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Gilchrist: My Charter School Saved My Life

By Briana Gilchrist August 8, 2017

Photo Credit: Briana Gilchrist

My college education isn’t something I take for granted. Too many people — family, teachers, mentors — jumped through too many hoops so that I can be where I am today.

The old saying is true: “It takes a village.” And my village made it possible for me to intern with the Eastern Region Community Banking president at Wells Fargo, study abroad in South Africa, gain experience in organizational leadership, and ultimately graduate from Rutgers University with a double degree in Planning & Public Policy and Africana Studies. Coming from my village has also made me all too aware that not everybody has these same opportunities.

I can’t recall my K-12 years in Newark, N.J., without including memories of a friend whose path often ran parallel to mine, and whose ultimate divergence weighs heavy on the hearts of everyone in our community. In the fourth grade, we transferred together from a local district elementary school to Marion P. Thomas Charter School.

I still remember how upset we were to leave our friends and transfer to this new charter school where we had to come to school earlier, stay later, and wear uniforms. We begged our parents to transfer us back so we could be with our friends. After months of trying to convince my mother, she was still completely against it. But my friend Taylor, whose name has been changed to respect the family’s privacy, had that wish granted and returned to our old school.

In the seventh grade I began seeing how our paths began to deviate. After eighth grade graduation I went on to the top magnet school in the city, while Taylor matriculated in a local high school. After high school I went off to college and Taylor went off to work. Fast-forward, six years later, and I am beginning my career in Washington, D.C. My childhood friend did not even make it to age 24 from my understanding, Taylor passed away from a drug-related overdose.

As I write this story I am not attributing my friend’s life-and-death circumstances to the fact that we made different educational choices. Rather, I hope I am illustrating how a school that is intentional in its approach to investing in its students can make all the difference.

I cannot imagine where I would have been had I not had the support of MPTCS while I was in middle school. The people in my school became an integral part of my village: They did not let me fall through the cracks, they challenged me, they exposed me to new things, and they did not allow me to give up — no matter how difficult the road got. They valued me, saw the potential in me, and worked to invest in that potential. My school community supported me from the time I entered their doors, and the community stayed with me even after I left those doors.

When I wanted to go to a boarding high school, the founding CEO and superintendent of MPTCS took her personal vehicle to drive me and my mother to Connecticut for the interview. When I was ready to apply for college, the staff at MPTCS was more instrumental in my success than my high school guidance counselors. When I expressed that I wanted to be a doctor, the CEO flew me out to New Orleans to visit Xavier University, because she knew this school helped get the highest number of students of color into medical school.

I stayed there for the weekend, and she showed me what life would be like if I went to school there. Not only did my MPTCS CEO — whom I now consider my mentor — show me what college was going to be like, she showed me what life would be like outside of Newark. It was because of my school and my village that I could have these experiences, and these new expectations for myself.

When I ultimately enrolled at Rutgers University for college, MPTCS still supported me: I was a recipient of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School Foundation Scholarship for every year of my undergraduate experience. This was a part of their Crayons to College initiative to help their scholars to and through college.

The scholarship came with more than just monetary support: My alma mater held me accountable, monitored my grades and extracurricular activities, and helped me maximize my college experience. They coached me through picking my major and understanding the real-world implications of choosing a major. They showed me different ways to buy or rent books, or how to exchange books with upperclassmen who had already taken the course. They helped me complete my financial aid documents, a process that was really confusing to me as a first-generation college student.

They showed me how to network and dress for interviews. They showed me that college was much more than just going to class. They helped me secure my very first internship under the Eastern Region Community Banking president at Wells Fargo & Co. And in 2016 when I graduated from Rutgers, they helped me find a job. It is because of my charter school that college became an expectation and a reality for me.

Motivation is what helped me complete school, and motivation is what I hope to impart to the next generation. So after I earned my bachelor’s degree, I returned to MPTCS to give back to the village that gave so much to me, just like many of the other alumni. We volunteer at the school annually to keep encouraging the students to apply to college. We help prepare them for the MPTCS Foundation Scholarship interview process. And we work with them along the way to make sure they have support as they continue through college. It’s my small way of paying it forward in the village that has done so much to help me succeed.

Briana Gilchrist is a graduate of Marion P. Thomas Charter School and Rutgers University. She is the press assistant at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


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