Building a School from Scratch: A Conversation with Matthew King

Matthew King, principal and founder of Epic AcademyEpic Academy is built on the belief that every kid can succeed. The southeast Chicago charter school opened in 2009, with just one freshman class. It has added a class each year and now has approximately 450 students in grades 9 through 12. Students primarily come from the surrounding neighborhood; 96 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, 21 percent have individualized education plans and 16 percent are English language learners.

And since 2013, 100 percent of Epic’s graduates have been accepted to college.

What accounts for Epic’s success? According to Epic Academy’s principal and founder Matthew King, the answer lies, in part, with the freedom and flexibility that comes with being a charter school. We recently talked to King about the role of charter schools in education.

Why did you decide to start a charter school?

Prior to starting Epic, I was an assistant principal and a high school teacher in the Chicago Public School system. When I was accepted into the principal preparation program at New Leaders for New Schools, I got together with a couple of educators I really respected. We started having meetings in a coffee shop, discussing what we thought school could be for students in Chicago. We knew, from our experience, what wasn’t meeting students’ needs. We wanted to create something that did.

Working in a traditional public school wouldn’t have given me as much opportunity to be innovative. Starting a charter school gave us the flexibility, freedom and opportunity to create some innovative things.

How did starting a charter school give you more flexibility and freedom?

Charter schools are held to the same accountability standards as every other public school in Chicago, but we have much more freedom and flexibility in terms of professional development, the school budget and calendar.

In the Chicago Public School system, principals don’t have a lot of control over professional development; decisions regarding days and hours are decided at the district level. We can control that at the building level, so we can really provide professional development that helps teachers get results.

We are also able to look at our goals and challenges, and work with our board, staff and leadership, to set a budget around our priorities, strategies and goals. That kind of flexibility allows us to be more successful in hitting our goals.

We also have more freedom with scheduling and programming. For instance, schools traditionally have counselors who sit in offices and wait for students to come to them. Ultimately, some students go in and some don’t; the system revolves around student motivation.

Because one of our goals is to ensure that every student has equity when it comes to college applications, financial aid and enrollment, we got rid of the traditional counseling position and instead created a program called College, Career and Skills. We have counseling teachers in the classroom. Every freshman spends 200 minutes a week in that class, creating a vision for their future. They explore careers, and they get a chance to put a plan together for the next 10 years of their life. Our juniors spend that time thinking about what they want to go to college for; they also do really intensive ACT test preparation. Our seniors go through the entire college application, and financial aid and scholarship application process.

Traditional schools’ antiquated system of counseling does not meet the needs of current-day urban students. Because we have flexibility as a charter school, we were able to innovate and meet students’ needs.

In Chicago, charter schools are held to the same accountability standards as other public schools. How do you make time for innovative programs, while also ensuring that your students meet academic benchmarks?

We looked at the school day and determined our priorities. So our freshmen have 80 minutes of English every day. They have 80 minutes of math every day and 80 minutes of reading every day because we know that most of our freshmen are coming in about four to five grade levels behind. We need that time to help them catch up. And because our priority is preparing students for college and careers, we’ve decided the College, Career and Skills program is a much better investment of time than art class.

We’re very supportive of the arts, but looking at the priorities we have for our students, we decided to prioritize time for College, Career and Skills. As a charter school, that’s a decision we were able to make.

What challenges do you face?

One of our challenges is making sure that our students actually go to college. Since 2013, 100 percent of our seniors have been accepted to college, but right now, only about 60 percent of our students go. So we’re keenly focused on that, and have made a number of changes.

One of the issues we face is that some of our students have a personal or family belief that they’re not worthy of college, despite their academic scores and acceptance letters. So we’ve spent a lot of time studying student confidence and family issues. We’ve made a lot of curricular changes to try and address that, so hopefully we’ll see continued improvement in our kids going to college and staying in college.

How has your role evolved as Epic has evolved?

The first few years, you’re involved in every decision. Then, as the school grows, you learn to lead through other people. That’s been the biggest difference. I still know everything that’s going on in the building, but now, it’s not because I’m in every meeting, talking with every student and talking with every parent but because I’ve learned how to cultivate and develop leaders who do those things.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.