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A similar past, a hoped-for future: Two lawyers each strive to open their own LA charter schools

Beth Hawkins | October 16, 2017

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Denon Carr, who graduated from Howard University School of Law, is appealing a decision that turned down his application to open Polaris Charter Academy in Inglewood. The LA County board will hear the appeal Tuesday. (Photo: Beth Hawkins)


Los Angeles County’s board of education on Tuesday denied Denon Carr’s charter application but urged him to make changes to the proposal and resubmit it as quickly as possible to either the Inglewood School Board or the state board. Carr says he will appeal, though he is not yet sure to which entity.

For TyAnthony Davis, circumstance stopped dictating destiny in the fourth grade. One day he was pulled out of class and taken to the cafeteria to do what seemed to him, as a child, like some puzzles. He did well. Very well.

His IQ got him transferred from the struggling school in his poor Fresno neighborhood into a program for gifted and talented children. From there, it was a straight line to Yale University and later Harvard Law and a fast-track career in mergers and acquisitions.

For Denon Carr, the path out was a pre-dawn trek. His family moved around Nashville a lot and each time, Carr ended up in a different, failing school. Fed up, his mother eventually won him a special transfer to a wealthy school on the other side of town.

To get there, Carr walked a mile and then took two buses. On his way to the bus stop, he walked through the campus of Tennessee State University, one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

As he made his way in the dark, he would tell himself that the long trip was worth it because he’d be going to college. When he earned his law degree, it was from Howard University.

Both men had brothers and sisters at home who, denied the same opportunities, fell further and further behind. Each understood the crucial lever that flipped was the expectation in their new schools that they could and would achieve. Juris doctor degrees in hand, they were positioned for careers ripe with paychecks and prestige.

But then, a dozen years into their bright adult futures both men arrived, separately but simultaneously, at the same realization: The way to pay their fortune forward was to work to ensure more black and brown children had the kinds of opportunities they did.

It was sheer coincidence that the two found themselves in August 2016 enrolled at the same time in a fellowship through Building Excellent Schools, a Boston-based nonprofit that recruits, trains and supports people who want to open high-performing urban charter schools. Since their fellowships ended in August, both have been working to open public charter schools in two South Central Los Angeles communities where a fraction of children are literate or able to do basic math.

As similar as the men’s backstories are, the places are very different. Davis, 30, plans to open a high school in Watts, where inequities in education were a factor behind a week of rioting in 1965 and intergenerational poverty is compounded by gang violence. The neighborhood is just two miles wide, yet contains four of the 20 LA Unified schools that are in California’s bottom 5 percent.

Carr wants to open a high school in the small city of Inglewood that borders LA. Not long ago a middle-class mostly black community, development is making it unaffordable. Most prosperous residents send their children to private schools. New housing patterns mean the impoverished families now concentrated in the public schools live not in distinct neighborhoods but in scattered pockets.

As desperate as the need is, both Davis and Carr have faced uphill climbs to open their schools. More students in the Los Angeles area now attend public charter schools than anyplace else in the country. And the traditional school districts those students are leaving are the first stop for anyone hoping to open a new school.

The second-largest school district in the nation, LA Unified is ground zero in a red-hot debate about public charter schools’ growth. The political climate has become increasingly hostile as the area’s traditional districts and their teachers unions confront enrollment declines.

LA Unified and neighboring districts have thrown up roadblocks to opening new schools even though there’s unmet demand. In Los Angeles County, last year 200,000 students attended 359 charter schools. In 2015, an estimated 50,000 children were on Los Angeles-area charter school wait lists, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

The politics are so intense that this year’s school board election saw a record-shattering $17 million in campaign-related spending for three contested seats. The new board has a pro-charter majority.

TyAnthony Davis, a Yale University and Harvard Law graduate, has won approval to open Vox Collegiate, to serve grades 6-12 in poverty-stricken Watts. (Photo: Beth Hawkins)

In June, Davis received approval from the LA Unified board to open Vox Collegiate. Currently, he’s recruiting an inaugural class of 105 sixth-graders to begin the 2018-19 school year. The school will add a grade each year until it serves students in grades 6-12.

“Our goal is not to shut down any schools or make it such that they can no longer run,” says Davis. “At the end of the day, it may be adversarial with the district. If it is, I fully respect that. We’re going to take in millions of dollars and take responsibility for people’s kids.

“We’re saying we can do a better job than the district. We better be able to prove that.” 

But Carr is still in the process of securing permission to open Polaris Charter Academy, which would serve high schoolers in Inglewood, just seven miles away. His application for a charter, the legal permission to operate, was rejected by Inglewood Unified School District. He has petitioned Los Angeles County, which will decide Tuesday whether to overrule the district.

“Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to educate kids, but parents should have a choice,” says Carr. “All families want is a chance to see their hopes and dreams realized for their child.”

A rush of hope and sadness

Outside of Southern California, what most people know about Watts is that it was the epicenter of the largest urban rebellion of the civil rights era. Thirty-four people died during six days of rioting in 1965. Damage to property exceeded $40 million.

