Future School of Fort Smith: A Conversation with Trish Flanagan
Q&A 09 November 2017
By Trish Flanagan
This is what it’s all about—a community that isn’t going to wait for the next best thing to figure this out, and people who are willing to give someone a shot.
Q. How was your passion for education born?
A. My parents did a great thing for me when I was young. They brought me to volunteer in the inner city of St. Louis, MO. That’s where my passion for this work emerged. I remember being in my car seat in the back of a station wagon with homeless men sitting on either side of me as we dropped them off at the homeless shelter. And, I remember becoming friends with some of the these folks’ children and visiting their homes once they got out of the shelter. When I saw how different their neighborhood was from mine, as a little kid, I wondered, “Why the difference?” It didn’t make sense to me. I’ve been obsessed with equity and the solutions to it because of those childhood experiences.
Q: How did your childhood experiences guide your future endeavors?
A: In high school and college, I performed a lot of work in the social services (i.e. food banks, Big Brother Big Sister, etc.). As a sophomore in college, I headed to Limerick, Ireland to study abroad, but when I arrived, I became more interested in the traveling kids—homeless, transient youth—I was teaching than my actual classes.
Catholic Charities operated a working farm run by my students. While working there, they built wood products that were sold at a local shop in town and tended a farm whose produce was used by a local restaurant run by mentally handicapped children. The work-study program provided an opportunity for the kids to earn a few dollars per day through work and receive lessons from qualified educators. I wanted to dedicate my time with these kids, so I dropped my classes and focused on teaching them how to read.
This program made a lot of sense to me. It showed how you can have win-wins with marginalized kids and their families. They don’t have to operate in isolation. In fact, they can be part of a fully integrated system of society, so the cycle of poverty can be eradicated.
Along the road, I didn’t have a specific goal in mind. I was interested in studying people as part of my degree in anthropology at Northern Arizona University. After graduating, I moved to San Francisco and did social work for a couple of years. That’s where I learned, if you want to break the cycle, you have to start with the kids. It’s a logistical thing. Kids don’t have debt yet; they don’t have kids yet; they don’t have mortgages or jobs. With kids, you have a very captivated audience. That stuck with me.
I wanted to see what the classroom was like because I thought: This is where kids have to be. I was running an after-school program. This meant I was trying to catch people as they were really just wanting to get home and cook dinner. I kept wondering, “What would happen if we had eight hours of these kids’ time every day?”
With this thought still swimming in my mind, I ended up landing in Brownsville, Texas with Teach For America (TFA) for two years. I learned a ton about how to create a focused learning environment in what can sometimes seem like total chaos. After TFA, I wanted to see what the United States looked like from the outside.
I originally planned on traveling for a couple of months but found myself in the Caribbean for three years. One day, I woke up and realized I was working with some of the most marginalized and muted people in the world. I knew their voices needed to make it to the decision-making table, so I looked at grad school. This next step in my journey landed me in Arkansas.
While I attended the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, the school suggested I go get my M.B.A. I had no prior business background, but once I got in there, it blew the doors wide open. I was introduced to many valuable business concepts that showed me how to scale a solution and focus on the impact and metrics that would be meaningful to everyone involved.
We had eight months to get everything together to open the school that fall. There are definitely times along the way where it’s tempting to wait another year before opening, but you can’t wait. Regardless of when you start, you have to learn from your mistakes and make it better from there.
Q: So many twists and turns to get you to Arkansas. What specifically led you to Fort Smith and to starting Future School?
A: While at the Walton College of Business, I met Steve Clark, a supportive mentor and innovative business partner. Before Future School, we worked on another education project. I think it was after we discussed a recent trip to Liberia, where I’d been invited to start a school, he suggested I consider opening a new school in his hometown of Fort Smith. We explored the idea for a year, during which I put in an application that was immediately approved by the Board of Education. We had eight months to get everything together to open the school that fall; find and prepare a building, hire and train a team, recruit and enroll students!
It was daunting to consider at first, but with the incredible amount of support from stakeholders throughout the state, we knew we had to strike while the iron was hot. Regardless of when you start, you have to learn from your mistakes and make it better from there. That’s the whole reason for charter schools—don’t be afraid to get outside the box. But, don’t do it haphazardly. You have to do it with intention to study and learn from what you’re doing. Most importantly, we knew we had to start with the goal of sharing and collaborating within our community.
Q: There was a specific ask from community leaders in Fort Smith to open a school. Can you elaborate on how that happened?
A: There was a group of community and business leaders who were pushing back against a $60 million construction plan for a third high school out in the suburbs. Our stakeholders felt that size of investment was unnecessary. It was more bricks and mortar and much of the same. The leaders asked the district to run a needs assessment.
It was incredible to see how a group of community leaders connected the idea of community development with meeting education needs. They were investing in property, businesses, and the people. So, they were saying there needs to be a new school in that area, not in a community that already has a bunch of resources. It was our community insisting that we can’t drain our urban centers and leave those kids behind.
To build buy-in, we explained our position as advocates for public education and social justice—that’s why we’re doing this.
Q: As an outsider, how did you garner trust with the community?
