by Rupa Dev, New America Media
Tell me about your charter school networks.
James Willcox: This is Aspire’s 12th year and we’ve opened 30 public charter schools across the state, including nine high schools. We serve the state’s most underserved populations, with schools in Los Angeles, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Modesto Sacramento, Stockton, and Berkeley. Eighty percent are students of color and 70 percent are living in poverty. We’ve very proud that every one of our 100 seniors got accepted to a four-year university last year.
Judy Burton: We have 12 high schools and five middle schools in high-poverty, typically high-gang-activity communities [of Los Angeles]. Ninety-nine percent of our students are Latino and African American, with 92 percent qualifying for free and reduced federal meal program. This year we opened two new schools—one high school and one middle school.
What is the biggest difference between a charter school and a traditional school?
JB: The consistency and the expectations and the personalization. Every kid is known. School leaders and teachers are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to make sure their kids are successful. It’s not a job—it’s a mission.
Aspire Public Schools network announced an overall API score of 824, making it the highest-performing school system in California serving a majority of high-poverty students. Meanwhile, LA Alliance has three of the top 10 high schools in Los Angeles. What drives your schools’ success?
JW: We don’t have some sexy new curriculum or new technology. We have a lot of committed people dedicated to the common purpose of what it means to learn. We have small, personalized schools where kids don’t fall through the cracks. We believe there are no excuses if we don’t have every single student prepared for college. It’s not about what the kid is bringing to school from home or whether the kid went to preschool; it is about our team and what we do or don’t do for the children in our schools.
JB: We don’t believe some students will go to college and others’ won’t. We believe all kids can learn at high levels with high expectations. Our schools require that students have to earn at least a C to pass a class. If not, you repeat the class with support. Our schools are small, and every student has an advisory teacher and advisory group. Every principal and teacher knows every kid’s family by name and that matters a lot in communities where at large schools, kids will typically be anonymous.
What are some components that make your schools highly effective learning institutions?
JB: Longer instructional days: Our school day is one hour longer than traditional schools, and our school year is 10 days longer. Our classes are two-hour periods so students have longer uninterrupted periods of time to focus on real-life application of material.
Parental Involvement: Our parents are required to sign a compact to volunteer 40 hours during the school year.
One-on-one attention: If a student is lagging in Algebra One, that student will have a math support class—either online or a differentiated support program—during which we assess the gaps and make sure we teach to the gaps to bring the student up to where he or she needs to be.
JW: We have a big advantage in that families and teachers choose us over other school systems. Also, we are constantly evaluating our students and ourselves. People are always observing teachers in the classroom and providing them with feedback. We evaluate students all the time, from test scores to student achievement. That’s the only way we can succeed.
The LA Times has generated huge controversy for its “value-added database” to evaluate 6,000Los Angeles teachers. How do you think teachers should be evaluated?
JB: I believe the value-added methodology should be part of measuring teacher effectiveness and the data should be available to schools and parents. But I could not disagree more with publishing individual teacher names and their performance in a newspaper. Employees have a right to confidentiality.
At the Alliance, teachers are involved with designing what will be expected from them. We won’t have a salary schedule where everyone gets paid based on how long they’ve been at the school or how many college credits they took. Pay will purely be based on tiers of effectiveness.
JW: Schools have to be about results. [But] the tricky part is teacher evaluation. We are [only] at the early stages of understanding how to evaluate student achievement in correlation with teacher quality. How do you have students’ tests translate back to what happens in the classroom? [For instance,] if students are evaluated based on one standardized test a year, what happens when a teacher’s students all have the flu on test day? Then you are evaluating whether the kids are healthy or sick when they took the test, not how well they learned from a teacher.
How are budget cuts affecting your charter school networks?
JW: We’ve been affected pretty severely. We received $10 million less from the state. Due to cuts, we have fewer jobs in our schools, so that means fewer adults in our building. Our team has seen virtually no raises for the last three years. They are doing a job that’s harder to do with fewer resources, but they made the decision to [forgo raises] and protect the kids by keeping cuts away from the classroom.
JB: Our per-pupil funding has dropped at least $2,000 per student over the last seven years. We maintain class sizes at a 25-to-1 ratio, and it’s difficult to do that with loss of funding. The cost associated with maintaining small classes makes it difficult for schools to manage rent or mortgage payments. When funding per pupil goes down and a school ends up paying $1,300 per student for the rent payment, instead of $1,000, that is money being taken out of the instructional program, and that does have an impact.
Your schools have been recognized for their excellence, but most charter schools don’t get the same kind of results. What should ethnic parents consider when trying to find a charter school that of high quality—and the right match for their kid?
JB: I would recommend that parents spend some time in classrooms. Is this an environment that works for your son or daughter? Does your kid need a lot of structure or a free flowing environment? Some students thrive in large places with lots of adults and other kids thrive in small, personal environments. The school will have your child for eight hours a day. Choosing a school just off test scores isn’t necessarily the best way to make a choice. Get to know the administrators and teachers to gauge their impact.