It is rare for a high school alumni to connect with their past teachers and interview them regarding their current and inspiring work. As an alumni ambassador for THINK Global School, I had a chance to interview Ambika Dani, my math teacher and very good friend,as I had heard about her new project to start a charter school in San Antonio, Texas. As always, it was inspiring to talk to her and connect to someone with a vision and values that I believe in – especially as she is doing something about it!
So how did you start this school?
To be clear, I haven’t yet started the school. We are proposing to open a public charter school here in San Antonio, and to be granted a charter, you have to apply for it. We submitted our charter application to the state of Texas in December 2017 and will find out in June 2018 if we are authorized to open a school. The reason we have to go through an authorization process is because a charter school is publicly funded, and the state needs to do its due diligence to ensure that any school receiving public funds has the leadership, vision, and capacity to operate successfully in the best interest of its students.
My journey to wanting to start a charter school began when I moved to San Antonio. I knew very little about San Antonio and as I considered my next steps as an educator, I began to do some significant research of my own into the academic performance of the traditional school districts in the city. I quickly discovered that there were large pockets of the city that had struggled academically for decades, and that these areas corresponded to primarily low-income communities. I was shocked to learn that San Antonio is also the most economically segregated city in the United States. As someone who has always been passionate about educational equity, I determined there was a significant need to ensure that families in the poorest communities in San Antonio had access to the high-quality education they deserve.
My move to San Antonio also coincided with my acceptance into the Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship. BES helps to train and support individuals like myself to found and lead high-performing charter schools in areas of high-need. I knew that starting a charter school would be no easy feat and that being part of a leadership program such as BES would give me the insight and training that I needed to to be able to successfully found a school. BES also provides me with the incredible opportunity to travel across the United States and visit some of the highest performing charter schools to learn from how they have achieved such incredible results in primarily low-income communities.
Combining the training and experience that I would receive from BES with the high need and demand for quality public schools in San Antonio’s poorest neighborhoods, I became convinced that founding a public charter school in a low-income community was something that I truly felt passionate about and was excited to commit myself entirely to.
Wow. Then you really need to find people who share your passion and vision, and are able to carry on with you until the end. That doesn’t seem easy. How did you find your team?
This is definitely not work that can be done alone. One of my first steps was to put together a Founding Board of Directors for the school who will eventually be responsible for the academic and financial oversight of the school. As someone who had recently moved to San Antonio, this was not an easy task! I went through hundreds of LinkedIn profiles (and was even temporarily blocked by LinkedIn at some point because of this unusual activity!), did an incredible amount of research, sent out about 400 emails, and bought coffee for at least 100 people to find the eight board members that are currently a part of my team. For each person I met, I had conversations with them to understand why they were passionate about education and whether they had the time to commit to serving on the board. Each conversation, regardless of whether it led to me finding a board member or not, was so valuable. There was always so much that I learned about San Antonio, and through these conversations I began to form such a strong connection to the city that I now live in.
What plans do you have for your school? What’s the school going to look like?
Promesa Academy will be an elementary school, educating students in Kindergarten through fifth grade. I chose to found an elementary school because I believe that if we truly want to ensure that every child, no matter their zip code, has access to a life of opportunity, we must ensure that they have access to a high-quality education starting in Kindergarten.
As for the educational model of the school, a core aspect of our program is that we will have content-expert teachers in the elementary classrooms. What that means is that instead of having a single Kindergarten teacher who is responsible for teaching a group of students five or six different subjects, our Kindergarteners will have different teachers, each of whom are highly knowledgeable and deeply passionate about their subjects. I was inspired to do this by my time teaching in Saint Anns School in New York City. As my students as TGS know, I used to be a middle and high-school teacher, but when I left TGS to teach at Saint Anns, I was given the opportunity to also teach elementary math in addition to middle and high school math. I saw such incredible power in being an individual in the younger grades who had the knowledge to truly challenge my students and push their thinking. For example, I was able to engage third graders in a discussion about binary and ternary numbers as they learned about the base ten system and why we use it today! Most people tend to underestimate the curiosity and potential of young children, but they are incredibly smart and eager to learn and we need to fuel their curiosity and challenge them to new heights.
Another part of the model is our local and global studies class. Many of the children from our proposed community never get to venture beyond their zip code. Similar to TGS’ vision, we want to ensure that we can expand our students sense of their world and their relationship to it. We are hoping to create authentic learning experiences that connect our students to local San Antonio leaders, businesses, and community organizations, and also to partner with TGS so that our students can connect with those at TGS to understand issues not just at a local level, but also at a global level. Joann has created such an incredibly powerful learning experience for students at TGS, and we are hoping to replicate that in a small way for our children in San Antonio..
Starting a school is a dream to me but it also seems so intimidating. I also don’t have any background really in education except one college class. How do you start a school?
Honestly, I never thought it was something that I could do. It was definitely a dream of mine to be able to reach students in low-income communities and ensure they have access to high-quality education, but I never thought that starting a school would be the way that I do that. The process to apply for a charter school is actually not as complicated as people may think. We had to submit a lengthy application to the state that detailed every aspect of our school, but if we can prove that we have a strong vision and a strong team to carry out this vision, we are very likely to get approved. You also don’t necessarily need a degree in education to be the Founder or to be on the Founding Board of a school. Sure you need experts in education to run a school, but technically anyone can submit an application for a charter. I don’t mean to say that getting authorized is easy, and in fact the state of Texas makes it quite difficult as they should, but the actual process to apply for a charter is much easier than you might think.
Would you say the main thing you need is passion?
You undeniably need passion, but you also need an incredible work ethic. I used to say that TGS was the hardest work that I’ve done until recently when I started working on founding a school! I’ve had to write the application, build a Founding Board, fundraise, search for facilities, market the school, build relationships with key organizations and individuals, and the list goes on and on. As tiring as the work can get at times, I know that it is well worth it. We have the potential to make such a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of children in our city, and I could not be more excited for the work that lies ahead and the day that the doors of our school finally open.
Well, the kids are very lucky to have you. I can’t wait to see your school. Wish I was still in the states so I can join you!
Yes, I’ve already had a TGS alum contact me about working at Promesa! I should probably start looking into how we can support work visas 🙂
Thank you so much. I’ll be checking the Promesa Academy Facebook page for updates!