A: One of the tips I’ve picked up along the way, as I’ve worked in communities around the world, is if you work with kids, people in the community will generally assume you have the best intentions. Of course, that’s not always the case, but everyone wants their children to have a good education. If you’re the person who works with their kids, that sometimes cuts through the “you’re a stranger” mentality. You can be taken in by the community.
As part of the charter application process, we had to hold a community meeting to collect signatures of support for Future School. Informed by my background in social work—doing workshops all the time—we decided to have a series of these meetings happening all summer long. We had people who opposed charters (and therefore, us) come to every meeting, sit in the front row, and grill me with questions. They weren’t so much in opposition to our particular mission as they were to the unknown. We were the first charter within 100 miles in every direction, so there was reasonable fear about what we were trying to create. We weren’t going to be overcome by these challenges because we understood where they were coming from.
To build buy-in, we explained our position as advocates for public education and social justice—that’s why we’re doing this. I believe there are systematic policies that ultimately lead to the segregation of kids and constant labeling. Quite honestly, all of this furthers the prevalence of racism and inequity.
The challenge then becomes about how we are able to measure that impact—that shift in culture.
Q: How have you measured your impact since opening in 2016?
A: As soon as we opened, we were immediately being copied. For example, the high school we’re closest to now has an internship program. This is exciting and can sometimes lead to challenges. We’re strongly supported by the public school board, but when it comes further down the pipe, there is a lot more resistance. As others begin using our language and mimicking some of our practices, it starts to turn into a competition analogy, which I don’t agree with.
In a competition, there are winners and losers. This isn’t even about school choice because if you have a “choice,” there will then be good versus bad, and kids will lose. It’s about scientifically looking at the whole system and finding the variables we can change to get the outcomes we want.
When the Board of Education approved our charter, they requested we document what we’re doing because they want to share the work. Of course, fulfilling that request becomes very hard. Since we’ve been up and running with everyone wearing ten different hats, it’s been tricky to evaluate what we’re doing. But, despite this, I do think we’re doing a good job.
We consistently conduct surveys and actively seek feedback. Something I think we’re really improving on is asking students to be problem solvers on campus. When there’s conflict, we tell them they have the biggest voice in this environment. We ask them to consider, “If there are distractions caused by other students, how can you take action, rather than sitting idly?” So, the challenge then becomes about how we are able to measure that impact—that shift in culture.
Some started with us feeling isolated; now, they are flourishing.
More significantly, here’s one story that I think speaks to our unique environment. We have a handful of students who many would say are on the autism spectrum. Some started with us feeling isolated; now, they are flourishing. Some are taking college classes and others in the school are looking out for them. It’s amazing to see. We could resign ourselves and say kids will bully each other at times and be small-minded and hateful. But, at Future School, we know that doesn’t have to be true. Our kids really take care of each other because they see the school as a community. Because of that, those kids are thriving.
Outside of our surveys, which we push out through Google Classroom, we don’t collect as much information as I would like. As we get our internships more solidified, we’re going to use it as a baseline to measure the effectiveness of our practice.
I think a big piece of this conversation is about the shift we need to make from measuring outputs to measuring outcomes. I can tell you how many volunteers came to an event or how much money we’ve raised. But, I’d rather tell you how many kids’ life trajectories are changing. At 15 years old, they have a mentor who is a CEO and meets with them every week to introduce them to their network.
Q: That sounds like an incredible story. Can you share more about it?
A: Mario is a 4.0 student from Latin America who didn’t want to come here at all. He had it made at the other school he was attending. Everyone knew him. But, as his mom built a relationship with us over many months, she knew this school would be better for him. As he got going here, he discovered he had an interest in finance.
He never knew that before and is now on his second internship project with the same oil and gas company he started with last school year. He works directly with the C-suite. His mentor is the CFO of this multimillion dollar company. When we brought him over to do his initial interview, he came back to school the next day and told us his mom is actually the mentor’s housekeeper. Additionally, his sister is caught up in the DACA dilemma because she is undocumented. She was starting her second year of college, was in need of financial assistance, and couldn’t pull any strings. With Mario’s connection, she now has a part-time job with the company, which will help her pay for school.
Our team is inspired by the work we are doing to pave new ground.
This is what it’s all about—a community that isn’t going to wait for the next best thing to figure this out, and people who are willing to give someone a shot. It starts with creating a set of expectations and making something real. Mario’s highest bar, when looking at the context of his life, may not have been as career-focused in a traditional school. He was a French horn player, had a 4.0 GPA, yet his mom realized there was a “so what?” She didn’t know what he was going to do with that in the long run.
I’m friends with the CEO of the company Mario is interning with. So, when I checked in with Bill to see how Mario was doing, he told me to ask Mario what the price of gas is the next time I saw him. That’s a thing now around school—asking Mario what the price of gas is. Why does he know this? When people in the C-suite ask him for information about the stock market, he has to be ready to give an answer about all of the high-level information.
Q: As Future School grows and develops, what message do you hope your community latches onto?
A: Often, we underestimate young people, overlooking our greatest resource—our kids. Whether it’s in public service, politics, or leadership, we don’t trust someone who is 5, 10, or 15 years old to be committed, determined, and have good ideas. Yet, that’s exactly what we need to do. Our team is inspired by the work we are doing to pave new ground. Our goal is to develop a strategic system that champions student voice and equitable learning opportunities that can be implemented in every high school.
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