The USC Price Center for Social Innovation opened its Pathways to Opportunity series for the 2018-2019 academic year on Sept. 20 with a discussion on social innovation and charter schools, exploring new educational ideas coming out of charter schools and how they can be applied to schools more broadly.
“A lot of our research and education is linked to the community and to service, and so events like this are perfect forums for us to come together and talk about some of the challenges that our communities face,” said Price Center Director Gary Painter. “What we’re doing in this series is focusing on new approaches to overcoming barriers for people who live in some of the most disadvantaged and divested communities, and clearly education is a critical pathway to move forward.”
USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott said that he was pleased that the Price Center decided to kick off its series of events for the year with this topic.
“Education is the great leveler,” Knott said. “When you talk about equal opportunity, we’re really talking about education. So being able to get education right, to get it available to all segments of society – low income individuals as well as immigrants and people of diverse backgrounds – is essential for the future of our society and economy, but also for issues of individual justice, fairness and what we stand for as a nation.”
Participating in her first event since joining the USC faculty and Price Center this year, visiting professor Christine M. Beckman moderated the discussion. She framed the conversation by noting that charter schools are themselves a social innovation, as they provide a new model for governing and thinking about accountability within public education.
“What we’re doing in this series is focusing on new approaches to overcoming barriers for people who live in some of the most disadvantaged and divested communities, and clearly education is a critical pathway to move forward.”
-PRICE CENTER DIRECTOR GARY PAINTER
The first charter schools were established in California in 1992 to provide more local autonomy in schools with the hope to increase learning opportunities for all students, particularly academically low-performing students, experiment with innovative ways of teaching, and move from a rule-based to a performance-based accountability metric. Roughly one quarter of all public school kids in L.A. are in a charter school, more than any district in the nation.
“The conversation I want to have today is about charter schools as an organizational form that was created in an effort to innovate and improve public schools – an experiment in public education – and to think about the ways that objective has been met, where it’s fallen short, and where we go from here in terms of the larger goal of access and opportunity for all students,” Beckman said.
Two Charter Models
Joining Beckman were two local leaders who manage nonprofit networks of charter public schools – Green Dot Public Schools of California president and CEO Cristina de Jesus and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools CEO Dan Katzir. Together, they oversee 50 middle and high schools serving nearly 25,000 students.
“As a charter movement, we started out in L.A. about 26 years ago to prove a point. That point was that it’s not the kids; that there’s a system preventing certain students from being successful,” de Jesus said. “There are thousands of proof points across the country that illustrate that. The kids can and will learn at high levels when certain things are true.”
Green Dot began 19 years ago with a model of starting high schools from scratch. It eventually expanded into middle schools, realizing the difficulty of taking in 9th graders who were ill prepared for the academic rigors of high school, and turnarounds, which is taking over struggling schools formerly run by the district.
The challenge of that first turnaround, Locke High School in South Los Angeles, a decade ago had a profound impact on Green Dot.
“We’re a better organization because we took on that work…” de Jesus said. “We underestimated the impact of mental health and trauma when running an attendance boundary school. Today, we’ve built a full program with one psychologist for every school to make sure we’re serving those needs. That’s an example of how Locke made us better.”
Alliance runs a highly decentralized network of schools, allowing budget and instructional decisions to be made in collaboration with staff at the local school site, while also providing essential resources at the network level. Each school has a parent engagement specialist whose job it is to forge a relationship with parents. These parent liaisons organize workshops, put parents in touch with community organizations, and on a day-to-day basis, make sure parents know if a child is absent, not doing homework or at risk of not passing a class.
Every five years, charter schools need to prove their effectiveness to renew their “charter” (or contract) with the district in order to continue serving children, and both de Jesus and Katzir believe that all public schools should have the same accountability.
“If you can’t show high levels of attainment or strong growth within a five-year period, you have lost five years with those kids and will never get them back,” Katzir said.
De Jesus added: “I do think that every public school should have to prove every five years that it has earned the privilege to serve children.”
Opportunities for Innovation
Most charter schools in California tend to be made up of 90 percent or more students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. One innovation being explored by some charter organizations is a mixed model that brings students from middle- and high-income families back into the public school system to make up half of the school’s population with low-income students comprising the other half.
Katzir noted the stark disparity between college graduation rates among different student populations. The chance of a low-income student completing a four-year college degree is 9 percent compared to 77 percent for white, middle- or upper-income families.
“It’s unbelievably embarrassing and something that really isn’t talked about in terms of where our country is right now in terms of readying our next generation to tackle civic leadership and to participate successfully in a global economy,” Katzir said.
There has always been a healthy level of competition among charter schools, but in the past three years de Jesus and Katzir have seen a growing sense of unity and collaboration in the charter space. While charter operators have improved the openness and sharing with each other, Katzir attested that charters have fallen short in collaboration with local districts. De Jesus contended that it was time for charters to look at their successes and give back into the system.
“Everything we do is to purposefully build a replicable model where there’s no excuses why the traditional public school system can’t just take what we’re doing and adopt it.”
-DR. CRISTINA DE JESUS, GREEN DOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF CALIFORNIA
“There’s still thousands of children in schools that are failing them every day,” de Jesus said. “I do think we’ve gotten into this isolationism of thinking that we’re doing our good work over here and forgetting about all those children still in systems where they’re not being successful. We at Green Dot see all students as our core students. Everything we do is to purposefully build a replicable model where there’s no excuses why the traditional public school system can’t just take what we’re doing and adopt it.”