This month, LIFE Academy will open to eager students in Montgomery, Alabama. The charter school – among the first in its state, will prepare students grades K-8 for successful futures in college, trades, and entrepreneurship. The doors students will walk through are on the renovated campus of the historic St. Jude Educational Institute, part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. With a culturally relevant and equitable lens, LIFE Academy is designed to meet the needs of students and their families. The project is the vision of LIFE Academy board chair Norma Chism, who recently spoke with Michael Alles of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), the Community Development Financial Institution that led the financing used to purchase the facility.

This is the third in a series of blogs on charter school finance contributed by Nonprofit Finance Fund. The conversation captured here has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Alles: LIFE Academy is among the first charter schools in Alabama. This is a new market for NFF, as well as for you. How did entering a new charter market – where charter infrastructure is still developing capacity – shape your journey?  

Norma Chism: I’ve been working on this project for the past 5-7 years, making connections in the community, and making sure this is something that the community would like.

In working to understand community needs, I followed the advice of mentors to network and join organizations. I became connected to the leaders of the City of Montgomery and was able to share with them my vision. Through networks and introductions from people who believed that my dream would help revitalize our community, I built relationships with the Mayor – who was the first to tell me about the availability of the St. Jude campus – as well as well as with the Archdiocese of Alabama, the local priest whose support we needed, the school district, and others.

I drew on my military background to create effective presentations and approach people as part of a team to gain their support. And my military leadership experience, showing honor and respect to all of our partners in this process – from our families to our authorizer – helped.

I found people who were crazy enough to believe in the power of my dream even when they didn’t understand the weight of what I was trying to do.

MA: How did connecting with the community, and understanding what families wanted, tie in with the purchase of this particular building? The St. Jude campus is historically significant, and I understand there was a lot of community support for having it repurposed in this way.

NC: I knew that financing a building would be one of my greatest challenges in starting a charter school. I was terrified. But a permanent home – the right home – was a make-or-break part of my dream. Many lenders wouldn’t touch us because we are brand new. It is rare that someone would fund a project for the amount we were asking for. I experienced a lot of stress and anxiety thinking, “If you can’t get someone to fund you, Norma, it doesn’t matter how amazing your vision is.”

A lot of schools choose to lease first, but the owner of our building wasn’t interested in the leasing.  I had people with 10 or 15 years of experience telling me I needed to stop dreaming so big, and that I had to crawl before I could walk, and should find a building to lease instead of trying to buy. 

I felt that if we didn’t buy this building at this time, we would lose out on a major investment. When we are done paying this loan, we will own the building, and be able to do other things with that money. My dreams are so big and so wide. You have no idea what we’re going to do with those funds to change the community that we live in.

MA: You’ve held this dream for a long time. What was the opportunity you saw? What space do you see LIFE filling in Alabama?  

NC: LIFE Academy is built on the concept that we have to create an environment conducive to learning. So for us, we have to respect the trauma-sensitive environment our students are coming from.

We understand the behavior considerations for the students who will attend. We’re not targeting kids who are top academic performers. We are most concerned with serving children who are dealing with tough circumstances.

That commitment has led to a lot of support from our school district. The Superintendent is excited that we’re bringing something different to the community, and has offered to help with food, transportation, even with supporting teachers leaving other district schools to teach at LIFE Academy.

MA: You’ve had incredible support from local leadership. How did you nurture relationships with local families?

NC: One of my mentors suggested going to where people eat, sleep, and pray. I went to local churches. I posted flyers in restaurants. I went into homes. I even went to the Walmart parking lot and heard about what people were interested in, and shared what we were trying to do. If they were 92, I’d ask if they had grandkids or great-grandkids who might be interested. My efforts were described as a guerilla operation, but hey, everybody goes to Walmart!

It also worked in my favor that St. Jude was active until 2014, so I made a connection with the alumni, and they were supportive, connecting me with families in their networks.

This wasn’t a “build it and they will come” situation. We had families that were interested, but didn’t have a car. Or weren’t able to drop off records. My amazing team goes inside homes, enrolls children where they live, has figured out how to securely get records and administer reading tests, sometimes under difficult circumstances.

MA: After working for years to get here, what would you tell others who are thinking of launching a school?

NC: I would tell them that patience is key. Starting a charter school is one of those dreams that really needs to be nurtured, and the right relationships and partnerships need to be in place.

One of the most important things for me was hiring an amazing executive director. She’s another fighter, and very strong on the educational background that I don’t have.

It’s also important to be honest about our challenges – especially as we come out of the pandemic where many of our children didn’t receive the level of education they otherwise would have. The more we are vulnerable and honest about the scope of the challenges, the more people trust us.

In this field, you need to have a true servant’s heart. It can’t be about money, about fame, or personal gain in any area. It has to be about the children, and you need to align your budget accordingly, and demonstrate that to the community.

Starting a charter school is a heavy lift. It tests your beliefs and your character. As long as people with the right hearts are in it for the right reasons, they’re going to be successful. It just might take a while. It took a while for us, but here we are.