Emily Augustine has big plans for the first day of the 2021-2022 school year: welcoming city students as the founding principal of Clay Hill Public Charter School.

Clay Hill Public Charter School is a new, tuition-free public charter school located in the Bayview neighborhood of Baltimore City. Next year, the school will welcome 200 students across grades K-3. 

When the Southeast Baltimore mom settles in to her new office next year, you probably won’t find coffee in her mug — tea is more her speed. Her favorite place to grab a chai? Daily Grind in Fells Point. Over the last year, Emily and family have played a lot of games (Sleeping Queens is a favorite!) and spent a lot of time in Patterson Park. The park is a favorite destination of theirs and they can’t wait for the safe return of city festivals and events. 

We caught up with Emily to talk about plans for Clay Hill Charter and what it’s like to build a school from the ground-up during a year when the very principles of “how to do school” have been in near constant flux.

Coffee with Emily Augustine, Founding Principal of Clay Hill Public Charter School

Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been in education? What roles have you held in Baltimore City Public Schools and what brought you to your newest role — principal of Clay Hill Public Charter School?

Originally from New York, I have lived in Baltimore City for the past 15 years and now proudly call Maryland my home. I reside in the Butchers Hill neighborhood with my husband, two children, and dog Charlie Brown. We love city life and all the perks and proximity it has to offer.

I started my career in Baltimore City Schools 15 years ago as a middle school English language arts and math teacher, and my heart will always be with that complex and inspiring age group of students. I am extremely proud of the work I did in collaboration with the founding middle school teaching team at Patterson Park Public Charter School to build the middle grades program into one that now offers high school level Algebra I, Spanish I, Outward Bound backpacking excursions, City Robotics championships, biannual trips abroad, innovative elective programming, and consistently sends over 80% of its graduates to selection-based criteria high schools. I then transitioned into an Assistant Principal role at Patterson Park where I had the privilege of supervising and coaching students and staff at all grade levels and content areas PreK-8th. When the school began exploring replicating its model, I excitedly pursued the opportunity to lead that work as the Founding Principal of Clay Hill. Inspired by two small children of my own at home, I have recently developed a passion for early childhood education and am excited to bring my experiences and learning into this new role.

Let’s talk about Clay Hill Public Charter for a moment. How did the idea for a new public charter school come to fruition?

Patterson Park Public Charter School has been serving families in Baltimore City for over 15 years and has been receiving over 600 applications for 50 open seats each year in recent years. There was a clear demand for our program, and we felt a responsibility to serve more students and families. Understanding an increasing student seat deficit in Southeast Baltimore City and desiring to bring our whole child education to more students, our board of directors started to explore plans for replicating our program. We applied and were approved for a second charter in the spring of 2019 and are currently in our planning year to open Clay Hill Public Charter next Fall of 2021.

Clay Hill will be located in the Bayview neighborhood of Southeast Baltimore City at 6400 E Pratt St. For our founding year, we are enrolling students in grades K-3rd, but will grow to serve students K-8th over time. Clay Hill embraces a “whole child” educational philosophy, which is grounded in excellence, wellness, identity, and love.

Some parents may not be familiar with Charter Schools. What makes them different from zoned neighborhood schools in the city?

Charter Schools are tuition-free, public schools open to all children residing in Baltimore City. We are accountable to city and state achievement standards, but have more autonomy in our approach to curriculum, instruction, and decision-making. Most Baltimore City Charter Schools do not have a traditional “zone,” but rather enroll students through an application system and lottery.

What has it been like creating a new school in the midst of a pandemic? What things are you thinking about now that you might not have been thinking about two years ago?

Founding a new school is a challenging experience in and of itself, and doing so in a pandemic has been no exception. Our vision for Clay Hill is to be a community hub–a place where children, families, and community members engage, learn, interact, and grow–and finding ways to build that community foundation virtually has taken a great deal of creativity and flexibility. School as we knew it has shifted so much in the last 12 months, and I think that has really shifted our approach in designing our program as well.

We have hosted our Open House, visiting days, family meetings, and staff interviews on Zoom; we have leveraged our social media channels to recruit students and share school updates; and we have been creative in seeking out furniture and supplies in the face of production delays. Two years ago, desk shields and floor decals were not on our purchasing list, but we are preparing health and safety measures this year in the same way that we are preparing curriculum and culture building. And most importantly, we are thinking about how we will foster joy and love in our building in the fall as we welcome children back that may have not attended in-person school in over a year. We are prioritizing relationship-building, social-emotional learning, and connection in our curriculum and hiring. I personally cannot wait to be back in-person with our students!

What might parents be surprised to know about Clay Hill? What’s surprised you about the process of opening a new school?

A fun story that I can’t help but share–we just hired our Front Office Assistant for next year who is a proud alum of our partner school, Patterson Park Public Charter School, and my former 6th grade student. We have a few other alumni applying for roles at Clay Hill and even the child of an alum joining our founding kindergarten class. It brings me great joy to be working with my former students in a new capacity. Their interest in returning to the Patterson Park/Clay Hill family speaks volumes of the community of love and care we seek to cultivate in our schools.

I see Clay Hill Public Charter as a school the community can “mold” together. Though we are entering the school year with a strong mission and vision, there is so much opportunity for founding families to share their voices and interests and ideas to shape the future of the program. I have been so inspired by the excitement I hear from prospective families and community partners about being a part of this work.

If parents are interested in learning more about Clay Hill, what should they do?

Clay Hill is open to all children residing in Baltimore City on a space-available basis within each grade level. Applications opened in October, and we will continue to enroll students until all seats are filled. Families can learn more and complete an application online at www.joinclayhill.org. We also encourage families to follow us on social media at www.facebook.com/ClayHill386 and @clayhill386 on Instagram. Additionally, questions directed to [email protected] or 410-558-1230 will receive a prompt response from me personally.

If you could assign all incoming Clay Hill students one book to read over the summer, what would it be and why?

I would ask all families and students to read The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. It tells the story of Taylor, who after having his tower of blocks fall finally finds comfort from a rabbit when many other animals were not able to help. My own daughter received this book last spring at the start of the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty and some of the challenges ahead seemed insurmountable. And though we enjoy reading it together as a child’s story, the message really speaks to kids and adults alike. After a year like no other, we have to remember that listening is a tool for comfort, for healing, and for connection. I hope that we can lead with that message at Clay Hill this fall as we welcome our students back for a year of learning, growth, and fun.