Aspire Public Schools, California
While there may be charter management organizations (CMOs) that fail their students in providing a quality education, Aspire Public Schools is a model of a successful CMO. In existence for 19 years, Aspire serves over 16,000 students in 40 schools throughout California and in Memphis, Tennessee (however this report used data only from Aspire California schools). Aspire was founded on the mission to prepare all students for college, and based upon students’ yearly academic performance and college acceptance rates, Aspire appears to fulfill its stated purpose. Aspire consistently surpasses the available public alternatives. This CMO can pursue its goal of sharing its practices in order to help catalyze education reform in public schools across the nation. By building on its history of reform, Aspire has the capacity to become an education leader.
In order to evaluate data from the Aspire Public Schools of California, we used an online random number generator to conduct a sample of six Aspire schools: East Palo Alto School, Inskeep School, Summit Charter Academy, Richmond Tech Academy, and Capital Heights School. We then compared federal, state, and CMO data for these six schools with data for the school districts geographically surrounding them.
History, Pedagogy, and Mission
In 1998, public school educator Don Shalvey joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings to launch Aspire Public Schools, one of the nation’s first charter management organizations. Their mission was to: “grow the public charter school movement by opening and operating small, high-quality charter schools in low-income neighborhoods…and prepare these students for college” (“The History of Aspire”). For the past eight years, 100% of Aspire graduates secured admission to a four-year college or university. Aspire has stayed true to Dr. Shalvey’s vision of preparing students to earn a college degree. In regard to student demographics, this CMO serves predominantly low-income students. It values racial diversity and believes that the varied backgrounds of students and families help create a rich educational environment. Additionally, in order to ensure that students and families feel safe on their campuses, the schools do not collect any information about the immigration statuses of students, and have enacted policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and national origin (“Commitment to Students”).
Aspire Public Schools monitors the racial and ethnic balance among its students annually, engaging in a variety of strategies to try to achieve a student population that reflects the community while honoring parent choice. In 2014, 8% of its students had disabilities compared to 12% in surrounding districts, and 28% were ELL compared to 25% in local districts (U.S. Department of Education).
Using data from the 2014-2015 school year, this graph compares the percentage of students of color in each school to that of the school’s district. SOC enrollment in the selected sample of Aspire schools is higher than in surrounding districts, except in the cases of East Palo Alto and Summit. In 2014, 79% of students between 5 and 17 years of age were from low-income families, compared to 74% in the districts they came from. Based on enrollment data alone, the Aspire mission of inclusivity holds true.
Using data from the 2014-2015 school year, we compared the percentages of students who received free and reduced lunch (FRL students) in the individual schools with that of their corresponding districts. While East Palo Alto School is a definite outlier, as it had no FRL students, the other four schools had a majority population of FRL students, three of which had larger percentages than the districts in which they belong (there was no free and reduced lunch data for the fifth school, Richmond Tech Academy). It is evident that Aspire serves disadvantaged populations, a goal that accentuates their exceptional standardized testing performance, graduation rate, and college prospects (Fensterwald).
In 2014, the overall attendance rate for Aspire Public Schools was 96%; the attrition rate was 3.5%; the graduation rate in 2013 was 83%, compared to the California state average of 79%, and college attendance for 2012-2013 was 87%. The graduation rate for network students from low-income families was 84%, compared to the state average for that group of 73%. Aspire students graduate with over 15 college credits already complete, so their completion rate of college courses required for admittance to California State or University schools is higher than that of local districts and California as a whole (U.S. Department of Education). Unfortunately, however, there is no available data on the college success and graduation rates of students who graduate from Aspire schools.
Additionally, the California Standards Tests are given to students in grades two through eleven each spring, and over the past four years, more Aspire students have scored Advanced/Proficient (A/P) than typical students in neighboring districts (that serve similar demographics of students) and statewide.
