By Melia LaCour
Washington residents have long maintained a state of ambivalence about Charter Schools. While the jury may still be out for some, there is no doubt that some local leaders are taking full advantage of the Charter movement to bring innovative approaches to education with a goal to eliminate racialized opportunity gaps. For one local educational leader, the hope of opening New Horizons Academy to meet the needs of underserved students, serves as a blazing beacon of hope for closing these gaps.
“I visited private schools to prepare New Horizons and I saw what kids were receiving,” said Chief Executive Officer, and 31-year veteran educator, Dr. Wanda Billingsly, “They had state of the art facilities, they had access to so much. I thought, ‘why can’t our kids have that?’ We are going to bring a little slice of heaven to our kids.”
And a slice of heaven it will be, should the school be authorized by the Washington State Charter School Commission in June. With a vision to “Develop Future Leaders by Closing the Opportunity Gap”, New Horizons Academy, a Kindergarten through 5th grade elementary school, promises a robust educational experience for it’s 456 students. “The beauty of New Horizons is that we are not just focused on low-achieving students, we are also serving gifted students and everyone in-between.”
As founder, Billingsly brings a strong commitment to providing the high-quality instruction students of color deserve and often fail to receive in the public system. “Cultural competency is the umbrella,” Dr. Billingsly explained, “I think what we are going to do is to create a place where kids can bring their culture to school and be embraced instead of seen as a deficit. We also want parents to feel they are partners with us and not feel excluded.”
In support of this mission, leaders at New Horizon have incorporated six components: Diverse highly skilled, experienced teaching staff; Culturally responsive pedagogical practices; Culturally Responsive Parent Engagement Framework; Intercultural Speaker Series; and Inclusive Culture. In addition, Billingsly has aligned the school’s vision with the state’s Opportunity Gap Bill passed by the legislature in 2016. Generated by the state’s Educational Opportunity Gap Accountability and Oversight Committee, a committee on which Billingsly has served since its inception, this bill requires all public schools to improve the educational system across 8 components to close the opportunity gap for students of color and ELL students.
New Horizons’ proposed design is also unique in other ways. The school will offer an expanded day resulting in student access to high-quality instruction from 8:00 to 3:30 and additional interventions for academic support as well as enrichment activities such as robotics, martial arts and chess club from 3:30 to 5:00. This expanded day also allows for effective programming focused on fine arts, technology integration, family and community engagement, timely interventions, personalization and a culturally responsive learning environment.
Additionally, the school year will be expanded from the traditional 180 days to 220 days. “The premise is that a lot of our kids who are several grades behind need either more frequency or duration to be successful. At New Horizons, we will give them both.”
Upheld by the four Core Values of Excellence, Creativity, Resilience, and Character, the Academy is described as a “liberal arts experience.” Through a partnership with Cornish College of the Arts, New Horizons plans to offer ballet, modern dance, vocal and instrumental music. “Children are exposed to all the arts and then they get to choose which one is of interest,” Billingsly explained. “How often do our kids get introduced to instrumental music, especially if their parents can’t pay for it? Can you imagine how motivated you would be to go to school every day?”
Leadership for the Academy includes several prominent, local leaders invested in equitable education. Within the organization, Deborah Ward is the Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Reginald Reed, will serve as Director of Operations and Dr. Billingsly, is both the founder the Chief Executive Officer.
Billingsly’s vast experience includes working as the former Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer for Tukwila School District, and serving currently as a member of the state’s Commission on African American Affairs. This professional history provides her with a blend of skill, conviction and sharp vision necessary to improve student outcomes.
“I really want the community to see that it’s an opportunity to serve our kids in a high-quality manner and driven by individuals who reflect the community,” she stated. “I want to create a model based on what I have seen works to help shape the program. Everyone gets to have a legacy and this is one of those. Here’s an opportunity to put my work into action after 31 years of service. This is my commitment to our children.” Billingsly has also recruited several strong local leaders to serve as Board members: Chair, Deborah Northern, Vice Chair, Sheila Snowden, Dr. Phyllis Beaumonte, Noah Abah, Star Rush, and Dr. Daudi Abe.
In order for this high-powered team of advocates to actualize their dream, they must complete the authorization process. First and foremost is finding a location for the school. While some of the locations considered are in South Seattle, Billingsly would like to draw students from across South King County. They continue to investigate locations further south.
While the Academy passed the completion review process, the next step is the evaluation. This process includes a public forum giving community members an opportunity to learn and give input about the charter school. Should the Academy pass the evaluation process, authorization will be announced June 29th.
Billingsly’s long-term vision for her school includes eventually adding a middle and high school. She believes Charter schools can indeed provide new horizons for underserved students. “After seeing districts fail in meeting the needs students of color, I want to find out, how do you implement what you know will work for our kids in a less restricted environment? It lends itself to innovation and creativity. Doesn’t get any better than that.”
Melia LaCour is the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the PSESD or South Seattle Emerald. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.
Featured image Dr. Wanda Billingsly by Rosalund Jenkins.