Commentary: The future of education reform at LAUSD depends on collaboration
Guest contributor | September 14, 2016
By Jacqueline Elliot, Ed.D.
When PUC Schools opened the first start-up public charter school in the San Fernando Valley in 1999, I never imagined we would be at the forefront of a movement that has grown to 274 charter schools in Los Angeles, serving over 138,000 students and thousands of students being the first in their families to graduate from university. On Saturday, these pioneering leaders will come together in Pacoima with thousands of parents and students for a triumphant celebration honoring the rich history of public education reform in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
I was inspired to start Community Charter Middle School to help solve the high dropout rate at the local high schools. Along with the 100 families from the community who desperately sought a safer, higher-achieving middle school, we created a learning environment that was small and focused on meeting every student’s needs. We were quickly successful. Our state test scores far exceeded those of the surrounding district schools within our first two years.
We’ve now grown to 16 schools throughout Los Angeles and serve more than 5,000 students. In what is perhaps the biggest validation of the work we’re doing, we see every year that many of our graduates are returning after going on to pursue a higher education, to contribute to their community in which they grew up. Some PUC alumni are returning to work at PUC and other schools in the community, helping us realize our founding mission to uplift communities. We’ve witnessed firsthand living conditions improving, crime rates dropping and families getting empowered.
PUC is proof of what real collaboration can produce. We never would have opened our doors if leaders from different parts of our education community had not stepped in at the last minute to help. When we were opening our first school in 1999, our facility was not yet ready. Los Angeles Unified gave us two days to find a temporary facility or they would not allow us to open that year. My four teachers and I were about to fall to our knees in the Cal State University Northridge quad, to beg a staff member from the dean’s office to allow us to use a few classrooms until our campus was ready. He agreed and Los Angeles Unified board member David Tokofsky secured free transportation for our 100 students to travel to the university campus for six weeks.
Today, we’re at a critical juncture. The charter movement is a significant force for change in the district. Graduation rates have increased, but too many kids are still dropping out.
Somewhere along this journey, we lost sight of the spirit of cooperation that allowed PUC to open. Superintendent Michelle King has started making significant inroads toward collaboration, most recently by hosting a “Promising Practices” forum with a series of workshops aimed at sharing best practices.
It’s time now for all educators to elevate the discussion from the type of school, be it charter, traditional or magnet, to what makes great schools. We must adopt a student-centric approach where everyone comes to the table with those innovative, scalable ideas that are good for all kids.
What if these forums happened on a monthly basis? Let’s develop formal partnerships between schools, matching up high-achieving models with those in the same neighborhoods that are still struggling, to act as mentors who share best practices.
I was touched by what the principal of nearby Sylmar High School recently told us. He held up a picture of our PUC Sylmar Education Complex to his staff and said, “See this? This is our competition.” He visited our school because he wanted to learn what we were doing to get our great results. It takes a big person to act based on one reason: what’s best for the students. And will PUC learn from him and his teachers? Absolutely.
This rich diversity of perspectives is a tremendous asset to Los Angeles Unified that we shouldn’t waste. Let’s give the students of the nation’s second-largest school district the tools to not only graduate high school but be prepared to succeed in college and life. Let’s make success through mutual respect and collaboration part of the culture of LAUSD.
The charters that started in the northeast San Fernando Valley all shared the common belief that we could do better for our students, no matter what their background. With all the northeast San Fernando Valley charter pioneers—Vaughn, Fenton, YPI, Montague and PUC—creative and aggressive reforms led to dramatic increases in student achievement.
On Saturday, when we celebrate the northeast San Fernando Valley charter schools as pioneers in the national charter school movement, we won’t just be honoring the reformers on the ground, but also the leaders at Los Angeles Unified who supported the schools from the beginning.
It behooves us to remember how it all began. Politics and egos must be cast aside, because collaboration is the only way we will herald a new era of success throughout all LAUSD schools in the years to come. Together let’s bridge past and present, and look to a future where public education is a product of our united efforts, best thinking and collective passion.
Dr. Jacqueline Elliot founded the first startup charter school in the San Fernando Valley, Community Charter Middle School, in 1999, which grew into PUC Schools. PUC serves more than 5,000 students in 16 public charter schools located in the northeast San Fernando Valley and northeast Los Angeles, as well as one school in Rochester, New York. Dr. Elliot is President & CEO of PUC National.