School choice gave this teacher freedom

Angela Kennedy’s decision to quit being a public school teacher was driven by a steady drip, drip, drip of frustration.

Dr. Angela Kennedy was a 14-year veteran of public schools when she left to start her own private school. She had been a classroom teacher and instructional coach, and had also coordinated curriculum compliance for English language learners. “I wanted parents and students and teachers to have another option,” she said.

In her view, teaching had become too scheduled and scripted, with new teacher evaluations rewarding conformity more than effectiveness. Cohort after cohort of low-income kids continued to stumble and fall, while people far from classrooms continued to impose mandate after mandate. Her passion for teaching began to fade.

Kennedy considered becoming an administrator, so she could attempt reform from within. But ultimately, she took a leap of faith. After 14 years in Orange County Public Schools, she did what educators in Florida increasingly have real power to do: She started her own school.

Deeper Root Academy began three years ago, with three students in Kennedy’s home. Now it’s a thriving PreK-8 with 80 students and nine teachers, including seven who, like Kennedy, once worked in public schools. Most of the students are black, and 80 percent are from in or near Pine Hills, a tough part of Orlando that drew President Trump to another private school this month.

“It was that back and forth, thinking about where I could be the most impactful,” Kennedy said. “Would it be to stay and try to start a change? To try to deal with a mammoth system? Not likely that I’m going to get very far … ”

“But what I could do is give people an option. And that’s where this school came from. I wanted parents and students and teachers to have another option.”

Kennedy had options because parents had options.

Florida offers one of the most robust blends of educational choice in America, which is why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gives it a nod. Forty-five percent of Florida students in PreK-12 attend something other than their zoned district schools, with a half-million in privately-operated options thanks to some measure of state support.

Charter schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts are all opening doors for Florida students. With far less fanfare, they’re doing the same for teachers.

“In my school,” Kennedy said, “I have the liberty to do what’s best for my kids.”

At Deeper Root, she and her staff are guided by the theory of multiple intelligences. Parents like it. Enrollment is rising fast from word-of-mouth referrals.

About 50 students attend with help from choice programs – tax credit scholarships for low-income students, McKay vouchers for students with disabilities, and Gardiner Scholarships, an education savings account program for students with special needs such as autism. The tax credit and Gardiner programs are administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

It’s unclear how many of Florida’s 50,000-plus private and charter school educators once taught in district schools. But it’s easy to find examples of teachers who migrated from one sector to another (see here, here and here). And it wouldn’t be surprising, given the growth in choice programs, that the number of crossover teachers is rising too.

Kennedy said colleagues in district schools frequently call, wanting to know what it’s like to teach in a school that she herself shaped. Many are as frustrated as she was, and intrigued by the new possibilities. It’s highly unlikely, she said, that a massive system compelled to be “uniform” can ever meet the needs of every teacher. Just as with students, some teachers won’t fit the mold.

“I don’t think that anyone had malicious intent,” Kennedy said of the regulations that guide the state system. “I think they’re trying to get a structure in place that’s uniform.”

But “teachers are not robots.”

Deeper Root moved from Kennedy’s home, to a storefront in a shopping plaza, to now, the leafy campus of a trim, modern, Presbyterian church. At a Black History Month event, students in crisp uniform shared their knowledge with peers and parents in the church auditorium. One expounded on the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Several gave a presentation about the slave ship Henrietta Marie. A fourth grader, poise far beyond his years, recited portions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

Kennedy considered a charter school, but decided the regulations were still too much. More importantly, she wouldn’t be able to create the faith-based environment she and her parents want.

Deeper Root students take Bible class and go to chapel every Wednesday. But their curriculum is not faith-based. The school teaches Florida state standards, which are based on Common Core. Many of Kennedy’s students arrive after stints in Florida public schools, and most will return there for high school. “I want them prepared,” she said.

Preparation includes life lessons too. Students grow cabbage and broccoli in planter boxes made from old shelving. They take field trips to Publix to learn how to read labels and choose healthy foods. They visit restaurants so they can order from the menu and leave a tip.

While choice can empower teachers, it’s still not easy, Kennedy said. Going solo was scary, particularly because she had no experience with the financial side of school operations. At one point, a bad business relationship drained her investment and forced her to take out loans.

The learning curve was painful, but compelled her to quickly learn the essentials. Now, Kennedy said, she can advise other educators who want to make the leap – and serve as proof it can be done.

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