Growing up, Stephanie Love lived on about every street in south Fort Worth.

She said she grew up in the foster care system after her father was killed and her mother had a nervous breakdown. She’s seen firsthand the trauma that can hinder a child’s education. Now, as the proposed superintendent for a possible new charter school in Fort Worth, she hopes to do something about it.

By the time Love was in fourth grade, she’d attended six different elementary schools in the 76104 ZIP code. Then she started Carroll Peak Elementary School and met her teacher, Deborah Willis, who Love said changed the trajectory of her life.

Willis was the first person not only to see the academic potential of Love, but also the abuse in her home. One of her foster parents was psychologically and emotionally abusing her and her sister, until Willis showed up with food and Christmas gifts and made it clear she knew what was going on in the home and would be watching, Love said.

From then, the abuse stopped, Love said. 

“If you think about a little kid who has never been seen — literally and figuratively felt seen — I felt heard. I felt appreciated. I felt loved by her,” Love said. “She’s the reason why I am in education now.”

She wants to bring trauma-informed classroom care and creativity to more Fort Worth classrooms.

Love is the lead founder and proposed superintendent of the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, a charter school that could come to Fort Worth. Education Commissioner Mike Morath approved the charter’s application; it will now head to the State Board of Education for final approval at its June 14-17 meeting.

The proposed campus would serve Fort Worth City Council District 8, which includes the 76104 ZIP code. The campus doesn’t have a site yet, but Council member Chris Nettles gave his support to the charter and said he and his staff are having meetings about the best place to position the school if it is approved.

Nettles told the Report he supports school choice, which includes charters and traditional public school districts. He said individuals need different pathways.

“This school is important because if you look at our districts and our education, a majority of schools in my district are not A/B schools, they’re C/D schools,” Nettles said. “And so, however we can bridge that gap to get them into a better educational system, I support it 100%. I don’t think this is the end all be all. I’m not saying that this school is the savior, but what I am saying is more options can increase education.”

Creative, trauma informed curriculum

Love said there are many ways to bring trauma-informed curriculum to the classroom. She provided an example from her own youth.

One day in school, she said she got in a fight with another girl because she was talking about Love’s father. She now knows she chose to fight in that situation because when children do not have a way to process the emotions that come with trauma, the outlet is often aggression or other misbehavior, Love said. 

After that incident, she was sent to counseling. One activity the counselor had her do was draw an outline of her body on a piece of paper and fill it with positive words about herself. She draws on that experience to inform her work as an educator.

“My philosophy as an educator has always been that we have to proactively support students, not because they’re in trouble, but because we know as an adult — especially because we’ve gone through a pandemic where everything is locked down — how important mental health and psychological wellbeing is,” Love said. “They don’t get support because they’re in trouble. They get it because that’s what they need as a part of developing as a human being.”

The goal is to teach students how to understand their emotions and cope, Love said. Adults who have been in therapy learn how to manage emotions and find ways to cope, such as journaling or listening to music, but those skills often are not taught to children. The school would work to teach students those coping mechanisms.

Proposed board

The founding board members are: Scherron Richard, Stacy Marshall, Monique Winfree, Crystal Gayden, Krista Franklin, Monica Gonzalez White, Amanda Behn. If the application is approved, the charter will add board member  Sergio Gonzalez. 

One example Love said is finding ways to deal with test anxiety. If students are anxious about a test, learning how to manage those emotions can help them perform better, she said.

“Teaching them how to understand themselves and to develop their emotional regulation and psychological health is something everybody should get,” Love said. “What I really hate in education is that we equate that to discipline and being in trouble.”

The school also would encourage learning through the arts, Love said. To do this, project-based learning would be integrated into the core classes which include English, math, science and social studies.

An example Love provided of this was visual arts and math. She said an artist needs to understand scaling, area, dimension and perimeter. The campus also would offer dance, digital media, vocal and instrumental music and theater.

The school would be open enrollment, students would not have to do any type of audition. The campus will assume the students entering the school have prior experience in the arts, Love said. She anticipates about 98% of students enrolled would be from low socio-economic families.

If approved, the campus would start with just sixth and seventh grades, and it would add a grade each year up to 12th grade, Love said. There would be 160 students per grade.

“The way we have visual and performing arts schools now, they’re all magnet schools, or they’re all audition-based,” Love said. “Imagine a kid that’s growing up in 76104 where there’s a food desert, they’re experiencing poverty, we’re not putting the audition requirement on that. We’re allowing them to have all those experiences despite the fact that they are experiencing poverty or they may have not had all of the different technical skills that you need to get past an audition at the other schools.”

What this means for Fort Worth ISD

Public charter schools receive tax dollars from the state and are held to the same accountability rating standards based on testing as traditional school districts.

Public schools in Texas receive funding based on the average daily attendance of students. Some critics of charter schools say this takes away funding from public education. However, charter schools do not get property tax dollars the local school district receives.

Charter schools do have more autonomy over academics in curriculum than a traditional independent school district, Love said.

Fort Worth ISD board President Tobi Jackson said she’s always excited for more opportunities in the arts for students. But when a charter school wants to open in the district, Jackson gave three main thoughts she’d like considered.

First, she said, any new charter should be geographically placed to best serve students and maximize every tax dollar going to public education. Second, she said, the school must be committed to students and engage the community in the way the school district does.

Finally, Jackson said, she wants the charter to remain invested in students.

“Some children are very easy to educate, and others can be very challenging,” Jackson said. “And what’s interesting is sometimes the most challenging students are the best leaders you just have to invest in. I’m not against charters. My concern is the investment in children and are they in it for the long haul with our children?”

Jackson also said she hopes the campus would partner with Fort Worth ISD’s I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and visual performing arts. 

“We have to operate collaboratively with each other,” she said. “It’s about getting our kids educated. And that’s all it’s about.”  

Nettles said traditional public schools have not worked for every child, and it’s important no child gets left behind in Fort Worth. He sees charter schools as another option for students.

“I tell those who are critical about charter schools, ‘It might not be for your child, but it’s for somebody,’” Nettles said. “I think it will help our community and our children. And that’s what I’m all about, the community and the kids.”

Ahead of the state board meeting, Love is nervous, but still confident in the concept of the school.

I really believe in the school model,” Love said. “And I believe it’ll make a difference in the community.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional board members.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...