In Partnership with 74

Does ‘charter’ make you look smarter? Principal of LAUSD’s newest affiliated charter says yes

Mike Szymanski | June 2, 2016

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SylmarHighSchoolThis is part of an LA School Report series taking an in-depth look at the different categories of schools that exist within the massive LA Unified school district.

(Read more on affiliated chartersA successful model on its way out? and The elementary school-turned-affiliated charter that became so popular parents fake their addresses)

(Read the series on magnet schools.)

The vote seemed insignificant, almost procedural. But for one man sitting in the back row of the LA Unified Beaudry auditorium, it was a major victory and he breathed a sigh of relief. Sylmar High School can now add the word “charter” to its name.

“I am elated,” said principal James Lee after the school board approved Sylmar High as an affiliated charter school by unanimous consent at the May board meeting. He blinked away tears and added, “It’s been a long process.”

Lee meant not only the six hours sitting at the school board meeting to hear his application was approved, but the four years of struggle he was involved in before that, and two more years of false starts before he even got there to turn around the high school in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Sylmar High School was once considered a failing school. After four years of restructuring the staff, improving test scores and involving the parents, Lee won approval for it to become an “affiliated” or “dependent” charter, which is a unique hybrid that allows some autonomies but still keeps the school connected to the larger district and retains union contracts.

And yet, with a fresh crop of new independent charter schools —which are publicly funded but independently operated and mostly non-unionized — ringing the 55-year-old school in the heavily Latino and low-income section of the San Fernando Valley, attendance was still dropping and Lee needed something else to make his school attractive.

Becoming an affiliated charter was it, he decided.

“Yes, just changing the plastic signage honestly will help change the perception and allow parents and the community to give us a second chance and take a look at us,” Lee said. Psychologically, adding that word to the school name will bring a whole new attitude and sense of pride to the school and the community, Lee predicts.

When he mentions the school becoming affiliated, he hears parents react with, “Well, it’s about time” and “Now maybe I’ll send my kid there.”

“This is the first school in two years that has even applied to become an affiliated charter school,” said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, chief of the Charter Schools Division that approves the applications. “We don’t see schools seeking that model very much anymore. We believe that Sylmar is on the road to success.”

The same week that Sylmar became an affiliated charter, the school made national news when a brawl broke out during lunchtime that went viral on YouTube. It was incorrectly characterized as a racial dispute and the school has since quieted down, but Lee said he thinks that when students return in August, there will be a renewed sense of pride in the school.

On July 1, the newly named Sylmar Charter High School will become the 54th affiliated charter of all LA Unified’s 1,274 schools. It joins an elite group of schools that test higher than the district’s magnet schools and the local independent charters.

A group of teachers tried to get Sylmar turned into an affiliated charter before Lee arrived in 2012 from John C. Fremont High School in South-Central LA where he was an assistant principal during a time of rigorous improvements at the school. Sylmar’s application was denied at the time, and Lee decided he had to make some major changes at the school before trying it again.

He wasn’t a popular principal at first. His first mandate was to cut 22 of the nearly 100 teachers and cut the eight-class schedule back to six, which didn’t allow for as many electives. He did not cut staff by seniority. Instead he focused on keeping those more likely to step up to be part of the small learning communities he was creating.


James Lee at Sylmar High’s front office.

“There were a lot of teachers who were upset,” Lee said. “It created a lot of tension. Grievances were filed; some thought it was unfair.”

By the spring of his first year, Lee displaced 22 teachers and worked toward another plan to restructure the school. The school lost $3.5 million a year because it didn’t improve its API (Academic Performance Index) score and lost the state’s Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) money, which was provided as an incentive for failing schools.

“Some of our staff thought it was the end of the world when we lost that money,” he said. “We worked with what we had and graduation went up, the API scores went up from 677 to 709, suspensions declined and attendance went up. I attributed that to a group of teachers who worked in the small community models, kept things kid-centered and focused on how they could succeed.”

Teachers worked collaboratively to change the teaching habits and climate in the school, he said, and they became only one of three schools in the district to shake the underperforming label during that period.

