The first charter school in the state opened in 1992. Today, more than 800 public charter schools are operating in California, and there are more than 5,000 charter schools nationwide.
Many people say that charter schools are one of the answers to school reform---and in fact, the government is doubling funding to charter schools for next year. But some Washington lawmakers say while they support the charter school movement, not enough is being done to monitor these schools' admission procedures, academic standards, and financial governance once they’re up and running.
KALW’s Nancy Mullane has the story of one charter school on the penninsula.
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NANCY MULLANE: It’s early, not quite 7:30 in the morning as cars pull up into East Palo Alto Charter School’s circular driveway. Passenger doors of sedans, mini vans, and big construction trucks open. Kids grab their backpacks and musical instruments and head inside, past the administration building to the cafeteria and a breakfast of bagels, bananas and milk.
Not all parents have driven or walked away. Some mothers and fathers have stayed behind to share breakfast with their children. Marie White is standing in the middle of the chatter. She’s the math instructional coach at East Palo Alto Charter School, and today it’s her turn to monitor the cafeteria.
MARIE WHITE: Some of them get here really early. I think just as much for the kids, it’s a time to socialize for the parents. You'll see a group of moms sitting over here hanging out in the morning, hanging out together. People will bring their babies.
Breakfast over, the 175 middle school students dressed in uniforms of khaki pants and white shirts stroll off in small groups to their classrooms. A few minutes later, the school’s 250 elementary students head out to a shaded courtyard just off the cafeteria.
Smaller kindergartners line up to the right, taller fifth graders to the left. At the front, are teachers wearing t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with their college and university names. They’re holding large colorful flags from of their alma maters -- Smith, Michigan, Fresno State, Occidental.
At precisely 8 A.M., fourth grade teacher Sarah Milo stands before the crowd. In a positively commanding voice, she welcomes the students back to another day of school at E-P-A-C-S.
SARAH MILO: Good morning East Palo Alto Charter School! What do you say?
STUDENTS: Every person will attend college someday!
Together all the children yell the school cheer, “Every person will attend college someday” - EPAC’s initials.
Then, in another morning ritual guaranteed to wake anyone still in a mental slumber, the classes begin a rolling cheer for their teacher’s alma mater, beginning with Stanford and ending with Berkeley.
STUDENTS: Stanford, Berkeley….
Every class is screaming so loud, I can’t tell what they’re yelling. Fourth grade teacher, Milo can. She says one class far down on the right, screamed Stanford the loudest. They scream again with delight.
With the morning college competition over, Milo wishes everyone a great day.
Then, like teasing strings of yarn from a tight-knit sweater, the teachers turn and lead their red-faced students to their classrooms. Before entering, the teachers place their college flags in anchors just outside their door, a reminder that going to college is what this school is all about.
I follow Milo, a graduate of Vassar.
MILO: Ok, clap one time if you can hear my voice. Clap two times if you can hear my voice. Clap three times if you can hear my voice. Remember, I should never have to go higher than three. That means your bodies are absolutely still and your eyes are on me. We need to get ready to go on our field trip.
Today she’s taking her fourth grade class on a field trip to see the elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park, a preserve about an hour away on the Pacific coast. The kids have been studying elephant seals for weeks, and now they’re going to see them during their birthing and weaning season.
MILO: We have a lot to do before we leave, so I need to make sure you’re handing in your homework, your homework planners are out and open and then begin reading your Squirt book. I’ll come check your planners as you’re reading. Ready, spaghetti? You should be doing all of this without talking. I know Brenda’s turning in her homework without talking.
Students pull paperbacks out and start reading. It gets quiet. Milo checks the homework students have just turned in. She looks up, disappointed and calls a boy over to her desk.
MILO: This is due tonight. So you didn’t do your reading list. You’re missing pages aren’t you? You haven’t done this here. Miguel, I’m afraid you haven’t done your work. Sorry. I’m sorry. We were really, really clear on the expectation, weren’t we? The checklist is on the board. What happened?
She puts her hand on his shoulder and tells him instead of going on the field trip, he’ll have stay at school and finish his work.
The dark-haired boy puts his head in his hands and tries to hide his face from the other students reading at their desks. Those close by can see he’s crying. Milo hands him a note and sends him to the Assistant Principal’s office.
The boy grabs his backpack and heads out the door. Milo finishes checking the homework. Done. The rest of the students in the class breathe a sign of relief, grab their backpacks and head to the bus. Another 4th-grade class and some parent chaperones are waiting.
TEACHER: You’re to go in two to a seat. You may sit with whomever you like. The only instructions are you need to keep voices down. Remember, you’re not only representing yourself, but also your class and the whole school. So I want to see best behavior. File in, start at the back and just fit in where there are seats.
Standing at the front of the line is Andres Perez. He says his class has already gone on two field trips this year.
ANDRES PEREZ: We also got some visitors from Año Nuevo to come and tell us about over there. That if there’s some birds around then there’s a birth and lots of seagulls go around it cause they eat some parts of the mom they don’t like.
