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Investment to Build Effective Charter Schools in Los Angeles

$5.7 million grant to create six new schools, bolster management organization

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Laura Noss
Aspire Public Schools
Phone: 415.317.4070

LOS ANGELES -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $5.7 million grant to Aspire Public Schools to create six new small charter schools in Los Angeles and strengthen the charter school organization that runs them. This investment will create increased educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in Los Angeles, one of the state’s lowest performing school districts. The grant builds on earlier commitments to Aspire from a range of donors including the Broad Foundation, New Schools Venture Fund, the Walter S. Johnson Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. 

Aspire Public Schools is part of a new class of charter management organizations that not only start and run charter schools, but also develop curricula, share best practices and streamline administrative costs. Aspire already operates seven small charter schools in northern California. Aspire’s existing schools have demonstrated promising early success in helping disadvantaged students succeed.

“We’ve learned what it takes to open and operate a winning school – and we learn more every day,” said Aspire founder Don Shalvey, a former superintendent in northern California.  “As we create these bold new charter schools across the state, it only makes sense to share information and resources so they can all be solid and high performing.”

In some of California’s poorest neighborhoods, high school students are more likely to drop out than graduate. For example, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute, less than half of all Hispanic students in Los Angeles graduate form high school. In contrast, not one student has dropped out of Aspire’s East Palo Alto High School in its first two years, despite an 80 percent poverty rate. The school serves a diverse population that is 54 percent Hispanic, 33 percent African American and 11 percent Asian.

While some urban charter schools are reversing the low graduation rates that are endemic to big, impersonal high schools, others are faring no better than their traditional counterparts. As a result, charter schools have received mixed reviews from researchers and educators in recent years. While a 2002 California State University, Los Angeles study reported that low-income, at-risk students are showing greater improvements in California’s charter schools than in their non-charter counterparts, a joint study by UC Berkeley and Stanford released last month found that charter schools received less federal funding, and had a smaller percentage of credentialed teachers and bigger classes than their counterparts.

“There is no magic that makes a charter school inherently better than a traditional public school,” said Tom Vander Ark, director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “What a charter does is allow for innovation in management, curriculum and budget allocation. Educators still have to do the hard work of making the school a success. Charter management organizations help them do that by providing resources, advice and a strong support network.” 

California has about 400 charter schools. Some are highly successful; others are struggling. Organizations like Aspire strengthen and support their schools, helping to ensure quality control through close guidance and oversight. They develop strong relationships with local school districts and leaders, working with the fabric of the system rather than against it, with the goal of systemic improvement. In addition, they often include professional development components and relationships with universities, meaning teachers receive frequent and up-to-date training and assistance. Aspire also works with curriculum specialists to create programs and courses that work and that can be shared with the other schools in the network.

Like all good small schools, good charter schools are focused and rigorous and foster strong relationships between students and adults who support and guide them. They prepare students for the future by engaging them in relevant courses and connecting them to the adult world. Studies in Chicago and New York, for example, found that students in small high schools graduated at and attended college at a higher rate than their counterparts in large high schools.

Aspire will use lessons learned and techniques developed to create 100 total schools around the state in the next 15 years, all designed to give students and parents high-quality educational options.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $450 million in a nationwide effort to improve graduation rates, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics, by making high schools stronger and smaller and giving families viable options for their children’s education.

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Current Aspire Public High Schools

East Palo Alto High School – East Palo Alto, CA
This high school opened in the fall of 2001. The dropout rate for the first cohort of ninth graders now in tenth grade is zero. Average daily attendance is 92 percent. An overwhelming majority of students surveyed in December 2001 felt cared for and challenged by their teachers and administrators, and 84 percent of students indicate that their future plans include some college education. The school will graduate its first class of students in 2005.

Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy – Oakland, CA
This high school opened in the fall of 2002 in Oakland. The community of Sobrante and East Oakland are overwhelmingly optimistic about the school and the opportunities it will create for a generation of minority students. Mayor Jerry Brown, Oakland Superintendent Dennis Chaconas and State Senator Jack O’Connell have publicly supported the school. It currently serves grades 6-10 and will graduate its first class in 2005.

Current Aspire Public Elementary Schools

University Public School – Stockton, CA
This elementary school, serving grades K-5 opened in the fall of 1999. The school’s academic performance rose markedly from 2000 to 2002, according to an index the state of California uses to monitor its public school performance. The school’s performance index increase was 115 points – so high that it was named a California Distinguished School in 2002. It was the only school to ever receive this award in its third year of operations.

University Charter School – Modesto, CA
This elementary school, serving grades K-5 opened in the fall of 1999. When it opened, only 52 percent of its students could read at grade level, now 77 percent can.

Monarch Academy – Oakland, CA
The elementary school opened in the fall of 2000, serving grades K-5. From 2001 to 2002, the school grew 80 points in its academic performance index, which placed it in the top one percent of all schools in terms of one-year growth. The school serves a population that is 88 percent Hispanic and 12 percent African-American; 97 percent of them receive free or reduced lunch.

Summit Charter Academy – Modesto, CA
This elementary school opened in the fall of 2001, serving grades K-8.

River Oaks Charter School – Stockton, CA
This elementary school opened in the fall of 2001, serving grades K-8.

Planned Aspire Public Schools

Junior high and high school – Stockton, CA
This Stockton school has been approved by the planning commission. Site construction began in November 2002. The school will serve grades 6-12.

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