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Rooted in Community, A School Built on Collaboration

August 20, 2020
Empower Community High School co-founder Olivia Jones (far left) gathers with students. The Aurora, Colorado school launched in 2019 with support from the Charter School Growth Fund.
How the Charter School Growth Fund helped a pair of Colorado teachers launch an innovative school model

“To me, love is being able to tell the truth,” says Wisdom Amouzou, co-founder and principal of Empower Community High School in Aurora, Colorado.

Wisdom Amouzou

Wisdom’s family immigrated to Aurora—a city with a high immigrant and refugee population whose inhabitants speak more than 133 languages—from Togo when he was 10 years old.

His truth? Creating a school that listened to and acted upon the unique needs of his community’s next generation.

Wisdom and his co-founder Olivia Jones met as undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder and worked together as Teach for America corps members following graduation.

As teachers at different schools, they would bring their students together, with Olivia’s 11th graders at Manual High School facilitating learning for Wisdom’s 7th graders at Strive Prep – Montbello.

Olivia Jones with a student

“What we found,” says Olivia, “is that when you give students a chance to be authors of their own learning, it creates a more authentic experience—one that helps them build the future they want for themselves.”

In 2017, no such learning model existed nearby, and the two set out to fill an educational gap through a process rooted in community.

To get there, the pair assembled a “Community Design Team,” a 200-person strong group of students, families, educators and community members who invested their time, energy and input for two years into building a small school environment that trusts students to shape their own futures.

Empower Community High School also relied on a diverse network of supporters, among them the Charter School Growth Fund. Founded in 2005 by John Walton and others, its mission has been to grow innovative, successful schools into larger networks—identifying what works for communities and replicating these successful learning models to the benefit of students everywhere.

To date, the fund has supported networks that now operate 870 schools serving 370,000 students, most of whom live in low-income communities.

Empower Community High School opened its doors in the fall of 2019 to 120 ninth graders, with plans to add a new grade each year.

In their first year, Wisdom and Olivia found that when it comes to their students, building the future they want frequently begins with helping to create a stronger foundation for the community that raised them.

As part of Empower’s student-led FLOW projects, three female students developed an organization named Black Girl Empowerment, mentoring young girls at their former elementary school. Together, they are working to cultivate deeper self-love and act as the role models they wish had existed for themselves as younger girls.

Empower Community High School is a community-designed institution created with the goal of serving students in a small school environment and trusting them to shape their own futures.

Students also regularly reach out to parents and community leaders for real-world expertise on everything from auto mechanics to artificial intelligence through speaker series, demonstrations and more.

Empower’s tumultuous first year included a global pandemic and nationwide civil rights reckoning, a reality that Wisdom believes will impact educational decision-making for years to come. “Disruption forces people to rethink what’s important to them and to innovate in the face of hardship. That’s exactly where we thrive.”

“Sometimes the gravity of what we have accomplished hits us,” says Olivia of Empower’s first year. “It’s not just theory anymore. We have a school community relying on us to succeed.”

Empower Community High School principal and co-founder Wisdom Amouzou talks with students.

To assist, Empower’s leaders are regularly in touch with Charter School Growth Fund’s team, which offers the school custom support in finance, operations, facilities and talent, so they can focus on educational programming.

It’s a benefit that makes their single school feel like part of a national network.

“We have a unique mission, and it can feel like we are alone in the decisions we make,” says Olivia. “Through CSGF’s network, we have an outlet for advice from others like us across the country on everything from taking attendance during distance learning to hiring best practices.”

Empower Community High School is located in Aurora, Colorado, a city with a high refugee population where more than 133 languages are spoken.

Charter School Growth Fund also coordinates opportunities for Wisdom and Olivia to learn from other school leaders who have successfully launched and scaled their organizations.

During a national gathering of CSGF’s Emerging CMO Fund—which helps school leaders of color expand their operations—Wisdom was able to surround himself with men and women who had built successful networks for their communities.

“Typically, when I show up to district meetings, I’m one of two Black folks in the room. It’s almost impossible to become something you’ve never seen, and opportunities like the CMO gathering are vital. It’s a place to be inspired, learn from their mistakes and remix ideas for my own community.”

For 15 years, the Walton Family Foundation’s support of the Charter School Growth Fund and the schools it serves has been guided by a belief that solutions should come from those closest to the problem. It reflects one of the foundation’s core values, of being rooted in the places we work and in the Walton family’s legacy of giving back.

“All funders want you to succeed, but Charter School Growth Fund is really walking this journey with us, invested in our success every step of the way,” says Wisdom.

Wisdom and Olivia don’t currently plan to expand to new locations, citing the custom-tailored nature of Empower Community High School to its hometown. But they do hope to share what they have learned with other school leaders interested in successful student-led learning.

“At the end of the day, we will always define our success by the ability to give those impacted by inequity—students, families and teachers—a real say in how our school is run,” says Wisdom. “That’s love. That’s power. That’s freedom.”

Rooted in Opportunity is a series of stories focused on the foundation's five core values.

Rooted in Opportunity is a series of stories that focuses on the foundation's five core values. These are the stories that inspire us and give us hope.
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