Editor’s note: Denver Institute for Faith & Work is excited to explore the importance of character formation in education. In this post, we’re highlighting the unique approach to character formation at New Legacy Charter School, a school for teen parents founded by Jennifer Douglas. Jennifer joins us as a panelist for Character Formation in K-12 Education in July.
We expect a lot from our schools and teachers. In addition to academic instruction, teachers shape the character of our students more than almost anyone else. But this balancing act between shaping students hearts and minds can sometimes feel more like a tug-of-war. With more students to serve and fewer resources to do so, schools and teachers often focus on curriculum at the expense of character in order to meet a variety of needs. But for many students, traditional approaches to education can often seem disconnected from their unique challenges, like language barriers, socioeconomic status, cultural differences, and trauma.
As Julissa approached her junior year of high school, she faced one of those challenges. She didn’t want her pregnancy to derail her education and dreams for her future.
“My previous high school was going to work with me the best they could,” Julissa said. “But if I were to fall behind on the assignments, they couldn’t do much about it.” With limited options for childcare and little flexibility at the school she was attending, Julissa struggled to find a place to continue her education while caring for her new child.
Her guidance counselors encouraged her to consider a new school that catered to young parents. “They told me about this school that was going to open; it would be a really good option for me to attend, even though I was going to become a mom,” Julissa said. After visiting New Legacy Charter School in Aurora, Colo., she knew that it was the best option, both for her and her child.
New Legacy was born out of a dream that Jennifer Douglas couldn’t shake. After teaching internationally for several years, Jennifer returned to Colorado in 1999 and eventually took a role with a local network of charter schools.
“I learned a lot about charter schools and came to appreciate the innovation that they offer,” Jennifer shared. “It renewed my hope in education and what was possible.” During her time at the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Jennifer visited a small school serving teen parents. The visit would serve as a catalyst for New Legacy.
“I saw the need that the school was meeting for young parents. I found them really inspiring. I admired that they were parenting and still pursuing their education,” Jennifer shared. “Eventually I pursued a passion that I’d had for many years: to start an alternative high school for teen parents and their children in Aurora.”
Since its founding, New Legacy has served students often left behind by traditional approaches to education. Along the way, they’ve developed a model that meets a students academic needs as well as develops “soft skills” or character. Jennifer views the students’ circumstances not as barriers to success, but as opportunities. “Everyone wants to be a good parent. The drive to provide a great childhood is there whether you’re 16 or 26 or 36. There’s so much leverage in that desire. That’s how God made us. We want to be good parents to our children.”
As Jennifer explained, the autonomy of charter schools allows for unique approaches to teaching. In addition to hosting on-site early childhood education, New Legacy provides a variety of courses in life skills and parenting that are often unavailable in traditional settings.
“The greatest gift a parent can give their child is a loving, nurturing environment,” Jennifer said. New Legacy’s philosophy on parenting education encourages students to consider “How do you take care of your own needs and being a whole, healthy human being so that you can take care of this little person that you’re now responsible for?”
“They teach you what it’s like to become a new mom, and what to expect with a newborn, and what to expect when your child is transitioning from an infant to a toddler,” Julissa said. “If I would have stayed at my prior school, I would’ve never gotten those parenting classes. It was amazing.”
The value of a relevant, targeted, and personal education isn’t lost on Jennifer. “I think so many kids at the high school level disengage completely because the curriculum and the instruction is so disconnected from their lived experience,” she explained. “I think we have to work to make education relevant, hands-on, meaningful, and connected.”
At New Legacy, educators help students understand the value of academic skills as well as character formation. “We help them connect to authors, people in history, and issues that are more connected to their lived experience so they see the value in learning about those things,” Jennifer said. “Then we help them see their role in why those issues matter for the world today.”
Jennifer often encourages students by explaining that “‘you need to read and write so that you can play a role in helping support your community and working a job where you're earning a livable wage.’ You’ve got to shift the focus, so that students understand why it matters.”
New Legacy’s approach is yielding results, at least for students like Julissa. “What New Legacy really taught me is that education is everything,” she shared recently. After graduating from New Legacy in 2017, Julissa is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “No matter what you do with your education, no one can take that away from you,” Julissa explained. “Finishing high school opens so many doors for you...New Legacy showed me that even if you’re a parent, it’s still possible.”
For many educators, character formation can feel like one more task on an already full workload. Between the demands of the classroom, administrators, and parents, teachers can struggle to incorporate approaches that balance academic learning with personal development. But for students like Julissa, the chance to educate both her mind and her heart in a setting that meets her needs changed the direction for an entire family.
Dustin previously served as the director of communications for Denver Institute of Faith & Work, with prior communications and marketing experience at the University of Colorado Boulder and Wycliffe Bible Translators. He holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Denver and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida. He and his family attend Storyline Church in Arvada.