In second grade, Taylor DeLoach knew she wanted to be a teacher. Now in her early 30s, she has ascended to become the executive director of one of the most high-performing charter schools in the South Coast — Alma del Mar in New Bedford.
DeLoach’s trajectory of success mirrors that of Alma del Mar, the school she has devoted her entire professional career to. Since opening in 2011, the K-8 school has seen enough growth that it expanded to a second campus in 2019. This achievement has taken place while the school includes a large percentage of minority, high-needs, and multilingual students. DeLoach started at Alma del Mar as a first-grade teacher in 2014 and has evolved through the roles of academic dean, dean of culture, and principal. These experiences have equipped her to take on the executive director position, as she has an understanding of the experiences of both scholars and colleagues.
DeLoach inherits some challenging situations. She is following in the respected and successful shoes of Alma del Mar founder Will Gardner, who moved on from the school after last year. There is also a national drought of interest in teaching, which further impacts a community that she describes as “underserved.”
A native of Maryland, DeLoach earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology (Wesleyan) and a master’s degree in effective teaching (Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education). Both her grandmother and great-grandmother were teachers in Connecticut.
Although it serves students until the 8th grade, Alma del Mar describes itself as a “college preparatory” school, and there is a large focus on community and creating “service-minded leadership.” In spring of this year, the school began a program that provides graduates with scholarship money for two- or four-year colleges upon completion of high school.
Alma del Mar, like all charter schools in Massachusetts, is regulated and monitored by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Every five years their data on attendance, MCAS, and discipline are reviewed in order for a renewal of their charter. While charter schools have a greater degree of autonomy than district schools, they must meet a higher level of accountability.
An afternoon walk with DeLoach throughout the Frederick Douglass campus in New Bedford’s far North End reveals a clean, open and well-lit facility with an atmosphere of activity and interaction. Bulletin boards boast academic achievements. There is a conversation between DeLoach and a pair of parents in the school’s lobby that concludes with a hug and well wishes. Young students approach DeLoach with respectful enthusiasm and converse with her with ease when she asks if they need anything.
In an interview with New Bedford Light, DeLoach talks about her experiences at Alma del Mar, and addresses the challenges facing the school, the city and herself. She touches on the pandemic’s effect on Alma del Mar, and confronts the misconceptions that charter schools face.
New Bedford Light: How is the curriculum in a charter school unique from a district school?
Taylor DeLoach: We are flexible within the curriculum we choose to create. Each year we evaluate to see if the curriculum is working effectively and we see if we should take a different approach and improve upon it. Should we determine, after seeing results for a few years, that those curriculums are not meeting our needs we can evaluate other types of curriculum to determine what we want to move forward with in all of our subject areas. We have more flexibility when we choose to implement something.
We explicitly give our teachers autonomy to adjust their curriculum based on what they are experiencing in their classroom with their scholars. At a district school you might have a schedule or sequence of lessons that you must teach every day in that order from the day you start until you finish the year. Here we have the flexibility to adjust lessons from day to day if a teacher feels that their scholars need to get additional practice to master the subject matter. We can make quick changes, both in individual classrooms and the entire school.
NBL: Why has Alma del Mar seen success and expansion? And what are its challenges going forward?
TD: The major factor in our success has been our community. We have many stakeholders who contribute to our success — we’ve got our staff, our families, our supporters in New Bedford, and our scholars as well. And all of our stakeholders are deeply invested in the mission — service-minded leadership and putting our scholars on the path to college. So that makes it easy for us to all work together toward this common goal. So we all have responsibility to create the right conditions so that our scholars can accomplish that mission, and we never lose sight of that. We hold ourselves deeply accountable to provide an excellent education that removes barriers so that scholars can be on the path to college. There is a laser focus on our mission.
Like schools across the nation, we are seeking quality educators, and right now we’ve got two buildings full of them. What we’re noticing in the wider landscape is that there is less interest in the teaching profession in general and so as we think about the future of Alma, and we think about how to ensure that our success is not just for now — but there is long-term success in the interest of serving many generations of children in New Bedford — we have to make sure that we are consistently attracting high-quality and high-potential educators.
