This summer, Raymond Ankrum was hired as the new executive director and principal of the Riverhead Charter School, a K-6 school.
A New Orleans native, Mr. Ankrum previously worked as the dean of students for Democracy Prep Public Schools, a group of charter schools, and was the principal for New York City charter school Harlem Village Academy.
He earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Stony Brook University, as well as a second master’s degree in teaching from Morgan State University. He now lives in Selden and recently spoke at a public hearing in support of a charter school expansion.
The News-Review sat down with Mr. Ankrum last week to talk about the school’s future plans, the value of diversity in the classroom and how the proposed expansion of grades up until the eighth grade will affect students in the charter school and the local school districts.
Q: How did you join the charter school?
A: They did a national search and I had put my resume in and I kind of forgot about it, and then all of a sudden they gave me a call. I was in Baltimore at the time, but I thought it was interesting. So I flew up and interviewed with the board and interviewed with the teachers, and I think it was my interview with the teachers that convinced me if I was offered the job I would consider taking it … They were just sincere in how dedicated they are to the students, so that was very impressive.
Q: So what are your plans for the charter school as its new executive director?
A: It’s kind of like one of those situations where the school was in a really good place. so it’s just about coming in and trying to figure out how we can get to great place. It’s a really good school, but I want it to be a great school. This is about coming in and finding out about the things we’re doing really well and improving on those things, and then also finding out the things we’re not doing so well and making those incremental changes.
Q: Where do you think the charter school is succeeding?
A: Diversity. In Suffolk County you’re not going to get that many schools that have 61 percent free and reduced lunch and a wide variety of different races of kids and stuff. It’s great for students, because you have kids that excel at a high level and then you have kids that may [perform] at not so high a level, but peers learn from peers.
When I say diversity, [I also mean] diversity in thought. You have to be open to certain criticism, you have to be open to wanting to be a better educator, so I feel like we do a good job of being direct about what we expect from teachers. My teachers have tough skin, because I think prior to me coming things weren’t as collaborative as they should have been.
Q: What can the charter school still improve upon, and what are you doing to address that?
A: I kind of look at it like a “2.0 Version” of [the school.] We needed a technology upgrade because we had a computer situation that wasn’t too appealing, so we made sure teachers have working laptops and projectors … Just making sure they have that and also making sure that they have access to professional development. It’s PD that’s guided by them. A lot of times you get school districts that say “this is what the PD is going to be” without checking in with the teacher to find out what they need. I think that we do a great job during these assessments. “Hey, what do you guys need to be better teachers?”
Q: You spoke at a public hearing before the Riverhead school board about the charter school’s plan to expand to eighth grade. Can you explain more about the proposed expansion?
A: We want to expand to seventh and eighth grade but we want to do it in a way that isn’t going to be intrusive on the district because I feel like we’re pretty good partners with Riverhead School District. So what we want to do is sustain our current student load for sixth grade, so we had 25 students in sixth grade. If we did expand to seventh grade we would continue to have 25 students and then 25 students in eighth grade. We would still take on our same amount of kindergartners and it would kind of go up like that.
We do phenomenal things in terms of our test scores, but we start to lose kids [at the end of] fifth grade because they want to go to their home [middle schools] because we don’t go all the way up to the eighth grade. So by [adding seventh and eighth grade, we will] give students the best opportunity to prepare for high school. Not to brag about what we do, but we outperform the districts that we bring students in from. So as long as we continue down that path, our students are going to be ready for high school.
Q: There’s talk of a physical expansion on the school’s campus too.
A: It’s definitely in the works. I don’t want to jinx it, there’s a lot of things that need to take place in order for it to occur but it’s looking like it’ll happen. It’s going to be on campus, we have six acres somewhere and we’re going to make it happen.
It’ll be a school building, but right now currently we don’t have a cafeteria, we don’t have an auditorium, we don’t have a gymnasium. So that [building] will give us access to have that. It’ll be one room … like a “cafaunasium.” We’ll have extra-curricular activities, but then we’ll also be able to have functions, so if I need to do a grade-level function where I need all of my fifth-graders in one place, I can do that. Our expansion is more to be able to fit our kids, to give them the quality education that they need … we do a great job now with less, but imagine if it was an equal playing field.
Q: How much will that new building cost?
A: The cost is fluctuating, but we’re looking at between $14 – $16 million. It’s at no cost to the Riverhead taxpayer because we’re funding it. It’ll be out of our operating budget … it’ll definitely be a big challenge, but it’s manageable. We have really clean books in terms of our audits so its a manageable expense … We haven’t really done a marketing campaign [yet] … but we definitely will.”
Q: You’ve spent much of your teaching career in charter schools. What do you find appealing about the charter school model.
A: When you look at it, it’s about choice. Imagine if you had a presidential election and you only had a one-party system and you couldn’t choose anybody else. If you only had to choose that one party. I feel like charter schools keep public schools honest in terms of what they can do with the resources they have. Charter schools generally have less resources, and some do more. But not every charter school is great. I feel like some charter schools get lumped in with the bad ones.