On average, the in-school suspension percentage of this CMO’s schools is higher than that of the surrounding districts. In three of the charters, the Aspire school’s rate of suspension is about three times higher than the district average. This may be the result of Aspire schools having stricter disciplinary practices than their surrounding districts, even though they do not outwardly display or advertise having a “no-excuses” policy. The only other available disciplinary data about this district and this CMO’s schools concerns school related arrests, but there were only school related arrests in Inskeep Aspire School. The percentage of arrests in Aspire Schools is less than that of the their surrounding districts, and the data is not available to see if these arrests are the result of violent or nonviolent incidents. However, the data does show that Black and Latino students are most likely to be arrested. Disciplinary action in the Aspire schools is decided by the CMO’s Board of Directors, and each individual school’s Advisory School Council (ASC). An ASC consists of the principal, two teachers, two parents, one member of the chartering district’s Board, and one community member at large. It acts as an initial discipline review board, addresses school safety issues, reviews parental concerns, determines budget priorities, and sets policies that are unique to the school (“Accountability”). There are no areas of the Aspire Public Schools’ publications that advertise the schools as “No Excuses”, and the school has no history of “No Excuses” practices, as the CMO only results to expulsion if a student has a history of misconduct, such as over twenty suspensions in a single school year, or if a student’s presence causes continuous danger to other students (“APS Student Family Handbook”). There is no public controversy concerning student discipline with Aspire Public Schools.
Marketing and Media
The Aspire Public Schools advertise themselves as being inclusive, diverse, and accessible. On its home page, one will find a huge picture of a classroom of all black and brown students, the primary demographic of Aspire Public Schools in California. These schools operate on the platform of college for certain, with the slogan “make college the expectation, not the exception” also clearly visible on the APS home page (“Commitment to Students”). They are open about their inclusivity, as they also advertise on their website (including on their homepage) that they serve undocumented students and students of undocumented families (“Commitment to Students”). In addition, the Aspire website provides its enrollment directions in Spanish, to ensure that the large Latino population that they serve can properly matriculate to their schools. In the media, Aspire Public Schools have been mentioned, surprisingly, in opposition to budget cuts of district schools, even if more funding is directed towards charter schools like their own (Toll et.al, USA Today). There is also an ongoing litigation between the California Department of Education and the Concerned Parent Association, concerning the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the APS website notifies its parents and students with directions to anyone wishing to object to presenting their personally identifiable information (“Accountability”). This implies that Aspire schools cater to the educational needs of immigrant families, regardless of their legal status.
Accountability and Oversight
Each Aspire school is governed by Aspire’s Board of Directors, but they encourage all stakeholders, including families, staff members, administrators, and community leaders, to take responsibility in the students’ education process. Each year, Aspire compiles information concerning progress across various metrics into an accountability report, which is available to the public. These reports include student enrollment demographics, teacher’s credentials, students CAASPP test scores, school climate data, class sizes, student fitness standards, and employee salaries. The Aspire data seems to be consistent with the state data and meet state standards. Aspire Public Schools is also committed to equal opportunity for all individuals in education, and is a Title IX compliant CMO (“Accountability”). It clearly displays that it is a 501(c)3 non-for-profit CMO, and states that because it is often easier for a group to work together to run a charter school, they banded different individuals of different areas together to run multiple charter schools (“FAQs”). Aspire provides lists of their different donors and investors and includes the range of donations that each person or organization gave for the operating year (“Partners and Investors”). In terms of how much of this money goes to the school compared to the CMO, there is no information readily available. Aspire Public Schools has not had any financial scandals or questionable financial interests in the media.
The Aspire CMO website shares its financials dating as far back as the 2008-2009 fiscal year, as well as some transparent information about its sources of funding. Aspire Charter Schools receive funding from a broad range of sources, both public and private.
The CMO receives federal, state – from California and Tennessee – and local funding from property taxes. In the 2015 fiscal year, the highest proportion of funding came from the state followed by federal and local funding (“ Quarter Financial Report”). The Aspire CMO is additionally funded through private grants and contributions from donors. The list of “Partners and Investors” includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings, both donating more than $1 million to the CMO. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has a history of supporting charter schools, hoping to “increase the number of academically strong seats in charter networks that serve students of color and low-income populations”(“Charter School Growth Fund”). The Foundation has worked with Aspire because it is a “high performing CMO”(“Aspire Public Schools”). Hastings, too, is an outspoken advocate of charter schools – currently serving on the board of the KIPP Foundation and previously serving on the California Board of Education (Huddleston, 2016). The Bill and Wells Fargo, Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and Chevron are among other higher profile institutions to donate to the CMO (“Partners & Investors”).
