For years, Debbie Beyer drove by an empty church in the midst of a two-mile swath of one of the most impoverished areas of San Diego County, California.
“I kept thinking, ‘Somebody needs to put a school in there because there’s a neighborhood right here,’” the life-long educator shared with us. The existing schools in the area were not offering the full array of options that area parents were looking for.
Eventually, somebody did start a new school in El Cajon, a charter school named Literacy First Charter Schools. Can you guess who did it? Beyer herself.
Before founding Literacy First Charter Schools, Beyer worked in public schools, private schools, homeschooling, and education consulting.
She told us about the first time she heard about charter schools: schools that are publicly funded but allow for different instructional methods and curriculum than traditional district schools.
“Debbie, there’s this thing called charter schools, and this is you,” she recalled her dad, who worked on the New Mexico State Board of Education, saying to her. “You need to get involved in this.”
Soon enough, Beyer connected with others interested in charter schools, researched models, and found herself developing a charter.
The fruit of that effort was Literacy First Charter Schools, founded in 2001 with more than 100 students.
“We got approved in June and we started school in August,” Debbie remembered. “We had no money, nothing, and it’s just built out.”
“Built out” it has, growing into a K-12 school with multiple locations. Local families’ response to Literacy First Charter Schools has been overwhelming. Recently, the school, which had fewer than one hundred open spots for the entire K-12 school, had 1,100 applicants for the seats.
Literacy First’s method of helping students find success is discoverable in the school’s name. Students are successful when they are literate, the school teaches.
Beyer said that when she used to ask people their opinions about what to do to improve literacy in K-12 education, she would get disappointing answers because of people’s narrow view of literacy as merely reading and writing.
Her definition of literacy is much bigger: It’s the idea of educating kids to know a little bit about everything.
“In the 21st century, our kids are going to need to be generalists. And with access to internet, they can become specific about anything they want to research.” – Debbie Beyer
“They need to be able to speak in front of people,” she said. “They need to be able to make presentations, make eye contact, be men and women of character. They need to be able to read and comprehend and write and know things about culture.”
Community demand for this literacy-driven learning has been strong. But it’s also impressive how Beyer has refused to lose sight of the original reason the school was founded.
“I’m not an employment agency. I’m not a feel-good factory. At the end of the day, if we don’t produce something better than local schools are doing, we don’t get to be here.” – Debbie Beyer
She added, “Everybody coming in recognizes that, while this is a very sweet place and joy is a big part of what we do, at the end of the day the product is our kids. They have to graduate as literate, value-conscious citizens that can change the world, or we’re not doing our job.”
Literacy First Charter Schools is helping form students who are academically and socially thriving and who are ready, like their school’s founder, to make positive changes in their community. I’m truly inspired by the way Beyer saw an unmet need, stepped in to serve, and changed the face of education in El Cajon for the better!
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