This guest post comes from Jonathon Acosta, Dean of Culture at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy Middle School, which is part of a network of racially and socioeconomically integrated charter schools in Rhode Island. Acosta served as a 2011 Teach for America Corps member in his hometown of Miami before relocating to Blackstone Valley Prep where he taught eighth grade math before his promotion to dean. Jonathon has a degree in political theory and ethnic studies from Brown University.

Getting an education saved my life. It opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know existed and gave me opportunities I could have never imagined as a child.

A large part of my education came from the diversity that I was exposed to early on. Being around people from different cultures, religions, ethnicities, and races provided the foundation for a social growth that paralleled my intellectual one.

My exposure to diversity came courtesy of the public magnet schools I attended—schools my mother and I were able to choose because they met my needs.

It saddens me that even today, a path like mine is an exception. Many children are going to schools segregated at levels that rival the Plessy v Ferguson days. 

My school choice journey started in the mid 1990s, when I was 6 years old. I had just returned from a year living with my grandmother in Colombia while my mother pursued a vocational degree. I started at my neighborhood public school where I was classified an English language learner and placed in remedial classes. At a grade-wide meeting when a counselor announced the creation of a new magnet Pre-IB (International Baccalaureate) program at another school that was rigorous and challenging, I immediately went home to tell my mom that we HAD to apply.

Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, my mom had a daily mantra: “If you get a good education, you can have any life you choose.” She made it clear that this was the only way to be truly successful. So when she jokingly complained that the new school was farther away than my home school, I simply repeated her mantra back to her.

See for me, school choice was life choice.

My mom and I went to the assembly for interested parents and were immediately stunned by what the school proposed: a diverse student population (both in terms of class and race), a rigorous global standardized curriculum, language requirements, community service requirements, and other standards my previous school never ventured into. After being selected in the lottery and interviewing (yes, the assistant principal interviewed me alone as a 7-year-old applicant), my mother and I received the life changing news that I had been accepted to Frank C. Martin Elementary School.

My journey through middle school, high school, and college would be irrevocably influenced by my time at Frank C. Martin.

Our school celebrated diverse cultures, hosted monthly events highlighting different groups, and engrained language and diversity into our curriculum. Being part of this diverse school community made me comfortable around others and made others comfortable around me. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the larger world I was and am a part of.

Almost two decades later, it was my sister’s turn to start school. I encouraged her to attend the Frank C. Martin K–8 center as I did. But the continued inconvenience of transportation and distance convinced my mother to send my sister to the district assigned school instead.

Like many others in her situation, my mother made a decision based on convenience.

Within just a few months she was already regretting her choice.

The state and district grading system scored my sister’s school an “A” (or “excellent”) school, but the reality did not match. Neither the student body nor the administration was particularly excellent, and the school as a whole was not reflective of a college preparatory education/experience.

Students at the school were predominantly Hispanic middle-class students. As a result, all of my sister’s classmates looked like her, talked like her, and had similar backgrounds. There were no large multicultural events celebrating or highlighting diversity, and no significant mention of racial, cultural, or socioeconomic diversity in the curriculum.

In contrast, Frank C. Martin continues to actively pursue and value diversity. At the school, 58 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and there are representatives of more than fifty countries in its racially-diverse student body.

Frank C. Martin’s academic results are also higher than my sister’s school. Last year, 84 percent of Frank C. Martin third graders (my sister’s current grade) scored at or above grade level in math and 87 percent scored at or above grade level in reading on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Those scores are 16 and 7 percentage points higher than at my sister’s school—this despite the fact that Frank C. Martin has a much higher percentage of low-income students.

It did not take long for my mother to decide—as she had for me—that the advantages of attending Frank C. Martin outweighed the inconvenience of getting there.

In her first week after transferring, my sister was excited to report that she had made her first Muslim friend and her first Indian friend.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.