As I consider the recent efforts to deny children access to charter schools in states from Washington to Rhode Island, I think about the work I’ve committed my life to preserving—and the leaps of faith that took me from a business career to a traditional teaching job to a leadership role with a charter school network.
In 1997, I stumbled into education by chance, but it was definitely the best coincidence that has happened in my professional life. I had been in the banking industry for about five years and became interested in working with young people as a result of teaching confirmation classes at my church. I went to an interview and spent a day in a classroom. A principal and a department chair asked me to create and deliver an engaging lesson before a group of students. I was hired but I didn’t have teaching credentials, so I immediately enrolled in a program to receive formal training.
When I began teaching at Berendo Middle School in the Pico Union District west of downtown Los Angeles, I didn’t really know much about pedagogy and best instructional practices, but I did know that I needed to share the love for learning and motivate every student to pursue higher education. The minute that I walked into my sixth grade class and sensed the injustice being laid out for our kids in terms of lowered expectations and the absence of a clear plan to guide them to college, I knew I had found my life’s work.
With a desire to impact more lives, I eventually decided to go into administration after being in the classroom for nine years. I found that being in a large district didn’t align with my vision for leadership. As a leader, I wanted to be more hands on. I enjoyed coaching teachers, and I wanted to help them take their instruction to the next level.
I took a leap of faith in 2006 when I joined Green Dot Public Schools, although I had been following these schools for a while. Green Dot opened a cohort of schools in South Los Angeles, and along with two colleagues who were transitioning to Green Dot, I also decided to take the opportunity and try something new.
Green Dot’s mission aligned with my beliefs as an educator because the goal of these charter schools was/is to bridge the achievement gap and to prepare students for college, leadership, and life. I became an assistant principal at one of the schools that opened in 2006. Soon thereafter, I became the principal of another Green Dot school in the area, Animo Ralph Bunche Charter High School, where I saw my leadership role as a commitment in making a greater difference for my school community and the families that we served.
Everyone at Green Dot has an unwavering belief in the potential of every student—the belief that all students can graduate prepared for college, leadership, and life. Everyone believes in providing equity in learning for every single student, not just for the higher-end students, but also for our special needs students and our English language learners. At Green Dot, we operate through a lottery process for admissions. We have more applicants than we have spaces. Because each applicant has a number assigned to him to participate in the lottery, we don’t know if a student who is selected is an English language learner or has a special need. When the application comes in, we see if a student might have an IEP (individualized education plan) and start to work with him to make sure he gets appropriate support. We don’t pre-judge or “cherry pick” our students.
We make sure that all teachers are supported. In driving our mission to educate every child, we create a collaborative learning environment for our teachers as well as our students. The administration provides consistent professional development to our teachers, focusing on teaching the whole student. In addition to core academic skills, we also work on teaching soft skills like verbal communication skills and life skills they might not have yet acquired.
The ability to closely collaborate with colleagues and to be surrounded by teachers who care deeply about student achievement makes me proud to be affiliated with a charter school organization like Green Dot Public Schools. With a similar student population to the Los Angeles Unified School District, “Green Dot ninth graders are nearly three times more likely to graduate college-ready than their peers” at traditional schools. Furthermore, “a recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that in the Locke family of schools operated by Green Dot, students are almost four times more likely to graduate being college ready than their peers at neighboring schools.”
The professional satisfaction I have gained from working in a charter school organization is only surpassed by the pride I feel in knowing we are succeeding in transforming young lives to be prepared for college, leadership, and life. It affirms that leap of faith I took, and I’m glad I haven’t looked back.
Xochitl Avellan is currently director of the administrator-in-residence program at Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles. She has nearly two decades of experience in K-12 education and has held positions spanning from the classroom to school site administration.