As an educator, Caitlin Franco ’04 has never been afraid to overcome boundaries to go far beyond for her students. So when early experiences in her career didn’t sit well with her, she didn’t hesitate to do something about it.
Working with a large population of students with disabilities, the 40 Under Forty alumna quickly learned that many of her students were not receiving all of the necessary tools for success. Franco made it her mission to ensure that all students were given an equal opportunity to excel. With this goal in mind, she opened a school of her own, with equality at the core of the school’s philosophy.
Thirteen years later, Franco’s work as executive director and founder of Equality Charter School is more important than ever. And while COVID-19 has challenged normal operations, she is more motivated than ever to continue her mission to support all students’ success — whatever that may look like.
Tell us about your journey from Stony Brook University to becoming the founder and executive director of the Equality Charter School.
After I graduated from Stony Brook with a bachelor’s in English and education, I received my master’s in education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I then started teaching at a charter school in Harlem before moving to a public school in the Bronx. My experiences teaching motivated me to start my own school, so I got together with two other educators and opened Equality Charter School in 2009.
Why did you decide to open a charter school?
When I first started teaching, I taught in a school where 60 percent of the population was students with disabilities. I hadn’t had much experience in this area, but I could see that the school had low expectations for those students, which didn’t sit well with me. In many cases, I felt those students deserved a lot better than what they were getting. This was one of the driving factors for creating the Equality Charter School, where we believe that it is not our role to decide what our students are capable of, but instead to give everyone the opportunity to excel.
What was the process like to get things started?
It was long. We had to put together a curriculum and essentially build our school’s philosophy and culture. Being a charter school, we also had to create a board and apply for grants to get started. So there was a lot of learning involved. It was a pretty extensive process that pushed me beyond being an English teacher.
On what principles was the Equality Charter School founded?
When we opened, we were different from many other charters in that we had restorative practices ingrained in our school culture. Out of the gate, we focused on educating students with positive reinforcements, rather than relying on a disciplinarian, consequence-based system. We wanted to be a school for any student, whether they were high-performing or struggling. That remains true to this day.
There are a lot of small schools in the city that cater to one type of student or program. One thing that sets us apart is that both our high school and middle school are open to whoever comes to our doors. We have an adaptive program that meets all academic needs, and we prioritize social-emotional learning.
Why is it important to have charter schools like yours? What do you believe has been the biggest impact since you opened your doors?
Charter schools like ours provide choice. No one school is going to meet the needs of all students, so charter schools allow families to find school models that align with their values and support the strengths of their children.
When I think of the impact of our schools, I think of individual students. There are a lot of students who come in our doors who would do well wherever they went, but there are also many who get something unique at our schools, whether it’s a program we have or a staff member who really helps them. We’re proud of those situations. Some of our students have taken alternative pathways, and we have supported them and consider them successes because they’re on the path to where they need to go.
What can other schools and educators learn from Equality Charter School?
We accept all students as they come to us, and we adjust our program to meet their needs. People hear charter and think that means we don’t accept challenging students, but that’s just not the case. We’ve been able to show some real success over time with the most challenging students. We’ve had students who start with us in sixth grade and academically, they don’t look good on paper, and then in high school, we’re able to close the gap and get them across the finish line before they go off to college. Sometimes you don’t see the results for six or seven years, so it’s about keeping the long game in focus. That’s something our school model has really shown. Sticking with kids for the long haul has really paid off and I think that’s something special about us.
Can you share with us some of the most interesting moments in your career?
There’s never a dull moment. The thing that stands out to me the most is our staff members going above and beyond, especially during the pandemic. For example, our middle school principal drove to students’ houses during the pandemic just to give them chargers for their Chromebooks. We also had the social worker and assistant principal of our high school do home visits for some families. These are things that they don’t even mention because they think they’re part of their jobs, but I believe they are the unsung heroes.
How has your job evolved in the face of a global pandemic?
The job has evolved a lot. We spend a lot of time addressing changes related to COVID, and it has created a huge workload for us. We had to figure out how to teach in a different way while continuing to prioritize our scholars above everything else. First, we moved strictly to remote instruction and had to get up and running quickly. Then, we moved to concurrent teaching, with students both at home and at school. We felt that was the best model, but it’s been taxing on our staff. We’ve also done a lot of work to support the emotional well-being of our staff and our scholars. It’s a whole different world now.
What advice would you give to parents whose children are struggling in school due to the pandemic?
From an academic standpoint, it’s important not to focus on catching our kids up. The social-emotional needs of our children are so great right now that focusing on catching up is an unhealthy mindset. I would advise parents to create a new baseline for their kids, based on where they are now, and build on that, rather than focusing on where they think their children should be.
From a social-emotional standpoint, it’s important for parents to work with their schools to get as many resources for their kids as they can. There’s a lot of federal funding coming out now, so many schools have added social-emotional support staff. I think sometimes parents don’t know they have access to those services for their children.
If you could have a conversation with yourself when you were a student at Stony Brook, what advice would you give?
As a student, I was focused on the content that I would be teaching. I wish I understood back then that teaching is so much more than that. It’s really about raising young people and their social-emotional needs. While I knew it on some level, I didn’t understand how much of an influence you end up having on kids’ lives. I think I could have gotten more out of my program back then if I had known that.
— Kristen Brennan
Caitlin is an inspiring and wonderful educator who runs a program that is building a better future for the students in her charter school. Learning doesn’t just come from a book, but from teachers who understand their individual life experiences & needs and mentors who guide them along the way