Charter Schools: Reimagining through Conversation

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Jerilyn Olsen, Great Hearts Academies

The theme of this year’s National Charter School Conference (NCSC) is “Reimagining Education” and in June our greater charter school family will gather from across the nation to hear how each of us are doing just this. 

As a network of K-12 academies serving nearly 18,000 students in Arizona and Texas with a classical education, the Great Hearts Academies approach might seem out of place in “reimagining education.”  A classical education after all, starts with a respect for the great ideas of the past.

But a classical education offers a unique perspective to the innovation conversation. We believe that to “reimagine education,” we must first carefully study the images of education created across a rich traditionfor we have to acknowledge that the conversation began long before us. Then, with this greater vision in mind, we return to our present context to grapple with how lasting truths find new life serving our communities of today—to bring to a new generation the knowledge and experiences of beauty that were once reserved for society’s elite.

At Great Hearts, we commit to cultivating renaissance women and men who can see the big picturewho can listen, write, and speak well. These students have strong character and have a keen eye and ear for what’s true and what matters. Some call this critical thinking, but when aligned to the search for truth, the ancients simply called this wisdom.

Heroes throughout history have done this. Consider Martin Luther King Jr., whose education in classical rhetoric equipped him to speak powerfully. It enabled him to effectively address the injustices of his day and to win the hearts of men and women. Dr. King drew from conversations before him and boldly brought his own voice to it.

Great Hearts Academies classroom

At Great Hearts, we study Dr. King’s words, amongst other powerful orators, to draw on their wisdom to equip students for the work of today. We use the Socratic method to unleash our students’ sense of wonder while simultaneously developing their capacity for deep reflection, problem-solving, and a taste for the true, the good and the beautiful. And we do this in all disciplines. When captured by the beauty of mathematics, for instance, students will find the eventual application of the subject more profound. In our newly created logic and coding course for seniors, students begin with the ancient study of Aristotelian logic and progress through its application to the modern computer. But again, at the heart of all of this, we believe that the best ideas that have arisen across time often have been the result of conversation.

What I have found is that NCSC provides that space these types of conversation. At past NCSC conferences,  I worked with colleagues late into the night in various hotel lobbies and restaurants to recap sessions we attended. These informal conversations give us a chance to react to ideas presented at the conference, and dream of how we would take the ideas and make them our own. We wrestled with ideas presented earlier in the day and reimagined them in our own contextthinking of the unique student populations we each serve.

NCSC has always been a place where in one moment we stumbled upon close friends doing very similar work and in the next moment we were challenged deeply in a session by colleagues who saw things very differently. Yet, we feel united by the fundamental belief that families should be provided with excellent options for their children,. As the Hebrew proverb notes, “iron sharpens iron.”

That’s why I’m particularly honored to serve on the NCSC planning committee this year. I am compelled by the great need for national collaboration. I love thinking about how special this opportunity is for the annual conference to support and unite the incredible work of individual regions, networks, and schools. We must ask, what voices ought to be highlighted and what practices should be considered? Who will prompt the right conversations among our incredibly talented teachers, school leaders, and colleagues in our common work, to transform the American public education system?

This year’s programming will not disappoint. From the most current topics that are fresh on the mindto addressing the perennial questions for each of us. The sessions and speakers promise to prompt conversation that allow you and your school to “dig in”,and challenges each of us to reimagine our work—to take hold of new ideas and at the same time maintain our core principles so that we can bring the best we have to our students every day.

Great Hearts will be there, ready for conversation. We hope to see you there.


Jerilyn Olson is the vice president of professional development at Great Hearts Academies.


May 21, 2019 - 04:28pm
Kiann R Mapes

Excellent thoughts offered around the inherent value of conversation between colleagues about their work, and the things that matter most therein. I'm also struck by the unique opportunity which well-executed conferences and other academic gatherings provide for colleagues of different organizations to speak to one another. We learn much by identifying and articulating both the alignment and the distinctions of our methods and approaches, as we work together towards such a critically important aim.