I am committed to education for a number of reasons. This is my eighteenth year in education. I started my journey as a paraprofessional in a high school special education classroom. While working there, I had the duty to help the 15- and 16-year-old students learn how to read; I found that I really enjoyed it.
It was in that special education class that my journey toward advocating for kids, parents, and communities really began. I was twenty one years old, and I had the opportunity to work under a veteran educator, Alan, who helped set me up for success. One day he asked me, “Have you thought about teaching elementary school?” I was more focused on special education but ultimately decided to teach elementary school.
I helped launch the first virtual charter school in the state of Georgia. After that, I worked in administration, but I really wanted to reach more students. So, I started thinking about what impact my experience could have on education policy. For four years I worked with the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement as a literary specialist and Executive Director of the grant department.
The culmination of all these experiences continued to bring me back to the same question, “What if we could do this earlier? What if we could start schools with a strong foundation in the first place?” So, that is where the idea of founding ZEST Preparatory Academy came from. ZEST was founded on the premise of leadership and literacy being fundamental.
ZEST is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022, but it was a journey that began in 2019. Our team, in the midst of a global pandemic, has remained steadfast. One day we will probably look back and wonder how we were able to establish a school in the middle of a pandemic; but I attribute it to our commitment and desire to help the community. That’s what our school will feel like. We want our families to walk into a building where they know that their children will be surrounded by a committed and caring group of individuals.
We know that any child that walks into a school is their parents’ greatest gift. I am a mother of three children myself; they are my greatest gift. So, I must really trust where my children are being educated. Outside of strong academics, I have to know that the people in the building care about their wellbeing. A school should care about all aspects of a child’s life, not just how they are doing on a test. I want a school that takes note of how my children are doing mentally or physically. If they notice that my children are feeling a little down, I want somebody to come over and give them a hug and say, “Are you okay?” That is what ZEST will be. Zest will truly be a place where children will thrive academically, but it will also be a place where we are one family.
Naming our school ZEST was a deliberate choice. I personally believe that words have power and that it is a part of our responsibility as adults and as humans to use those words strategically and to affirm. When you live your life with zest, you have a level of enthusiasm about you, despite circumstances you are facing. If our educators are operating in a zestful way, it influences the students to approach their lives with zest as well. Despite the challenges they may face or instances where they don’t understand something, they still have a chance to approach it enthusiastically, not with a sense of dread.
ZEST is a charter school that is open to all Douglas County students, but we want to provide an opportunity to our more disadvantaged students. Our staff will be comprised of members and future members of the community. When choosing our staff, we look for people who are committed and will go the extra mile. We want people who believe that all children deserve the right to learn, a quality education, and are willing to put in hard work to help every child receive that.
I attended public schools K-12 in Southern California and never once had a black teacher. I did have one counselor, Ms. Tuck, who was a black woman. She had a significant impact on me; it was she who taught me about advocacy. I remember her talking to me and saying, “As a young black woman, you are going to have to advocate for yourself in a way that some of your peers may or may not have to do.”
As I started on this journey to founding ZEST, I had the privilege of visiting almost 40 schools. In these schools, I did not see a lot of founders who looked like me. I take the responsibility of being a young black woman founding her own school very seriously. It is necessary that our students see that doing something like this is possible; They should be confident that they too have the knowledge and skillset to found a school or achieve anything. Charter schools are known for widely supporting students of color, and it is up to people like us to make sure they are seeing leaders who look like them. They need to feel represented.
I have faced a lot of challenges in the process of founding ZEST. When I am faced with hard days, I take a step back and ask myself why I am doing all of this in the first place. My answer is always the students. Our children need opportunities to learn in wonderful environments, to see what is possible, and to display their leadership. I don’t do all this to benefit myself. I do it because the next generation is going to benefit from it.
Founding a charter school has not been easy, considering the political challenges we face. However, I feel comfortable sharing that the opposition we have received is not rooted in ill intent. Most opposition to charter schools is rooted in a lack of knowledge about the system. They may need more information about what charter schools can offer and how we have similarities and differences to the traditional public schools.
“I made that decision because traditional schools are what works best for my children.”
All three of my children attend traditional public schools. That is a choice that I made as a parent despite having the option to send them to a charter or private school. I made that decision because traditional schools are what works best for my children. Regardless, there are some children who need a different option. I think if people thought about what is best for that individual child, and what is best for the parents of that child, then their thoughts about charter schools will change. If you pull out all the politics and really think about it as a parent, you deserve the right to make the choice for your child. ZEST is going to be one of those choices.
ZEST is founded and rooted in academic excellence, and that is at the core of everything we do. Our school is going to be based on leadership and literacy. Leadership is in every aspect of a person’s life. So, regardless of what our kids decide on whether it is the military, college, or the workforce that will require leadership skills. ZEST is also built upon literacy. I emphasize this because of my own personal history with literacy.
I can speak to large groups of people today, but little Monique would not have thought she would be capable of that. Little Monique did not learn how to read until she was in the thirrd or fourth grade. Almost 40 years later, I distinctly remember the feeling of being surrounded by books and not being able to read. I distinctly remember teachers ridiculing me, but I also remember the teachers who helped me. When I remember my younger self, I personally want to make sure that the young people who enter ZEST do not have to experience that memory 40 years down the road.
So, when people think about ZEST, I want them to remember two things: One, academically we are going to ensure that your children will have a strong foundation and will be able to read. Two, they are going to understand very early that they are leaders. They will be exposed to and taught the qualities they need to progress through every phase of their life, and we will do it with love.