It’s a challenge that we’re not alone in — trying to enlist folks who right now have said “no” to teaching in the past, or college seniors who are considering teaching but aren’t quite sure. We need that generation of people to get excited and get fired up about working in schools so that we can have long-term success.
NBL: As a person who grew up outside of this area, what do you see as the challenges facing New Bedford? And what are its strengths?
TD: The major challenge facing New Bedford is that it’s under-resourced, it’s under-celebrated. New Bedford is a gateway city and there are a lot of systemic and structural ways that New Bedford does not get the revitalization that the economy needs in order for the city to thrive. But despite that, as someone who is not a New Bedford native, I find that New Bedford is incredibly vibrant and that the community is full of life and vigor.
In particular, I think one strength of New Bedford is the cultural diversity. You can see so much evidence of different cultures honoring their heritage, places where they emigrated from, where their grandparents or great-grandparents emigrated from and keeping that culture alive through language, through business, their food, and keeping the community connected. That part is what I love so much about New Bedford and I’m so happy to be serving an Alma community that is so full of kids who I see at Riverside Park, at the Central American Heritage Festival, or on the soccer fields with folks who are in their community. It’s such a special place to be for that reason.
NBL: You’re following in the shoes of founder Will Gardner. Is that daunting? How do you plan to go forward and build on his success?
TD: Following in Will’s footsteps is inspiring. Will set a very high bar for me and for all of us. This school started as a dream, it was Will’s dream and the dream of so many members of the New Bedford community, and when we started as a K-through-2nd grade school in 2011 … (it’s) now a two-site school serving over 1,000 kids.
He had vision. He had commitment. He had a high bar. He set us up for what is the next phase of Alma. So now that we’re here serving over a thousand students, the question that I’d love to answer is “How do we plan to move forward?” What my most important job right now is taking stock of what we were able to maintain through the pandemic, the excellence that is still in this building and then figure out a path forward to recover what was unfinished in the last two-and-a-half to three years. That is sometimes daunting.
This time is unprecedented, and we are just uncovering the depths and impact of the pandemic. But what I am so fired up about is that these families and these scholars are so worth the struggle of figuring out how we’re going to move forward. Our scholars show up every day excited to be here and to learn, and so my real work is to make sure that I am facilitating the removal of any barriers that could be in place that would prevent our scholars from reaching their full potential.
They are here and they are ready, so it’s our responsibility to step up and make sure we are providing every single thing that they need to fully recover and to thrive. That is a daunting challenge, but it is a worthy one. I am the right person and we are the right people to make that happen for the scholars at Alma del Mar.
NBL: You’ve been a teacher, team leader, academic dean, dean of culture, and principal, before becoming executive director. How has your history of experiences at Alma del Mar prepared you to take on this important role?
TD: I have a lot of context because I have been in all of these roles, and so I remember what it’s like to be a teacher in a class of 20 or 25 students and the challenges that come with that. And similarly, as dean of culture and principal, I’ve had so many experiences that are shared with the people who are now in these roles, and so my history of experiences has provided me with a lot of context, with a lot of perspective and empathy that I use in my leadership to connect with the teachers and staff here at our school, or to help us understand what lessons we’ve learned in the past and use that to inform the path that we’re going to take moving forward.
Being here for the last eight years, and now in my ninth year, being able to connect with so many scholars, so many children, has been absolutely rewarding. My first class of first-graders just graduated from eighth grade last year, and it was such a privilege to watch them grow up. I was able to stay connected with their families, and now see their siblings join us in kindergarten and first grade, and be able to follow them as they go onto high school and accomplish great things there. My tenure with this school has given me an incredible opportunity to make and maintain those connections in a way that helps keep our community together and helps set an example for others in this community about what is possible when you make the investment in our community, our scholars, and our families.
NBL: How do you respond to the criticisms that charter schools are taking resources away from public schools?
TD: Luckily, we are a state, Massachusetts, that is committed to sending funding to district schools. District schools still receive a certain amount of funding for a certain number of years after students move from the district into charter schools, so that money doesn’t just disappear right away. We’re also lucky to live in a city like New Bedford where there are many thousands of students here to serve. And so we see Alma and other charter schools in this area as a part of the larger public education landscape and we are trying to accomplish the same things that the district schools are trying to accomplish, which is just to provide an excellent education for the children that we serve. We understand the criticism. We understand that, in general, schools are underfunded and we understand the pressures that come along with that.
