When Legacy Charter Academy opened its doors in 2010, just 4% of its students were academically proficient. “Through the years, we moved that number to 44%,” says Nathan Tomlinson, Principal at Legacy Charter Academy, a K-8 charter public school in Detroit.
A member of the National Heritage Academies network of charter schools and authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office (GVSU), Legacy Charter Academy operates on the foundation that all kids deserve quality education — no exception.
In Tomlinson’s office and throughout the school, everyone — teachers and students alike — is reminded that “high achievement only takes place in the framework of high expectations,” even in one of the poorest ZIP codes in Michigan, he says.
“We focus on what’s best for kids and we’re intentional about that. We have teachers who understand that our scholars go through traumatic things in their lives, but don’t lower their expectations. We push our students to the best point possible, starting in kindergarten and right through eighth grade, when many go on to application-based high schools,” Tomlinson explains.
Educators at Legacy Charter Academy expect parents to partner in their child’s education and attend parent-teacher conferences and workshops centered around their priority standards. “We inform parents on how to help their scholars,” he says, because he considers parents as stakeholders in their child’s education. “We’re a community-based school and parents are welcome in the building — and not just at the beginning and end of the year.”
Removing barriers to academic success
Because he knows nothing could be more important than the academic success of children who are invested and engaged in their education, Tomlinson continually challenges every member of the Legacy Charter Academy community to go the extra mile to support every child in every classroom. By removing barriers — whatever that means for individual students — educators support and push students to the highest achievement possible.
“It’s about change management and intentionality,” he says. “We have changed the teachers’ mindset and all are considered intervention teachers.” Rather than leave necessary extra instruction to a designated interventionist, “it’s the job of the person in front of the student to fill in the gaps,” he says.
In first through eighth grades, all students are grouped by their demonstrated proficiencies. Novice students work with two certified teachers all day in small group instruction. Partially proficient students work with paraprofessionals for extra support in small groups, and proficient students are challenged academically with material in the next grade level. “Each section gets individualized instruction to meet our priority standards,” Tomlinson says.
As a charter school, Legacy Charter Academy has the flexibility and support to provide students unique learning opportunities for success. When Tomlinson was Middle School Dean, he recognized a particular grade needed a reprieve from the distractions of traditional coed instruction. “That year, students were below 5% proficient,” he says.
When separated into single-gender classes, students bonded to support each other and teachers helped students focus on learning, with good results. “The girls all advanced and they left that grade level being successful,” Tomlinson says, adding that when students do well, they build momentum.
“When they experience success for the first time, it becomes a hunger. They want more. It’s great because here, they have teachers who push them beyond what they thought they could do,” he says. Not every middle school class at Legacy Charter Academy needs single-gender instruction, but for these kids, it worked.
Other out-of-the-box initiatives included Saturday school for boys who would participate in two hours of academics if they could do two hours of sports.
“We remove barriers and find what works,” Tomlinson says.
Strong support for teachers, too
In order to have high expectations for students, teachers must be supported, and Legacy Charter Academy taps into all the benefits of being a school that has partnered with National Heritage Academies and GVSU.
“There’s a baseline for what we expect from our teachers and we give them support along the way,” Tomlinson says. “Administrators need to be present in the classroom to provide feedback and support. We have academic behavior specialists and instructional coaches and have plans for observational field trips so they can see what works for different teachers in their classrooms.”
Through National Heritage Academies, teachers can participate in their own academies to advance to becoming a dean or principal — and there is a rich mentor program to support leadership development. Robust offerings from GVSU allow tuition-reimbursed continuing education and continuous professional development.
“Our scholars deserve an education to be proud of,” Tomlinson says. “Every day, our teachers ensure these opportunities are granted to students. They’re amazing and go above and beyond. They go to bat for their students and believe that high achievement can only take place in the framework of high expectations.”