Principal Stacey Gauthier on How Her Queens School Helped Build the Charter Movement

Stacey Gauthier is the principal of the Renaissance Charter School, a Pre-K through 12 conversion charter school in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. She’s served as the school’s principal since 2007 and prior to that, as the school’s co-director for operations.

Gauthier was part of the team who drafted the school’s original charter in 2000 and an original member of the Friends of the Renaissance Charter School, a group that worked with the school prior to its conversion to charter status.

I spoke to her recently about her advocacy for charter schools, her firm belief in educational equity, fostering relationships between students and more.

How do you jump-start your morning? Are you a coffee-drinker or a tea drinker? Any great coffee shops in Jackson Heights?

I always have a large coffee in the morning. My first choice is a venti latte from our local Starbucks. Depending on the day, I may even have a second regular size coffee! We also have some wonderful Colombian bakeries with terrific coffee served with hot milk. No shortage of good places to get a cup of joe.

Renaissance Charter School has an unusual history, starting out as a district school through an Annenberg grant and then converting to a charter through a consensus by teachers that students would be served best under a different system of governance. How did this process work? What was attractive to teachers about the increased autonomy and accountability of a charter school structure?

The conversion process required parents and teachers to vote to make the school a charter school. We held many public forums about what this change would mean for our school. Since we converted in the early days of charter schools in New York State, we were pioneers in many ways. I think there was a lot of building and flying the plane in those first few years, but in many ways this allowed us to have a voice in the framing of the charter movement.

I think that the allure of becoming charter for many of the faculty and staff was the ability to truly make locally-based decisions that we knew would be best for our students and community as a whole. We also were (and still are) firmly committed to the tenets set forth in the 1998 New York Charter School Act, which includes the promise of freedom from much of the bureaucracy in exchange for student achievement. Finally, the desire for schools to work on innovative practices was especially appealing to our team.

Your school is known for both serving gifted and talented students yet also integrating students with multiple disabilities into general education classrooms. How does this work?

We are firmly committed to inclusive education for our students. We also believe in the potential of every young person in our care. Every child has some giftedness. Every child also has his or her own personal challenges to overcome. Our program is designed with these principles in mind. We create opportunities for small group work and believe that a strong standards-based curriculum, project-based learning and experiential learning along with community service allows every child to maximize his or her potential.

Finally, we want our students to be happy because this happiness makes them want to be in school and want to learn. Some people may argue that rigor and happiness are not a good match. We couldn’t disagree more. If you want to create lifelong learners who will persevere through the hard times, you need to create the mindset for a love of learning for learning’s sake. Fear might motivate initially but it will definitely not sustain a student in the long-term.

Renaissance Charter School is small yet serves students in Pre-K to 12. How does this wide grade span affect school climate?

The grade span actually helps to build a strong sense of community and family. We have many families that send multiple children to our school. We also now have the children of some of our graduates in attendance. This really does allow us to know our families and therefore better support them.

I am often asked if we are worried having older students with younger students. My answer is always, “Absolutely not!” The older students are very good with the younger ones and the age mix actually helps to temper certain behaviors you might find in middle and high schools. We also work to create opportunities where our older students can interact with our younger students and this helps to foster good relationships.

What is your favorite part of the day?

This is the hardest question you’ve asked. I’m not sure I can pick just one. I love the first thing in the morning because I get to greet our students, parents and staff. My job has so many different aspects that on any given day I am doing many exciting things at different times. We also have frequent evening events that let me interact with families in a different way. And to be honest, sometimes I just like my nine-block walk home after a busy day knowing I have a book waiting for me (and maybe that cup of tea!).


(This interview first appeared at Education Post).

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