands of them we still have to work with,” Chestnut said.
Rogers, who brings a gracious and cheery attitude to conversations, promised to reach out to the board members to talk about the data, his broader goals and how they can work together.
“We do have the same goals, our goals are to educate children and make sure they are set up for life success,” Rogers said. “We are not just thinking about the opposition, we are thinking about how we can work with local public schools to make sure we are both serving students equitably.”
Rogers, though, also indicated he doesn’t plan to bow to objections, concerns and naysayers as he seeks out families looking for an alternative education choice – and those he said don’t yet know want that choice.
“That is not going to stop us from our mission and what we believe,” Rogers said of opposition and charter school critics. “If all district schools do well then there is no need for Destine Prep or any charter school to exist in the community.”