An investigation by a panel appointed by the governor called out the condition of inner-city schools as one factor that sparked the uprising. “In examining the sickness in the center of our city,” the McCone Commission reported, “what has depressed and stunned us most is the dull, devastating spiral of failure that awaits the average disadvantaged child in the urban core.”

In response, in 1967 the district opened a high school just outside the neighborhood boundaries, an attempt to provide South LA families with a quality, safe option. The effort did little to change outcomes; in 2007, the school’s graduation rate was just 25 percent.

A third of Watts residents are black and two-thirds Latino. More than half of households have incomes of $20,000 a year or less. One-fourth of residents are younger than 10. One-fourth of adults 25 or older did not graduate high school and less than 3 percent have college degrees.

(LA School Report: One of LA’s First Inner-City Charter Schools Celebrates 20 Years — And Is Proud to Keep ‘Watts’ in Its Name)

By contrast, at least a dozen members of Davis’s sixth-grade class in his gifted program at Manchester Gate Elementary in Fresno went on to UC Berkeley, Stanford, or an Ivy League university. Davis tutors eighth-graders with a neighborhood gang-reduction program. Students have to get a C or higher to be admitted to a public college or university in California.

“I sit down and hear them say, ‘I want to be a lawyer,’ or ‘I want to be in the film industry,’” he says. “They don’t have the skills to get there.”

The vision for Vox Collegiate is a mix of the community’s strengths and challenges and of the experiences that propelled Davis toward elite colleges. After he left the middle school for gifted children, Davis’s determined mother enrolled him in Bullard High School, which had a competitive speech club.

“We would go around to schools in the valley for Black History Month and do speeches,” Davis recalls. “Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman.” Oratory was just a degree removed from theater, and David quickly found himself cast in a community production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Playing one of Tom Robinson’s kids in that court scene, that’s heavy for a kid,” he says. “I didn’t fully understand it.”

After college, Davis taught fourth grade in Las Vegas as a Teach for America corps member. He loved teaching, but Harvard Law beckoned. There, Davis was a tutor in one of the residence houses, helping first-generation students learn to navigate college.

“I was fully aware of some of the things they were up against,” he says. “I was in the dining hall one day in a hoodie and this kid said, ‘Wow, you look so thuggish today.’ I said, ‘Would you say that to a white student?’ I just wanted to make him think.”

After law school, he worked as a corporate securities associate at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles. But he kept a toehold in the education world, using a prior master’s degree in curriculum and instruction to consult with a curriculum developer. Two years after starting his law career, he set on the notion that what he really wanted was to open a school that would give kids the opportunities he’d had.     

It’s not unusual for Building Excellent Schools (BES) to attract fellows who want to leave law, says founder and CEO Linda Brown: “People like him go to law school to get involved in civil rights.”

Brown is 4 feet 8 inches tall. At 6-foot-2, Davis towers over her, “a tall string bean with a deep voice.” She was thunderstruck midway through his fellowship to find a photo of a huskier Davis online in his Yale football uniform. “At least he was on the offense,” she says, “I’ll give him that.”

(The 74: Meet The Grandmother of America’s Best Charter Schools)

Shortly after he began his BES fellowship in August 2016, the nexus between Davis’ intense exposure to civil rights and his interest in education hit full force. Along with 18 other BES fellows, Davis and Carr were visiting successful schools in Tennessee. In Memphis, their bus drove past the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968.

“We got out and looked up at that balcony,” Davis says, reflexively reciting a passage from King’s last speech, delivered there: “I don’t know what lies ahead.”

“I just got hit with this rush of hope and sadness and every emotion,” he says. “I need to give students the ability to speak out, to advocate for themselves. They can pass all the tests, but they’re not going to get where they want to go in life if they don’t have the ability to speak change into being.”

Standing there in the twilight, Davis announced his school would be called Vox — the Latin word for voice. It puzzled Brown until she heard his whole thought. “He saw all of it in his head,” she says. “He knew that Dr. King gave voice to so many people.”

Davis chose Watts as the site for Vox Collegiate because its unmet need was most desperate. Fewer than 13 percent of the community’s children read at grade level and only 7 percent pass state math tests. Davis expects his sixth-graders to come in three years behind.

“I firmly believe in public education,” says Davis. “I want to be in LAUSD. For me, there’s a certain amount of pride to being part of LAUSD. But we need the flexibility of a charter on things like the length of our school day and staffing.”

Vox received a start-up grant from the Walton Family Foundation, but Davis and his board are seeking additional philanthropic support for facilities, student transportation, and academic programming.

Research backs assertions that black and Latino students in charter schools achieve at higher levels than peers in traditional schools. According to a report released in 2014 by Stanford University’s CREDO, the leading source of charter school performance research, results are particularly strong in Los Angeles.

“Compared to the educational gains that charter students might have had in a traditional public school, the analysis shows that in a year’s time, on average, students in Los Angeles charter schools make larger learning gains in reading and mathematics,” the study found. “Results for Hispanic charter students, especially Hispanic students in poverty, are particularly notable.

