Depending on who you talk to, Charter schools in Arizona were enabled for the purpose of innovating and improving education; or for destroying the public school system. In an oppositional political system, probably both have some truth – and perhaps both are happening. Charters undeniably pull students away from district schools. But can they also benefit districts by developing innovative models that work, that districts can then replicate at scale?
Pamela Cornell is aware of the difficulties faced by public schools. The last thirty plus years she’s worked on alternative programs for Project Moore, run the STAR Alternative HS for Sunnyside and a gifted and talented school in Richmond, VA and helped open a comprehensive high school in Colorado Springs. Now “retired”, she is the co-founder of Las Puertas Community Learning Center, a new southside charter school that she hopes will model successful programs that can then be integrated back into the public schools.
“One of the unique things we’re doing that is very different than others, is we’re not in the business of setting up a whole bunch of charter schools. Our goal is simple – we want to improve education in Tucson.”
“We went to leaders in some of the districts, the Sunnyside Superintendent, said we will open a charter in the district if you give us the freedom to do it. They said no, which was fine….We hope at the end of 3 years we will have some really strong research based outreach so we can go to our neighborhood schools, and say ‘here are the things that are working with young people who are underserved’, not in a competitive fashion but to start targeting schools in our regular districts to serve as a model to bring some of that new stuff in.”
What kind of stuff? Las Puertas will be based on four primary foundations:
– College Prep (Academic)
– College Readiness (non-Academic)
– Strength Building
The community aspect may include non-traditional features such as a health provider on the campus, offering early childhood education, a financial institution (bank or credit union), and hopefully an engineering program. Pima college and ASU are being tapped as partners; ASU will provide the social work interns so that all students’ families “will have social work access if they need it to connect them to whatever resources they need.”
“Also we are bringing in from community what we call a design team, we have wonderful people who are just artists, my pharmacists who developed the pharmacy tech program for walgreens, Dr Storm from JTED, retired principals, UofA students. They are being invited in to help us shape the school. Closely working with the Sunnyside neighborhod association. The school is a reflection of what the community is looking for. We will work directly with the teachers to integrate the project based learning, they will help the teachers develop the curriculum and help evaluate it. College readiness, very strong curriculum. We are doing interdisciplinary blocks: math/science, humanities/language arts, “specials” – I think it will be an interesting approach”
Academic College Prep
A key goal of Las Puertas is to serve a traditionally underserved population with a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. This isn’t just lip service: the school will have a longer year of 204 instructional days vs the state mandated 180, will have a longer school day, and will pay the staff appropriately for the longer days and hours with higher than standard wages.
“Special ed kids, English language learners, all will be in the same core curriculum together. Every three weeks, they will be assessed, and immediately get whatever support or enrichment they need.
“Research has shown that kids in 6th grade who fail one core subject or have more than 3 referrals to the office have a 60% lower chance of graduatiing. So we really feel its critical to get in there and help these kids move forward, but also have enrichment. The kids who may need help in math, would get supported in half of that specials block. The other block they still choose whatever they want. They may choose to do more than one remediation level but they will only be required to do one.
“So that is our very strong curriculum level where we support them to reach that [level]. There is also a before and after school tutorial block. We will be strict that this is a college prep school. They may not all choose to go to college, but if they don’t have the readiness they don’t have the choice.
“We will use the CWRA – College Work Readiness Assessment. Its more of that critical thinking curriculum. We want students to understand the concepts not just the subject. We are going to pay better for teachers, they will be in leadership positions. They will have collaborative time together during the day and more instructional days.”
How is college readiness different than the academic college preparation?
