Charter leaders sacrifice to see dreams become reality

By Jamar Younger

When Nick Schuerman reflects on the fact that he’s responsible for the education of the 225 children who attend his school, he is nearly moved to tears.

Schuerman opened Victory Collegiate Academy, a K-6 public charter school, this month in Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood, fulfilling his dream of providing a quality education to underserved students.

“I’m seeing the fruits of my labor. It’s here now. I have to sit back and pinch myself,” he said.

Lori Weiss and Melissa McKinsey experienced a similar feeling when they welcomed almost 300 students to Synergy Public School, their brand new central Phoenix campus, which also opened this month.

These schools started as a kernel of an idea just three years ago, but have grown into the manifestation of their founders’ dreams.

Victory and Synergy are among 19 new public charter schools to open around the state this school year. Most of these schools are part of larger, established charter networks with a record of success throughout the state.

However, Victory and Synergy are the only two schools that opened independently.

For these veteran educators, opening a charter school was an opportunity to take their own, unique and innovative approaches to educating students.

“We decided it was time to go do something different,” said Weiss, who serves as Synergy’s co-founder and executive director of business and operations after working in the Phoenix district for 28 years.

McKinsey and Weiss worked alongside each other as administrators in the Alhambra Elementary School District before setting off on their own.

They craved the autonomy that’s common in charter schools, and wanted to use that freedom to implement methods that would fit their student population.

“We realized that, with our demographics, ‘one size fits all’ wasn’t going to work with our kids. We were going to have to do things differently to reach all of our kids,” Weiss said.

They quickly learned the independence came with great responsibility.

In addition to their leadership duties, the seasoned educators served as Synergy’s student recruiters this summer, knocking on doors and visiting families in 117 degree heat. They were also project managers, overseeing the renovations that transformed their building from a former medical college to an elementary school.

The two educators also fill in as the janitors and office managers, picking up trash or making a supply run to the store when necessary.

“When you see the kids and you see what’s happening in their classrooms, it doesn’t matter if you have to be the custodian or the nurse because you’re doing what you set out to do and that’s providing children with an education,” McKinsey said.

The co-founders credited their teachers, staff and volunteers for helping them get the school off the ground.

“You have to seek out the support of people who believe the same thing you believe. We have numerous people where we can pick up the phone and in two to three minutes, they’re here to support us,” she said.

Schuerman also sought the support of like-minded people who would support his mission.

Schuerman was first inspired to open a charter school while he was a principal at another charter in the Phoenix area. He was attending a professional development session through the Association’s Quality Schools Program when a trainer encouraged him to pursue the idea.

He has been a principal at district and charter schools in Arizona and Washington during his 17-year career, including a stint as an administrator at a middle school along the Mexican border.

That experience stoked his desire to work with underserved students. Schuerman described opening Victory as his “calling.”

Schuerman’s philosophy, which he describes as focusing on the “whole child,” drove every decision, from the way he structured the school day to the hiring of his staff.

“Every person we hired lives and breathes our core values,” he said. “I have an amazing staff and leadership team. It took a lot of people wearing many hats to make it happen. “It was hard, but it was very rewarding. That’s why you’re in education.”