During tomorrow’s Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board meeting, four men of color will petition to open three new charter schools in very high-need areas of Los Angeles. For Board members Steve Zimmer and Monica Ratliff, it will be the last time they vote on issues such as this. It will be interesting to see how they will vote on this new batch of charters that have been in the works for years.
I think these men embody what many charter leaders are truly like—passionate, idealistic, talented and committed to educating all children, especially those that are tougher to teach and with difficult backgrounds. Three are former teachers and one was a counselor.
Ruben Alonzo, son of migrant farm workers, didn’t have it easy growing up in a dirt-poor town in South Texas. He had an epiphany when he was an 18-year-old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): He decided he would start a charter school someday specifically aimed at helping English-learner students in East Los Angeles.
Being an attorney with degrees from Harvard and Yale wasn’t satisfying for TyAnthony Davis. As a former teacher, he felt a pull to go back to education and help kids get the same opportunities he received as a public school student in Fresno. So, he quit his job to start a school in Watts.
Alfonso Paz and Cesar Lopez are already running a successful charter public school in gritty Hollywood—APEX Charter Academy—which targets students who have been left behind by the system. Their latest goal is to open LAUSD’s first independent study charter public school aimed at reaching the toughest population of all—high school dropouts and teenaged parents.
For these four passionate men, and for most other charter leaders opening new charter schools, they see their work as a mission. Alonzo, Davis and Lopez are the first in their family to graduate from college. They point to their own background as providing the motivation to help others. They are committed to reaching out to the hardest to reach students and educating them using innovative methods.
Alonzo’s father died when he was 12. His older brother ended up in prison. Along with his two sisters, he was raised by his single mother who never went beyond the ninth grade. When his high school Calculus teacher learned he was getting ready to enlist in the military, she pulled him aside.
“You are going to apply to college and you are going to apply to one in particular—MIT,” he recalled her saying. He credits her for pushing him to pursue a scholarship at the prestigious school where he ended up graduating with a B.S. in economics. He then went on to receive an M.Ed. from both Harvard Graduate School of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University.
In Alonzo’s first year as a 2012 Teach for America Corps member at IDEA Pharr College Preparatory School, his students achieved a 98 percent passing rate on their Algebra 1 state test (compared to a 78 percent state average). He was then selected to serve as IDEA Pharr’s assistant principal of instruction, where he coached and developed 14 teachers.
He has high hopes for his proposed school, Excelencia Charter Academy, which will be based in East Los Angeles and start with grades TK, K and first grade and eventually go up to the eighth-grade. The school, which will employ a two-teacher model in English and language arts classrooms, and be built for English learners, will focus heavily on literacy, including a daily block of technological literacy, and prepare students to be college and career ready.
“I’m only where I am because of a high bar that was set for me,” Alonzo said. “When we set a high bar for all students, and give them scaffolding to reach that high bar, that is when we’re giving our students the potential to succeed.”
Davis grew up in Fresno and, at a young age, he was identified as gifted and was sent to a local public school for gifted children. His older brother stayed in the neighborhood school. Because of that, and despite a handful of resilient educators, he noticed his brother and a friend from the neighborhood were given fewer opportunities.
He went on to graduate from Yale University with a B.A. in African-American studies, an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
Davis hopes to open Vox Collegiate, a 6-12 school, in Watts. He says his goal is to create a school that redefines what is normal and expected of students from Watts.
“I was working as a corporate lawyer here in LA and I did it for two years,” he said. “But I knew where my heart was and, ultimately, I couldn’t let money and external measures of success determine what I did with my life. We have limited time to make a positive impact in our communities. I want to spend that time fighting for children, providing them with an opportunity to develop their own voices as future leaders and advocates for themselves and their communities.”
Alonzo and Davis are Fellows with Building Excellent Schools (BES), a yearlong training program that prepares promising school leaders to design, found, and lead a high-performing, urban charter school.
At Matrix for Success Academy, the school district’s first independent study charter school, the most traumatized students will be served in three brick-and-mortar resource centers in South Los Angeles, the Pico-Union neighborhood and Pacoima.
Paz and Lopez, who run APEX Academy, describe Matrix as a “fully loaded site,” meaning it will have a comprehensive staff. Each site will be staffed with seven teachers—four core teachers, a couple that will teach electives, a special education teacher, a full-time social worker, a career/employment advisor, and a guidance/college counselor. Students who tend to drop out, such as homeless youth, foster youth, teen parents, pregnant teens, youth on probation/parole, need services in real-time before re-engaging back into learning.
“This is what you need to do if you want to service the truly most vulnerable,” said Lopez, who emigrated to the United States from El Salvador when he was 14. “This is the opposite of cherry picking. We will find the kids who need the most help so that they won’t fall through the cracks ever again.”
In the fall of 2017, several other schools opening in Los Angeles with leaders of color at the helm include LA’s Promise Charter School; Crete Academy, which will focus on homeless students; and two USC College Prep schools, Rise High and Equitas Middle School. In addition, two BES Fellows of color are proposing to open schools in Lynwood and Inglewood in fall 2018.