But we are not trying in any way to hoard resources just for ourselves. Again, we see ourselves as one of many schools in this city that have a responsibility to serve the students in this city, so that’s what we remain committed to, and that is what we will continue to do going forward.
NBL: Are there any misconceptions about Alma del Mar and charter schools in general?
TD: One misconception is that charter schools just take the best kids and that we’re very selective like a private school might be. But that is a misconception. In fact, charter schools in Massachusetts are public charters, which means that we are obligated to admit any student no matter what. … In a district school you are assigned to a school based on where you live. At our school we take applications for a lottery from anywhere within the New Bedford city limits. We serve students from throughout the city. When people hear the word “application,” they might think this is like a private school application, that you have to meet a certain criteria to get admitted, but actually our application is just demographic information like name, date of birth, and do you live in the city? And we use that information to make sure that we are in compliance with the September 1st birthday cutoff, and that we meet the requirements of our charter. Aside from that, any student who meets the criteria can be admitted to our school. So this is not about taking the best students, whatever that means. We are a school that serves all kids no matter what.
NBL: What attracted you to education? And what is your current perspective on the role of education?
TD: What attracted me to education was actually my own experiences as a student. When I was in the second grade, I remember reading a story with my teacher and the rest of the class, and something made me think to myself, “I want to do this someday. I want to be a teacher and I want to teach kids how to read.” And I’ve kept that dream my entire life, and it helps that I find it natural to connect with kids. I really enjoy the process of seeing them learn new things and master new things and get ready for the next grade. That all is very motivational to me and it’s very rewarding.
But aside from my personal attachment and commitment to teaching, I think that right now education is more important than ever. In the age of the Internet and in the age of polarized groups of folks who cannot agree, our next generation needs to be able to read proficiently, they need to be able to analyze, they need to be able to understand history and communicate effectively with each other and future generations and generations that came before in order to enact change that is going to save the world. And right now there are a lot of existential challenges in the world that are going to make it difficult for huge swaths of people to thrive.
If we can get this generation of students to be able to understand the challenges that are facing humanity, to understand what’s at stake, and be able to advocate and critically think, and return to their communities and enact change that’s going to positively impact the community, that’s the future I want for myself, and the future I want for my loved ones. So I remain committed to education, even throughout what was so difficult about the pandemic years and what has been difficult about returning from that. I remain committed because I deeply believe that investing in a generation of children this way equips them to make the changes that our world needs in order to thrive.
NBL: Alma del Mar’s success has occurred with a majority of Latinx and high-needs students, and almost half are multilingual. What does that say about Alma del Mar?
TD: What that says about Alma is that we are a school of our community and that we exist in service to that community. Our scholars and our demographics are reflective of the families that live in this city. Our demographics have changed over time as the demographics of our city have changed. And Alma’s mission is to put all scholars on a path to college. That is what we were committed to doing in 2011 and that is what we continue to commit to doing. So given that this is the population in our city, these are the kids who we want to serve, and these are the kids who we want to make sure when they leave our doors they are scholars. They are prepared, they are ready for high school, they are ready to be on the sports team, they are ready for their first job. We want to make sure they are prepared to go out into the community and really represent the best of themselves.
The data would indicate that we have had success with this community. The students who just started high school in the fall, looking at what they were able to accomplish, despite everything they had thrown at them throughout the pandemic and beyond, that tells us that we are still moving in the right direction, and we will remain committed to serving this demographic of students because we are a school of this community, and that is the commitment we make every day.
NBL: Alma del Mar is a school with a high percentage of minorities. As an African-American woman are you more sensitive to them and their experiences?
TD: I am a woman of color serving a community of children of color and that helps me understand challenges that they might be experiencing. But it also inspires me to see what happens when communities that have been historically underserved get the opportunities and resources to be able to reach their full potential. And I am proud that Alma provides those opportunities, particularly for our children of color and for all children of New Bedford who enter our doors.
Sean McCarthy is a New Bedford area freelance writer.
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