Standing to the side watching her son board the bus is Guadalupe Perez, Andre’s mother. Usually she goes along as a chaperone but today she’s going to stay behind and work.
GUADALUPUE PEREZ: Everyday I’m here to help teachers, in the cafeteria, sometimes in the classroom. I like it because I don’t have to ask do you need something. No. I’m coming. I see it to help and I help. You know....
It’s not quite 9am when the bus finally takes off in a cloud of diesel smoke, students smiling and waving. The parent volunteers left behind scatter to their jobs throughout the school.
Watching everything is Saree Mading, the Dean of Students. Three of her children have attended EPACS.
SAREE MADING: Did you see all the parents this morning? That’s every morning. You saw the cheer and the parents sit and wait until it’s all over and some of them come in and find out ways they can help? Yeah, there’s a lot of us.
In 1996, it was parents that got together and applied for a charter. And in 1997, with the help of start-up funds from a non-profit education foundation started by John Walton of Wal-Mart fame, East Palo Alto Charter School opened its doors for the first time.
Mading says the parents living in the mostly working class community wanted a school that would change their kids’ expectations. Instead of planning on dropping out, they’d go on to college. Now thirteen years later, Mading says the school’s supportive culture has matured.
MADING: They see how we get along, how we believe in them, you know and it’s consistent.
It’s also required. As a condition of their child’s enrollment, parents must complete 40 “parent effort units” each year. They get one each time they participate and attend a school site council meeting or chaperone a class field trip. A chart on the wall inside the administration office notes, in apple stamps, how many units each family has accrued so far this year.
Throughout the day, parents walk up to the chart and check to see how many apples they have in their row and what they might need to do to get more.
Matilda Sanchez greets many of the parents. She’s this year’s president of the School Site Council, and mother of a fourth grader, Abraham. Today she’s handing out pre-packaged plastic bags of chocolates to people who placed orders in a recent fund drive. It made the school a solid profit.
MATILDA SANCHEZ: One thousand, one hundred and thirty-five dollars. Yeah in two weeks. That was just a last minute thing. We will use the money for a playground and we’re trying to raise money for the soccer field.
She says they’re trying to raise money for a playground and soccer field. Next time, she says, they’ll sell tamales and cookie dough.
Kimberly Carlton drops in to pick up her chocolates. Carlton, who lives in East Palo Alto says when it came time to send her only child to school, a couple of years ago, she chose the one that would offer the most challenging academic education. She says:
KIMBERLY CARLTON: We really like the school. Nica loves the school. She loves her teacher. I’m really impressed with the approach the school takes to especially working with parents and having the community be involved with the education of the kids. I love the fact that they have a garden out in the back and I’ve been really impressed with the quality of instruction here.
That quality of instruction is evident in the school’s most recent Academic Performance Index or API score of 842. That’s 300 more points than the school had in 2000.
That’s right around when UCLA graduate Laura Ramirez began teaching second grade at EPACS.
LAURA RAMIREZ: And it said sort of pre-requisites or experience desired and it said Spanish speaking a plus. And I thought, I speak Spanish. And I had been working at Merrill Lynch for a year and I just wanted to try something completely different and I thought, let me try this. Um. And here I am, the principal of the school.
Sitting in her small office, a Bruins flag hanging overhead, Ramirez says the school has grown and changed a lot in the last decade. In 2004, EPACS Board of Directors voted to make the school part of the network of 24 ASPIRE public schools. ASPIRE is a charter school management organization.
Like all public schools, EPACS gets money from the state and federal government, and Ramirez says ASPIRE helps her manage those funds. But next year, she says, there will probably be less to manage.
RAMIREZ: I think what’s keeping me up at night are the budget cuts and what that’s going to mean to our school.
Employees of ASPIRE Charter Schools are paid based on what they’ve accomplished.
RAMIREZ: We’re on a merit raise so if our school meets certain goals, we all get raises.
MULLANE: That’s like a corporation?
RAMIREZ: It’s great. But because of the tightening up of the budget, we haven’t had a raise.
MULLANE: So even though you meet the goal?
RAMIREZ: No, we don’t see the raises, and it’s so hard when teachers are having such great results and you know they think I’ve been making the same the last two years in a row.
That could make sustaining the school’s strong culture hard to maintain. But Ramirez says so far, the teachers have put the students’ needs first.
RAMIREZ: AT the end of the day, that really is the most important goal. Our goal this year as a school goes beyond what our API is. It’s literacy. It’s reading. Are our kids reading at grade level? One hundred percent of our kids? And they’re not.
So far, East Palo Alto Charter School has been able to meet most of its goals. But with impending budget cuts expected on top of static pay, it will be tough to achieve Ramirez’s latest goal.
In East Palo Alto, I’m Nancy Mullane for Crosscurrents.
New York Times article
California Department of Education: Charter Schools
Aspire Public Schools: a non-profit that builds and operates charter schools
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