“The results in Los Angeles are among the strongest observed in any of the previous CREDO studies.”  

No corporate backing, just ‘boots to the ground’

All day long, people have been telling Carr what he can’t do. He can’t set up a table at the park Saturday to tell families about his school. He can’t talk to the pastor at a local church to find out whether its school wing has unused space.

Yet as Carr crisscrosses Inglewood, introducing himself to people and looking for a building on a brilliantly sunny day in March, he’s all smiles. It’s much harder, Carr explains, for people to say “no” when he shows up in person. Single and with no kids of his own yet, Carr looks much younger than his 32 years.

He listens patiently to the skepticism, a posture that more often than not ends with the conversation winding its way around to his vision for the school, which will pair high academic expectations with instruction in career skills.

Carr was a puzzle to BES’ Brown for a while. He was so quiet it was hard to tell whether he was extraordinarily shy or biding his time. As it turned out, Carr was listening, much the way he does as he drops in on community members in Inglewood.

“In letting them be heard he learns enough about them to be ready to start talking,” says Brown.

Instead of practicing as an attorney after law school, Carr taught constitutional law and civics at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a law-themed public charter high school in Washington, D.C. He also taught at two high-performing charter networks — Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools and Democracy Prep Public Schools in the Bronx.

(The 74: At Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Network, Culture Is Key to Turning Around Failing Schools)

“I was a very popular teacher,” he says. “But I did not reach every kid. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not compatible with everyone you sit down with. So what you hope is you create an environment where everyone hears the same messaging.”

Impeccably dressed and flashing a zillion-watt smile, Carr smooths his tie as he engages the Center of Hope Church receptionist in the possibility of talking to someone about space for his school. She remains skeptical.

An enormous swath of the city is currently a giant tract of dirt from which new Rams and Chargers stadiums will soon sprout. Because of the development, property in Inglewood is getting snapped up. The shape of the new community is as yet unknown.

The real estate crunch is exacerbated for Carr by the fact that Inglewood Unified School District has been under state management for the last five years because of financial and facilities problems. During the same time, the district has lost 13 percent of its students, a rate that’s three times as high as the rest of Los Angeles County.

Added to that, some of the public charter schools in the city have not done well and are being closed. District school board members have asked why he doesn’t instead go to work within the existing system if he cares so much about kids.

His reply: “How long do you want them to wait for schools to be better? Speaking as one of those kids, I know that pressure well.”

Even in those schools that are better, he says, the existing system isn’t looking toward the future. Polaris will be a college prep school, but it will also have pathways to prepare students for careers that require cutting-edge skills but not a degree.

“My problem is I so much want to prepare them for what’s to come,” Carr says of his future students. “But the difficulty is I don’t know what’s to come. We have huge infrastructure and engineering problems in this country. Huge environmental challenges.” Accordingly, he imagines Polaris will have a culinary path, a computer science path, a business path, and a college path.

Like Davis, Carr believes high school should go beyond academics to instill self-advocacy and poise. “For me, it’s important for our students to grow up and be able to articulate themselves in any space,” he says. “All the intellect in the world is not going to buy you someone’s ears.”

When he left his last job as a school administrator at Democracy Prep in June 2016, Carr was in line to helm his own school within the nonprofit charter management organization — a much easier task than opening one on his own.

“But with the ease of it comes compromise,” says Carr. “I believe so strongly in my approach and my mindset I was willing to forego that support.”

Carr’s one-man-band status is working both ways for him. On the one hand, when he shows up, smiling and listening, he looks like anything but the stereotypical education reformer that anti-charter forces have created. There’s no charter management organization behind him and without a charter in hand, he can’t attract philanthropic start-up support.   

“There is no team behind me. I don’t have this ‘corporate’ backing. It’s boots to the ground,” he says. “I’m just a kid from the projects whose mother happened to stay on him about school.”

Carr’s efforts to get his charter approved have been rockier than Davis’s in part because Inglewood Unified is in receivership. The interim superintendent he initially applied to in the spring was replaced, and it was unclear who had the authority to make decisions. Ultimately, he was forced to appeal to Los Angeles County, which has the power under California law to overrule recalcitrant districts.

“I’m counting on Denon to come through this with a flying flag,” says Brown. “Not one that’s tattered on the edges — one that’s flying.”

Carr will learn Tuesday whether county officials will buy into his vision and grant him permission to open Polaris. If the county agrees, he will join Davis in beginning to recruit a first class of sixth-graders.

For both of them, it’ll be crunch time.

“It’s a watershed moment,” says Carr. “People want schools that work. Public education in a lot of ways is a microcosm of everything else. You’re seeing an erosion of the arts, you’re seeing an erosion of civics. People’s faith is being eroded in other public institutions.

“And when it works? It’s a validation,” says Carr. “All the blood, sweat, and occasional tears, it’s all worth it to move generation after generation up, so each sits at a higher level.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation also provides funding to The 74 and LA School Report.

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