Cornell calls it “social capital”. During her time at Richmond Community High, “We had very traditional GTE kids, but we also brought kids in from the hood – very bright kids, we had to give them separate books for school and home because they would be in trouble if they walked home with these books. They got into all kinds of colleges, but they didn’t feel in place – some of them only lasted a semester or a year. So we will be building into the curriculum some of the realities of college readiness. How you work with others, manage time, and so on”
“Our fourth piece is the strength building. Its a process that I ran into when I was in Sunnyside district. We brought strength building partners into our school. They worked with the teachers for 9 years, they liked it so much they asked them to come in and work with the students. The STAR Alternative High School that was underperforming..now is recognized as an exemplary model. Twenty-five percent of kids got scholarships to go on to college, and in 2008 we received an award as an exemplary model for dropout and AIMS intervention.
Pamela Clark-Raines, the co-founder of Las Puertas, started StrengthBuilding Partners twelve years ago as a nonprofit mentoring organization serving children, parents, teachers and businesses.
“The idea is that most of us doing know our strengths, and work on a deficit model. Schools will talk about what’s wrong with kids, how do we fix it. They don’t feel included, respected. So we want to work on not the deficit model, but what are the strengths of our staffs, our families, our students, and our communities as we bring them in. We don’t ignore problems, but instead of always looking at deficits we build on our strengths.
“We’re not going to be administratively top heavy at all, so the lead teachers will be making decisions. We want to demonstrate that the capacity of teachers to make determinations – keeping the busy stuff off of them, but giving them the power that they deserve to do their jobs, to move that forward.
* * *
If Las Puertas is not successful, it won’t be for lack of thought and planning. With the Charter Starter grant, Cornell and Clark-Raines are taking an extra year to plan, acquire facilities and line up teachers, opening in fall 2014 rather than 2013 as originally anticipated. The two co-founders aren’t doing all this in isolation – rather, they are inviting community members to design teams for everything from math and science curriculum to discipline policy, and taking ideas from successful models in other schools around the country. Cornell delves into the details of each aspect with calm enthusiasm and confidence from her years of experience.
Take-home computers: Each kid will have a take-home computer paid for from the grant money. “We don’t know what yet – there is a new assessment called the Parc that they are going to do on line, that right now doesn’t fit the Apple platform. We not only want this for our kids, but we want to have access for our families…people are so worried, ‘they’ll all be stolen’. No they won’t. I find young people to be very responsible when treated responsibly”
Positive Discipline: “We’re designing the discipline policy – highly accountable, but not punitive. We want to ask, what does a really positive campus look like? Zero tolerance doesn’t work – it doesn’t take into consideration the difference between actions and different ages. We really want a nurturing environment – one of the big things we’re hearing from parents is no bullying. So its very important to have that really positive kind of learning. As part of our schedule we have advisory blocks with small groups of kids, we also have group meetings, so we bring all the kids together for group meetings once a week.”
Math and Science: “There’s a program called ‘Think through’ math that is really interesting. We’ve looked at programs from the University of Illinois, California, Indiana that are state of the art that we think really highly of. Our model school is High Tech High in San Diego. So we’re not feeling like starting from the ground level.” High Tech High managed to integrate art with math in a program called Calculicious, doing art projects with geometric solids.
Las Puertas will start in fall 2014 with 200 students in grades 6-9, 50 per grade level. “We don’t want it to be bigger than that – its a model, lets see what we can do with our years of experience and really talented teachers to demonstrate what we’ve learned.”
Anyone interested in being involved in the design and planning stages is welcome, either to come to a single meeting and share thoughts, or to be involved long term.
“The big thing is that we are really welcoming ideas about the school because we hope it will impact Tucson.”
I hope so too.
Interested individuals can check check out the Strength Building website for general information, call the office at 520-546-9296 or email Pam Cornell at pam_cornell @ msn . com or Pam Clark-Raines at pamsuecr · gmail · com
Last word from Cornell: “PLEASE DO ask them to contact us! We are forming focus groups for parents and students and also welcome interested community supporters and interested teachers for our Design Team meetings. The design teams will help shape the partnerships and help develop the project based curriculum. It is a good way for prospective staff and families to learn more about the plans.”