Alexis C. Harris | Pioneer Educator
Founder | Hope Academy
"I taught in the Neptune, and Asbury Park school systems, as well as in a private school setting working with special needs children. I'm a pioneer by nature. From a spiritual point of view it was my calling to start a charter school. I see a need in the community and I always look for ways to deal with that. My husband and I were both involved in an outreach project called Project Hope and we ran it as an after school and evening program, providing tutoring and christian education. We expanded the tutoring because we saw the need due to the student's academic inabilities. I had the idea of a school in mind but, I didn't have any idea how I was going to make that a reality until I investigated the Charter School movement. At the time I thought it was my opportunity to do some of what I had been thinking about for years. Like Project Hope, I saw a need and I said, I just have to do this. I have to be honest, beginning this initiative, I really didn't know what I was doing, but I knew this needed to be done. It's like flying and learning at the same time. The need is there, this is what I'm supposed to be doing and I just start doing it.
As a result of some of the Charter School laws my husband and I put together a proposal that took us about a year to finish. We partnered with another group who was interested in starting a Charter School as well. We planned out all the parameters of how we saw the school running including the students and target population, the curriculum, how we intended on delivering services, and specifically our focus on character development and community service. In addition to having a high quality of education, we want our students to be invested in the community. We just continued moving forward as if we would get the Charter and we finally did get it. We were committed to contracts with teachers and staff—it was a leap of faith. Finally, we got our charter on August 31, 2001 and opened the doors the very next day.
We started out with grades Kindergarten through 5th at St. George Church, as well as the at the little Spanish church right around the corner. We actually knocked on the door and asked if we could house our 7th grade students and he allowed us to come in. As we grew, we went over to Trinity Church and asked if we could house our 7th and 8th grade class there. They let us come in, so we took 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and housed them at Trinity Church and had two campuses, with teachers and students walking back and forth. That was a challenge, so we realized we needed one building. When we heard Brookdale was moving out of this building we brought everyone back together again in one space.
We've had one class that's graduated from college and we see our students come back to see us regularly. How many times do you see that happen where students come back to visit their junior high or elementary schools? They realize that they had something positive here and when they leave they need to re-connect with that again—they want to stay in touch with it.
Safety is especially concerning to our kids. They don't feel safe. Just in the past several weeks we've had two additional shootings in town. Those kinds of things are constantly on our kid's minds.
Our students are involved in many civic activities. They participate in Clean Ocean Action cleanup, in the Senior Center, during the holidays they sing, they take advantage of visiting the various businesses in town and they attend City Council meetings. The kids have voiced that they want Asbury to be safer and they want to see and have access to parks, particularly on the west side. Safety is especially concerning to our kids. They don't feel safe. Just in the past several weeks we've had two additional shootings in town. Those kinds of things are constantly on our kids minds and so when they are here at Hope Academy they feel safe. The primary reason our parents bring their children here is not necessarily because of academic excellence. It's safety.
We also have a parents academy. We provide various types of workshops for parents, from how to help kids with their homework and computer classes to monitor their child's activity on the Internet, to how to manage stress. All of this is to help inform parents on how they can best help their child and keep them safe, as well as managing their own well being. If we can lift parents up it can always help that much more because it also shows the student that not only is education important to my parent, but it also demonstrates that importance when they come to school together. That really ups the stakes in terms of the educational process. By-in-large students whose parents are invested and participate regularly are the ones who do the best. We don't expect to get 100% participation, but we get anywhere between 48 to 60%, and we strongly encourage the parents to participate on that level. When you sign up a child at Hope Academy, you sign up too—it's a commitment. It's a partnership between the school and the home, if we're going to optimize the the child's ability to perform—we've got to be partners.
Our original vision was to see continuity from kindergarten to 8th grade, but with the redevelopment we saw a lot of mobility. We had to rethink how we were going to optimize our impact on children and families—people and work skills. A lot of our parents had their homes bought out from under them, so they had to relocate. One of the provisions we made was that if you have to leave Asbury Park, you can keep your child at Hope Academy as long as you can get them here. One issue with this though is that it impacts our scores. For example, we have a class of 23 students per grade level. So one third grader scoring poorly impacts our scores, more so than a district that has a multitude of third grades. So that isn't a true measurement of whether we are performing well or not. That has been one of our major challenges over the years. Also, Charter Schools are capped at a particular number of students and in order to increase your enrollment you need to get permission. As long as we stay fixed at 207 students we will always get the same amount of funding, unless there's an increase in the per pupil amount. Private funding could certainly make a difference in expanding our programs.
Faith in the Future | We want to be able to build out and expand to accept more students into our program. The risk of not owning the building is that it impedes our ability to have extended community outreach activities. New Jersey Community Capital purchased the building from the owners so that we were able to occupy the entire building, essentially making it ours. This now allows us to provide the kind of programming and do other kinds of community outreach work because we have full access to the building. For instance, we no longer have an adult educational program in Asbury Park since Brookdale left and there's a need for adult programming, specifically for work skills. We field tested a computer class with Monmouth University which we'd like to expand on to offer other adult work-related education.
In the future, I envision acquiring, not only part of the parking lot,
but a piece of property right next to our building to build a
gymnasium, community center and more classrooms to open the
facility up to do additional community work.
We are holistic program. It's not just about reading, writing and arithmetic—a whole person presents him or herself when they come to the school. There's the physical, intellectual, social, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects that we have to care for. Expanding beyond the borders of our students and their families, holistically we want to reach out to the community and be able to provide a place, activities and programming that speaks to all people. No matter how long it may take—I still hold out faith that it will happen. We can do it."
Alexis C. Harris' story was translated from an audio recording.