Improving Quality of Life in the Rockaways: The Expansion of Challenge Charter Schools

Article by Kim Messer, Executive Communications Director

I recently sat down with Rev. Dr. Les Mullings to talk about the long history and success behind Challenge Preparatory Charter School and the reasons for expanding Challenge Charter Schools across the Rockaways.

Messer: Challenge Preparatory Charter is not just a charter school. Your vision for what Challenge Prep does goes well beyond education. Can you describe that for me?

Mullings: Challenge Prep is a community school. The idea of community development is engraved and integrated into everything we do. We think comprehensively about our role in Far Rockaway. Our vision is to expand and serve the community from a holistic standpoint. Education is just one part of our vision. We cater to the needs of people who are underserved in health care, social services, and housing. Our interest is in social develop of the entire community.

Messer: What makes Challenge Prep a successful charter school?

Mullings: Challenge Prep and now Challenge Charter Schools is a dream come true. It is a vision realized. It took hard work, blood, sweat and tears and represents years of time. We faced many setbacks and push back even from our very own community.

It’s not that our community didn’t think a school like this was needed, they just couldn’t see what success looked like at the time. There have been so many disinvestments here in Far Rockaway. The perpetuation of unfulfilled promises created suspicion in the Rockaways, and that mindset had to be fought through.

From the beginning, we have helped convince the community through neighborhood development and community service. We have won the trust of the community over time. This work started before Hurricane Sandy of course, but the recovery efforts after the storm cemented in the minds of many people that this school isn’t just an educational institution.

Challenge Prep and Far Rockaway Community Church served the community for many months after Sandy. The school became an extension of the FEMA site where meals, clothing distribution, and family counseling took place. We hosted the Sandy Family Reunion in our gym for Thanksgiving to give families a place to eat together that day. As the city and the state came on board, we partnered with the Governor, and the church really became his FEMA site.

We didn’t stop at emergency services. After basic needs were met, we moved into restoration--recovery, clean up, moving people back into their homes. This all served as an exclamation point to what we were about all along.

Messer: At the heart of these families are the children you serve. What is the philosophy regarding the children here at Challenge Prep?

Mullings: Children are the center of what we do, and “children first” is our motto. We don’t view the children we serve as customers. We actually care about the wellbeing of our scholars. We want to meet any needs that might hinder learning whether that might be hunger or emotional issues. We know basic needs must be met for children to be successful in learning. For example, we are at 90% reduced or free lunch, so we strive to take care of the whole child.

This is a natural thing for us; academic needs are not isolated. The core of Challenge Prep is a quality education. We want to give the best education possible and that is undergirded by our personal care. There is a rigor here to encourage high student achievement and to bridge the gap to ensure success.

Messer: What excites you most about the new proposed schools?

Mullings: More schools mean we have a greater reach in the community. We are expanding because we want to serve more families. When I walk the streets or go to church, people ask, “What can I do to get my child into Challenge Prep?” We have over 1000 on the waiting list for our lottery this year. While I love that we have a great reputation here in Far Rockaway, we want to expand so that we can extend more quality education to even more families.

Messer: What is your ultimate goal through education for scholars and families in the Rockaways?

Mullings: For me it is simply that the plight of social ill would be diminished to the point that it doesn’t prevent a child from learning. If a child is not learning, it spells doom for that child and affects generations to come. As a community school, we want to improve the quality of life for our citizens. We are fighting deep generational challenges, but I know we will see a difference in the next 15 to 20 years. If I have anything to do that, I will be grateful.

 Rev. Dr. Les Mullings, CEO/Founder

Rev. Dr. Les Mullings, CEO/Founder