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Growing up in subsidized housing in Buffalo, New York, Don McQueen felt his chances for success were limited by the name of his street. This experience fuels the passion McQueen has for his role as executive director of Torchlight Academy, a Raleigh charter school that participated Tuesday in the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools rally.

“Because I couldn’t choose to go wherever I wanted, I was locked into that neighborhood … and so, that means the resources were locked in and the opportunities were locked way from me  — because my parents were poor and they couldn’t go anywhere else,” McQueen said. “And that’s so tragic.”

Around 200 students, advocates, and educators filled an auditorium inside the North Carolina State Museum of History to witness student performances, wave signs, and hear speeches from school choice supporters including Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson. The event was part of National School Choice Week, during which tens of thousands of similar events are being held throughout the country.

“I’m excited to celebrate the fact that North Carolina is actually one of the leading states of our nation in giving choices to students and parents for them to decide the best way they learn,” Johnson said. “We are all unique individuals, we do not have subscribe to the notion that ‘one size fits all’ works for every student.”

Listen to Johnson’s full remarks below. 

Speakers emphasized the educational options available in charter schools, magnet schools, traditional public schools, homeschool settings, restart schools, and collaborations between high schools and community colleges. North Carolina Charter School Teacher of the Year Deborah Brown said she wants to see the conversation around school choice shift, especially between charters and traditional public schools.

“I’d love to see it quit being set up as enemies on a battlefield with two entrenched positions,” said Brown, an English teacher at Research Triangle High School. “What you really want to do is strive for this idea that we should all be collaborative in what we do. If we try something at our school that works, we want to share that with other schools that can adopt it and look at whether or not that’s appropriate for their communities too, rather than this idea that we’re competing with each other and that some how one program is taking away from the other.”

Moaad Al Wakil, a Research Triangle High School senior, shared his discovery of his talent for debate and public speaking with the audience. After his speech, Al Wakil said he has found choice even within his own STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) school by getting out of his “bubble” of engineering and robotics and exploring the humanities.

“It’s like one of the rights that every person should have, the right to choose what they want to do and what school they want to go to,” Al Wakil said. 

Al Wakil’s fellow student Leticia Tusset performed a monologue at the rally. The marching band from Bear Grass Charter School in Williamston played several pieces. Students from Bear Grass and East Wake Academy performed a “school choice dance.” Torchlight Academy students demonstrated their own military drill. Watch a combination of the performances below.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.