By Rekha Bhatt, Co-President, Innovative Schools
Each fall, as a new school year kicks off, I reflect on my own experience with schooling and what drives me in this work. This year, I am entering my 16th year in education. I started my professional career in education with Teach for America serving as an English teacher at West Philadelphia High School. I learned a lot—very quickly—about the importance of supportive relationships and high expectations for students. One of my proudest accomplishments was creating my school’s first Advanced Placement English courses with the encouragement of my incredible school leader. My students were brilliant and deserving of coursework that challenged, engaged, and prepared them for their post-secondary plans.
It is hard to believe that these same students are now starting their own families. Over the years, I have received messages and updates from my former students – about how they are thriving and confident in their college English classes, studying books that they already read in high school, and pursuing their passions – these are some of the best rewards of being a former teacher.
When I reflect on my own experience with school, I am grateful that education opened doors of opportunity for me, but it was not without its challenges. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in the 1970s and settled in Pennsylvania to further their own educations and to ensure that my siblings and I received excellent schooling as well. They chose our neighborhood based on its location in a high-quality school district, and ultimately, I reaped the benefits of being in that system.
However, when my mom went to enroll me in preschool, I was denied entry because of a disability—I was born partially deaf—and the teachers thought that I would require too much additional attention. Thanks to fierce advocacy from my mom, I was evaluated and deemed capable of thriving in a general education setting. I think often about how that decision has impacted how I was perceived and treated as a student thereafter.
This early experience with educational advocacy also set me on the path that I’m on—supporting families like mine as they navigate systems that are designed to exclude them and creating conditions for every child to attend an excellent community school that honors their brilliance.
I am a proud mom of two young girls, one five years, and the other five months old. This month, my older daughter started Kindergarten in our local school district. I am excited for her to chart her educational course, not only with support from her parents, but also from committed teachers and staff with whom she will foster relationships over the years. My daughters are a source of continued motivation for me—I want to ensure they always feel a sense of belonging in their schooling and that every child experiences the same privileges and opportunities that they do.
Over the course of the past eight years at WA Charters, I have had the joy and challenge of supporting and advocating for high-quality schools for Washington’s students. I know how critical strong leadership is to a high-quality school, and that’s why I’m excited about our innovative school service offerings, which include our Transformative Leader Fellowship, Operations Learning Series, and Fundraising Learning Series, and for the work that the True Measure Collaborative is doing to support educators in charters and districts to serve all students in inclusive settings. This year, our sector is almost 5,000 students strong and growing. Students and staff are returning to their buildings in what feels like a more typical school year after two very difficult ones. We have so much more work to do to be the sector that we are aspiring to be, and we are learning lessons every day that drive us closer to our vision of an anti-racist, student-centered public education system accessible to all students.
Wishing you a joyful school year,