The New York Twenty: Real Charter Champions profiles the everyday people who are the champions to their children: parents and grandparents who make the critical choice to send their kids to charter schools. Over the next several weeks we will be sharing the real stories of charter parents around New York State. Today hear from Elmira parent Jenica Drehmer.
Every Friday at Finn Academy: An Elmira Charter School, the African welcome song “Funga Alafia” is played at a weekly gathering for the entire school community. All 213 scholars, their teachers, and parents sing this song that epitomizes what Finn Academy is all about: peace, welcome, and belonging.
My family discovered Finn before the school had a roster or a home. But what this charter school did have was a community years-in-the-making – a dedicated group of educators who fought for this educational opportunity for Southern Tier families.
We are so lucky they fought for us because Finn Academy is a ray of light and hope in Elmira, and choosing Finn Academy is one of the best choices my family has ever made.
My interest in charter schools started before I was even a parent. When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who believed that charters were one of our country’s best hopes for fixing our broken education system. He showed us videos of charter schools with eighty openings and five hundred applicants – which drove home just how badly quality school options were needed.
When my husband and I moved back to our hometown of Corning, one of the biggest reasons was because of the excellent education that we both had received there as kids. We bought a house four blocks from what was considered one of the best elementary schools in our district.
We could not have been more disappointed with the education and treatment that our daughter Grace received there. She was bullied by classmates, yelled at every day by teachers and lunch monitors, and publicly shamed on a near-daily basis.
My daughter started out loving school, but turned from a child who used to run into kindergarten because she was so excited to be there, to a forlorn first grader. My husband and I began looking for alternatives.
That’s when Finn Academy held their first information and application session. The founders spoke about a school focused on scholarship, leadership, kindness, and community. They told us that music, art, and physical fitness would be daily, rather than once a week for twenty minutes, like in my daughter’s elementary school. They planned an extended school day and year, including two weeks in the summer that would prepare students for college one day and the job force. I was first in line to sign Grace up.
Finn held a lottery because so many children wanted to attend. Because we were out of district, we had to wait until all of the district families were accepted before we could apply. It was a long wait, but it couldn’t have been more worth it. In June, Grace was accepted into Finn Academy.
But Finn almost didn’t open. The founders searched high and low for an affordable facility (charter schools outside of NYC do not receive access to state aid for their buildings) and finally found one at Ernie Davis, the old middle school building in Elmira. However, the school district still owned the building, and it took months of back and forth before a deal was struck.
Negotiations were down to the wire; school was scheduled to open in a few short weeks before a decision was even made. This was a stressful time because we didn’t know if our daughter’s new school would have a home, which meant that they would have to delay opening for a year. Through this struggle, the community banded together for Finn and for each other. In August, Finn Academy and the district reached an agreement. Our school had a building to call home.
Grace started second grade at Finn in September, and the school has already surpassed our wildest dreams. She is cherished and challenged, loved and listened to. She has already learned more than in two years at her previous school, and she is celebrated, just like every other child there.
This is my favorite thing about Finn Academy: everybody is treated the same. Everyone is welcomed. When I sing “Funga Alafia” every Friday at Finn Academy, I feel that my child belongs, my family belongs, and this school belongs right where it is, teaching us all…
See Finn Academy's Community Circle: