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Alliance College-Ready Public Schools: A replicable model or unique success?

Craig Clough | September 14, 2016



Alliance

Students at Alliance Margaret M. Bloomfield High School in Huntington Park.

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is the largest independent charter network in LA Unified, with 28 middle and high schools serving over 12,500 students. Ninety-four percent of Alliance’s students come from poverty, yet the charter management organization has a proven track record of outperforming the district and state schools when it comes to key factors like graduation rates and standardized test performance.

But how scalable is the Alliance model and that of other CMOs like it? Are there answers inside their halls to the big questions that have dogged the district for years? Or are charters actually the problem, not the solution, when it comes to the district’s woes, as some detractors like the LA teachers union, UTLA, have charged.

• Read more about charters: How charters went from a ‘novelty’ to dominate the conversation of LAUSD, and 9 questions and answers about LA’s charters.

These questions were raised to new levels of importance about a year ago when an early draft of what was to become the Great Public Schools Now funding plan for Los Angeles schools was leaked to the press and sent shockwaves through the educational world. The plan called for expanding independent charter schools at LA Unified to serve half of all its students.

The plan received significant backlash and has since been modified to include all kinds of successful models, including traditional district schools, but the early draft raised an interesting question: Could charter schools be scaled to size to overtake district schools?

Independent charters already serve 107,000 of the district’s 665,000 students, but there has yet to be a charter management organization that has proven ready and willing to declare itself a scalable, cookie cutter model that could replace district schools.

Alliance is certainly not ready to declare itself that. In fact, Alliance has no plans to add any new schools over the next four years, according to Dan Katzir, Alliance’s president and CEO, who has been in his role since March 2015. Katzir said in his interview for the job he floated the idea of pausing on adding new schools.

“The fact of the matter is even if we stop growing for four years, we need to catch up with our growth from a systems perspective, an infrastructure perspective and a behavior and cultural perspective,” Katzir said.

Katzir also added that even if Alliance doesn’t add new schools, it will continue to grow because six schools in the network are still adding grades in the coming years.

However, despite the pause on growth, Alliance does believe its model is replicable. On its About Us webpage, the title reads, “Proving exceptional at scale is possible.” And Katzir said, “We can scale. We are bigger than 75 percent of other districts in the state, so we can scale.”

ALLIANCE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT

Ninety-eight percent of Alliance students are African-American or Latino, 94 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 9 percent have special needs and 17 percent are English learners. The district as a whole during the 2015-16 school year was 82 percent Latino and African-American, 77 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, 12 percent have special needs and 22 percent are English learners.

In the 2014-15 school year, 95 percent of Alliance seniors graduated high school, compared to 72 percent at district schools. On the 2015 Smarter Balanced standardized tests, 57 percent of Alliance juniors met or exceeded the English language arts standards, compared to 48 percent for juniors at district schools, and 28 percent met or exceeded the math standards, compared to 20 percent at district schools. On the 2016 tests, 68 percent of Alliance juniors met or exceeded the ELA standard, compared to 54 percent of LA Unified juniors, and 31 percent of Alliance juniors met or exceeded the math standard, compared to 25 percent for the district. Alliance schools stack up even better compared to neighborhood schools located near them on the 2016 tests. According to Alliance data, its schools performed 82 percent higher in math and 48 percent higher in ELA than neighboring district schools.

Alliance also says that 95 percent of its seniors are accepted into college and 100 percent graduate with the requirements to apply to UC and CSU colleges — known as the A-G standards. During the 2013-14 school year, 28 percent of district seniors graduated having completed all A-G courses, although that number is set to significantly jump this year due to a $15-million credit recovery program.

A MODEL THAT VALUES AUTONOMY

One thing that Alliance leaders stress is that their model isn’t really an exact model, because autonomy and freedom to innovate form a cornerstone of the belief system. Each Alliance principal has the power to hire and fire the staff and has full control over the school’s budget. Katzir said 90 percent of every dollar Alliance receives goes directly to the school, and the home office takes 10 percent for administrative costs.

“What’s happening at one school is different than what is happening at another. So the school has some autonomy to figure out how to hit their markers, and we are trying to figure out what the trends are that can support the most number of people,” said Alliance Chief Development and Communications Officer Catherine Suitor. “There’s a level of autonomy at the school so the school can turn, and the teachers have a level of autonomy, so it goes all the way down. It’s like, how to do you make decisions close to students and look at students? I really would say that is probably the biggest difference.”

The Alliance home office sets the bar for achievement, the overall Alliance values, training and educational approach, but principals are given significant freedom in how they run the school day-to-day. Alliance leaders also credit the small size of their schools as key to their success. The average Alliance grade has around 150 students. The smaller scale allows for each student to receive personalized attention.

“There are small classrooms here. I know all the students, I know all the parents by name. I can tell you a story about every single child in this building,” said Ani Meymarian, principal of Alliance Margaret M. Bloomfield High School in Huntington Park.

Jennifer Dzul, a recent graduate of Alliance Dr. Olga Mohan High School, transferred to an Alliance middle school after going to a large LA Unified elementary school and said the small environment was key to her success. She is set to begin as a freshman at Brown University this month.

“It was very different in that I got to know everybody on a personal basis. The school was so small I was really able to get everybody’s name and learn where they came from, versus elementary school where I have my group of friends and that’s it,” Dzul said. “The academics were a little harder, but because the classes were so small, the teachers noticed when you didn’t do the homework or when you were struggling because they didn’t have to worry about a lot of people.”

Martin Alcarez recently graduated from Alliance Marc and Eva Stern Math Science High School and is off to Stanford this month. His older brother also attended the school, and although he was more interested in attending the larger Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, his mother convinced him to go to Alliance.

“At Alliance, not only were the teachers communicating with the students, but they were communicating with the parents, and not just about bad things. Because oftentimes at other big high schools, teachers only communicate for bad things,” Alcarez said. “At Alliance, my mom noticed that they really cared for students. Oftentimes teachers would call and say, ‘Oh, your son is doing really well in school and we are giving him an award.’ All those things that don’t seem significant, but they played a huge part in my mom making me go to Alliance.”

Diana Tejeda, a Spanish teacher at Bloomfied, also said the small environment has helped her grow.

“My friends at other schools that are not specifically charters, they feel like there is no room for growth. ‘No one comes to visit my classroom very often. I don’t know who to ask for help, it’s just like a stagnant situation. I go to work, I do my work and I teach.’ Whereas here I receive constant visits from the counselor, from the principal, from the vice principals and from other students that tend to come and walk in,” she said.

CONTROVERSY IN BATTLE WITH UTLA

As the largest charter network in LA UnifIed, and as the issue of how big and how fast charters should grow has come to dominate much of the conversation around the district, Alliance has found itself a target of UTLA. In March 2015 a unionization effort was launched and Alliance has found itself embroiled in a legal battle.

UTLA took a number of complaints to the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), claiming that Alliance leaders were illegally blocking unionization efforts, at Alliance has lost some rulings before PERB and a state judge, who issued a temporary restraining order against Alliance. State lawmakers also recently approved an audit of Alliance’s finances to see if it was using public funds in its battle with UTLA. For more, see these stories:

The situation is still playing out in the courts. Along with the significant backlash that the early draft of what became the Great Public Schools Now plan received, it proves that no charter network, regardless of how successful their students become, is going to quietly grow without finding itself embroiled in political controversy surrounding charters.

“This isn’t just any union. This is UTLA, which is on the record as wanting to destroy charter schools,” said Katzir when asked why Alliance leaders are opposed to unionizing. “And so if you, a parent who is a plumber and a union member, believe that you have made a choice to be here, we believe that one of our elements of success is the relationship between the administrators and the teachers, and the flexibility to be innovative and customize the work for the kids and communities that we serve. Given what we have seen from UTLA, we think a lot of what we have at Alliance would be at risk here.”

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