Although the Aspire website argues that “Aspire is not a teacher-training institute” (“Effective Teachers”), the Aspire Public Schools network does offer its own comprehensive programs for earning teacher credentials, referred off-hand as being “Aspiratized” (Tucker 2011). Essential to this program are Aspire’s “Instructional Coaches,” or existing teachers who operate in two-year mentorship roles for new teachers, and the “Teacher Effectiveness Model,” a framework for reflective practice and self-evaluation (“Teacher Development”). Aspire also offers a Teacher Residency Program for prospective college graduates which, although an attractive financial option, has only attracted a few dozen students per year since its inception. That said, Aspire schools suffer from teacher attrition as much or more than their surrounding districts, like in Oakland, where the retention rate for Aspire teachers is only 75% (Mongeau 2015).
As explored above in “Student Achievement,” Aspire’s graduation and college enrollment rates are significantly higher than its surrounding districts, a clear positive indicator for Aspire’s pedagogy. Aspire’s pedagogy of teaching relies heavily on the “Blended Learning” model, which incorporates self-guided online learning in the style of services like Khan Academy. Data is perhaps Aspire’s most important driver of teacher improvement. In fact, each Aspire school has an actual “data driver,” or a teacher given the additional responsibility of implementing available data into teacher evaluation and feedback. This blend of hard data with best-practice resources helps to develop the standardized Aspire brand of pedagogy (“Teacher Development”).
Relationship to the District
Aspire, in line with the original rhetoric of charter school pedagogy, stresses heavily its commitment to collaboration and shared best-practice. However, we were unable to find any specific examples or evidence to demonstrate a relationship between the pedagogy of Aspire schools and the surrounding districts. The Aspire websites states, “To date, our collaboration with other school systems has taken a wide variety of forms ranging from instructional to financial.” Aspire opens its doors to tours and partnership meetings with other schools, and intends for its “College Ready Promise” to be a message not only for Aspire schools but also for the broader district as well. Interestingly, Aspire developed its own online school evaluation system, Schoolzilla, available for free to educators, which processes data into tangible guidelines for improvement and is currently in use in 500 schools in ten states (“Collaboration,” “Schoolzilla”). That said, while stressing the importance of the district context, Aspire seems to focus more on the expansion of their own charter network, and not necessarily on nurturing other individual partnerships. Aspire makes a concerted effort to interact with the surrounding community and to be transparent in its pedagogy and offerings, but focuses more on their own practice in their push for new charters rather than their impact on the districts in which their schools reside.
Aspire’s mission is to build the public charter school movement by opening high-quality charter schools in low-income neighborhoods and preparing these low-income students for college (“The History of Aspire”). This mission set forth by Aspire launchers Don Shalvey and Reed Hastings addresses the purposes of education set forth by Labaree of democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility (Labaree, 1997). Public schools should offer a quality education that provides all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, the tools to succeed civically, economically and socially. The Aspire CMO believes that the expansion of its network of high performing charter schools is accomplishing that through the expansion of the opportunity to attend college.
The students in high performing schools are better equipped to engage civically and to advance socially and economically. Aspire’s students outperform both their district and state peers in California Standards Tests in math and language arts. This high performance of Aspire’s predominantly low-income students has led to an eight year long 100% acceptance rate to four year colleges. Aspire’s “College for Certain” mentality addresses the purposes of education by noting the opportunities provided by a college degree. Namely, the students’ acquisition of skills needed to “support themselves and a family throughout life,” and the ability to contribute their time and talents to their communities” (“College for Certain”). Aspire’s high performance gives its students the opportunity for higher education, better equipping students to achieve better social position as well as become better citizens, fulfilling the role that a public school should.
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