What’s the Role of a Charter School Board Member?

Curious about what charter school boards are and who sits on them? So was I. I talked to two school board members in metro Detroit to find out.

If you are like me, you probably know of a charter school that is located near where you live or work. Charter schools are nothing new in Michigan, and you may even have friends and family that choose to send their kids to one. 

While I have heard a lot about charter schools over the years, there was one question I still wanted to explore: . Who are the people that are governing these schools, and what motivates them to serve their communities?

To get a better idea of who sits on the boards of charter schools and their role in helping children receive a high-quality education, I talked with Louis Whitlock, school board member at Metro Charter Academy in Romulus, and Contessa Rudolph, school board member at Pembroke Academy in Detroit.

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Contessa Rudolph is a board member at Pembroke Academy in Detroit. Photo credit: Pembroke Academy

One of the first things they shared was that: members of charter school boards are publicly appointed officials who volunteer to further public education at the local level.They go through a rigorous application process and, if they are approved, are appointed to the board by the school’s authorizer, which in most cases is a public university in Michigan, like Grand Valley State University or Central Michigan University.

Each also talked openly about why they serve on their charter school boards, what kind of work they do to help ensure children receive a quality education and who might make a good candidate for a charter school board. 

Now I know a lot more about charter school boards and I’m sharing what I learned. 

School board members bring unique strengths and experiences to their roles

They’re not always educators or former educators, but they believe in the value of a strong education. With her background in public health education, Contessa Rudolph, a native Detroiter, was a board member of a charter school in metro Detroit, but was particularly interested in supporting a charter school in the city of Detroit. 

She says the curriculum model at Pembroke Academy, a K-8 school, is especially effective in helping students succeed.

“It’s vastly different from the traditional age-based model. At the beginning, all students entering the school are tested for reading comprehension and proficiency, then aligned where they are with the goal of bringing them up to the level they should be,” she says. “In many instances, we’re successful in getting that accomplished rather quickly because if fundamentals are missing we’re able to bridge that through the support of our dedicated teaching staff.”

Fifteen years ago, Louis Whitlock was encouraged to join the K-8 Metro Charter Academy board by former colleagues at Ford Motor Company, where he worked as an engineer. 

“It was a relatively new school and they wanted to embrace diversity. I’m African American and they wanted to create an inclusive culture where students can see someone who looks like them and learn that they can be successful if they take the right steps,” he says. 

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Metro Charter Academy is recognized for its high student achievement and moral focus program, and Whitlock says he’s proud of the diverse, inclusive school culture and the commitment of the families who drive their students from as far away as Ypsilanti, Dearborn, Canton and Westland to attend the school.

Charter school boards help allocate budgets for student programs

Like any public school, the school board at Metro Charter Academy is responsible for making operational and financial decisions to create a sustainable school environment that leads to great student outcomes. 

“That budget allows us to do good work,” says Whitlock. “At every board meeting, when the principal outlines what they are doing in the school, the question that comes from the board is what do you need from us to fund this program?” 

Funding sports and other activities is especially important, he says, because they drive connections between students and school and, as Whitlock puts it, “help the students have an appetite to learn, be at school and be part of a team.”

Metro Charter Academy’s high-performing robotics team, for instance, gets Whitlock excited about what students can achieve through real-world STEM engagement. In fact, he’s sad robotics wasn’t a thing when he was a young student — and he says he’s happy to approve funding for materials needed for the team to compete. 

“Growing up I was a Trekkie. I took apart stuff and got in trouble for it,” he says. “I would have eaten up something like robotics. That would have been fun.”

Charter school boards are responsible for governance

A primary role for a charter school board is to maintain compliance, says Rudolph. “We follow the regulations and rules that come through either at the federal or state or even the local level. And then we support the administration as well as the school staff with initiatives that may be important to them,” she says.

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They also ensure the school upholds the same high educational standards set forth by the state’s department of education. “We are making sure that we’re doing our due diligence with public dollars and also for the students,” Rudolph says. “Anyone who chooses to be on a school board — whether elected or part of a charter school or as a trustee of a private school — is committed to the education of the next generation.”

Just like traditional public schools, charter school boards hold regular public meetings and there’s always a representative from the school’s authorizer present, says Whitlock. That’s important because it underscores the role of the authorizer and the connection to higher education. 

The desire to support students is required for the role

Rudolph and Whitlock encourage individuals who are interested in serving on a charter school board to learn more about the role by attending a school board meeting — but only if they are motivated by working hard to help students, educators and administrators succeed.

“Most charter school boards, I believe, are about making sure the kids succeed. Not about politics or ego, but all about what they can do with whatever skill set they bring to the role,” Whitlock says, adding that he wants students to know that at their charter school, they are part of a team committed to their success — and “that the sky is the limit for you once you get out of school.”

School boards advocate for charter schools as a family choice

Rudolph supports the choice charter schools offer families for a high-quality, no-cost education. 

“As a parent, you want the best for your child and in many circumstances, specifically in the city of Detroit, there’s been a loss of high quality options for education,” she says, adding that she had multiple options in a walkable community when she was a child growing up in Detroit. “Today, that doesn’t exist.” 

A family’s ZIP code may determine the traditional public school a child can attend, but that may not be the best fit for your child, she says. A charter school, however, may be.

“We understand that each kid is an individual learner and has unique abilities. If we’re able to tap into those and strengthen that always endless power by finding a school that has an emphasis on this one thing that a child is really interested in and then be able to take them there so they can thrive in that environment — this is the greatest gift. And we have options available to us here in Michigan,” Rudolph says. 

“I love the idea that there’s choice here for any child, regardless of income level. Because charter schools are public schools, there are no extra funds required from the parents. We’re going to do our due diligence and make sure they get the best for every single penny that’s spent.”

Pembroke Academy in Detroit is authorized by The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University. Metro Charter Academy in Romulus is authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office

Find more articles like this at Metro Parent’s Guide to Michigan Charter Schools

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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