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Early Tuesday morning, the teachers of Mission Achievement and Success Charter School were pulled into an impromptu staff meeting for an important announcement.
JoAnn Mitchell, the school’s founder and CEO, had been holding on to good news for almost a month, and now she’d been given the green light to share it: the school had been given $3 million by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
“It was nuts,” sixth grade English language arts teacher Frank Green said of the announcement. “It’s rewarding and comforting to know that everything we do – it’s recognized.”
Scott, whose fortune comes largely from her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has pledged to give most of it away. In the past seven months, she’s given almost $2 billion to schools, districts and other funds, she wrote in a Monday blog post on Medium.
Little explanation was given for the pre-K through 12th grade school’s gift, or how the school was selected, Mitchell said – only that Scott’s team looks for schools that are “providing opportunities for people, serving underserved families.”
But, for the school’s teachers and staff, the message was clear: “It just means that people are seeing the work that we’re doing … we work so hard and, as teachers, you feel like you don’t get that recognition,” third grade math teacher Brittany Gauna said. “It’s just the best feeling in the world.”
In her post, Scott said her team would soon release a database with more information about the organizations and their missions.
At least three other organizations in the state – the Native American Community Academy, the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico and Junior Achievement of New Mexico – were listed among the groups to receive funding in Scott’s blog post.
MAS Charter School’s funds will go generally toward expansion, Mitchell said, adding that the school doesn’t yet have a “complete, strategic plan” for how the money will be spent.
“It will support two things: improving what we already do and offering more services, meaning providing more seats to students to be able to serve more kids,” Mitchell said.
Serving more students is among the biggest goals for school leaders. Currently, there are about 2,200 students spread across both of the school’s campuses, and 300 staff members. When the school’s doors first opened 10 years ago, there were only about 100 students and 10 staff.
Azad Vojdani, a science teacher who started at the school last December, said he hopes the grant will mean more capacity for such things as laboratory experiments.
“You’re very limited on the things that you can show children when you don’t have a lab with benches and Bunsen burners and sinks, and all the other equipment that kids can interact with,” he said. “Hopefully … they put the money into something like that – more facilities.”
But the school makes do with its “makeshift” original campus, Mitchell said, even if it does sometimes struggle with space.
Students eat together at their desks and borrow books from “classroom libraries” set up just outside many of the rooms to help fill the gap left by the campus’ lack of a library and a cafeteria.
And both measures seem to work just fine, even if the bookshelves are just a little too tall for some students, like third-grader Aylyhany Luna.
But, perhaps even more important than upgrading facilities, Mitchell said, is expanding the charter’s services.
The school provides almost 12 hours of services and three free meals per day to its students, Mitchell said, which help contribute to their academic success – especially when it comes to the school’s most disadvantaged students.
The school has two campuses in Albuquerque: one on Yale and one on Old Coors. Between both of them, almost 87% of the school’s students were Hispanic, according to last school year’s state Public Education Department data, and about a third were considered “economically disadvantaged.”
In each of the past four years of publicly available data, the school has graduated more than 80% of its seniors.
“It adds this extra support that they may not necessarily get,” Chief of Schools Sherrye Hubbard said of the resources the school provides its students.
“That’s how we’re getting these results; this is not by accident,” Mitchell added.
Mitchell officially learned the news last month, but was asked not to share it until logistics could be worked out. But it was a secret worth keeping, she said.
“There was pure joy, pure joy and gratitude,” she said of breaking the news to her school. “This will really fill the hearts of our staff, and our students and their families.”