National Charter Schools Week: DECA High proves the possible

NOTE: In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Fordham Ohio staffers will be blogging about teachers, principals, and guidance counselors who made a positive difference in their schooling and in their lives. This is the fourth and final post, which does double duty of celebrating National Charter Schools Week as well. The first post can be found here; the second can be found here; and the third here.

Growing up, I attended five different elementary schools. District transportation interruptions, school closings, and family relocations forced me into changing schools at the end of each year. My memories of middle school aren’t much better: They involve metal detectors, fights erupting on cafeteria tables, and teachers reading the Dayton Daily News instead of teaching. Overall, the schools I attended were poorly staffed, overpopulated, and nearly devoid of learning.

By the time I entered high school, I was at a significant disadvantage. My parents and I were skeptical of the district high schools’ ability to adequately equip me with a strong secondary education and effectively prepare me for college, so we selected a charter school instead: the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA).

DECA was founded in 2003 as Ohio’s first early college high school focused specifically on first-generation students. DECA not only accelerated my learning but also promoted a sense of belonging, support, commitment, and cultivated community among students and faculty. The college-going school culture was pervasive and promoted by constant messages that all students were able to succeed academically and enroll in college.  

DECA’s integration of its Gateway system, in addition to my rigorous coursework, provided me with the skills necessary to perform well in college. As a high school student, I interned with the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, and local non-profits—all while building a network of professional connections that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would end up providing crucial social and cultural capital.

I’m incredibly appreciative of my charter high school for providing me with an education that prepared me for college. But what I am most appreciative of is the support that propelled me beyond college admission and eventual graduation. At DECA, I gained life-long advocates and mentors that, to this day, still allow me to sit in their offices and ramble about my confusions, frustrations, fears, and achievements.

But of all the teachers, leaders, and mentors I had, Danya Berry—my high school guidance counselor and the current assistant principal at DECA—proved to be the most transformative. Danya made me feel seen from the moment I entered the building. When I walked through the hallways with my head down and shoulders drooping, she would casually ask me to step in her office. Then she would close the door, sit on her office chair, raise an eyebrow, and ask, “So, what happened?” Her personal attention made me feel visible, and I could never wear a mask around her; she always saw right through it.

Danya also pushed me out of my comfort zone. She challenged me with difficult questions and believed in me even when I had little self-efficacy. If not for her insistence, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to apply to The Ohio State University—nor would I have had the courage to have the difficult conversation with my parents that I might want to go to college out of the city.

I believe that one of the reasons that Danya was so impactful was because of her ability to invest deeply in relationships and encourage students, which is ingrained into DECA’s core values. DECA, at its core, shines a light on students that are often forgotten. For me, it disproved my previous self-defeating misconceptions about disadvantaged and first-generation students. Now, as part of Fordham’s sponsorship team, my journey with charter schools has come full circle—and my appreciation for DECA has grown immensely.