Now, 30 of his 79 teachers are new since he joined the school—a full 38 percent. The teachers are already trying new things, but the school still has the reputation of being an underperforming school, Lee said.

Then came the competition. The new Partnerships to Uplift Communities Lakeview Charter High School opened two miles away, drawing some of Sylmar’s students. The first conversion charter school in the nation, Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, is nearby, as is PUC Triumph Academy and the Chavez Learning Academies magnet schools.

“We realized that our own school program was doing much better now and what we were doing was comparable to the other schools, but our attendance was dropping, so we needed to do something,” Lee said.


Sylmar Spartans have a long history of victories.

Sylmar’s fall enrollment is expected to be 1,950 students, and the new charter contract states they have a capacity of 2,150 students. Lee said he thinks he can fill the 200 spaces with students who want to come back to their home school, and attract more students from other areas of the city.

Sylmar had been in a Zone of Choice of three high schools, meaning students in those three neighborhoods could attend Sylmar, Pacoima or San Fernando high schools. Now, under its new reorganization, Sylmar must accept any student in the state and is no longer a Zone of Choice school.

“I believe we should have 200 additional kids in the area that hopefully will come back,” Lee said.

Of the teachers, 52 percent voted to become an affiliated charter; more than half of the full-time teachers had to agree to make that transition. Lee said there were a lot of fears. Some teachers thought that they would lose their UTLA union benefits or their LA Unified retirement benefits, or they would have to move to another school in five years. An affiliated charter school has the same union agreements and follows the same rules as any other traditional school in the district. Some teachers checked with other teachers at the three affiliated charter high schools in the Valley —Chatsworth, Taft and Cleveland — and teachers at those high schools reported that they didn’t notice any differences from traditional schools.

Parent participation also seems to be a key in successful affiliated charters, and Lee’s Parent Advisory Group gets 30 to 40 participants a month. He holds a regular breakfast with parents, and he knows that his parents are more active than at the neighboring traditional high schools. Five of the 16 elected positions on the School Leadership Council are reserved for parents and five seats on the School Site Council.

“The parents heard so many bad things about charters and I explained things and told them it was just a different model,” Lee said. “Then they saw some of the benefits.”

When charter schools first came on the scene, block grants for an additional $400 per student were added for affiliated charters. Now, a new affiliated charter school doesn’t get that additional money although other affiliated charters were grandfathered in and still receive the funds.

“We didn’t become an affiliated charter to get more money, that’s not what it was about,” Lee said. “That goes against the purpose of why a school becomes a charter. You use the money you have.”

Sylmar gets an additional $475 per student because it is a Title 1 school in a low-income area, and the school uses that to supplement some new programs.

“It’s less palatable to become an affiliated charter, and so of course there were more schools doing it when there’s money attached to it,” Lee said. “But there is a reason for doing it without the extra block grant money. It’s a form of us branding ourselves in terms of being autonomous and independent as we design our educational curriculum and meet the needs of the parents and kids.”

Lee has been able to lower some class sizes while keeping other classes such as PE larger, at up to 42 students. Math and history classes are at 34 students per class.

Sylmar is a School for Advanced Studies now, which offers more rigorous classes, as well as special academies within the school, including a Leadership, Arts and Media Academy, a school of Business Technology and Design, and a Math and Science Magnet School.

Lee also wants to be one of the first LA Unified schools to start an ethnic studies program.

Jose Navarro, who teaches social studies and U.S. history and developed a mentoring program for at-risk students that helped improve test scores, recently won a $1,000 cash prize. “I was a less-than-good student, experiencing problems most of my students are,” Navarro said.


Coordinating with the community is also important for an affiliated charter school. Sylmar worked out partnerships with Cal State Northridge, UCLA, Los Angeles Mission College and other schools to make it easier for students to transfer there. They now have a full-time college career adviser on campus. The school works with MS Aerospace, a Sylmar-based manufacturing company, to provide graduating seniors with work experience. The school gardening students provide plants for local elementary schools with the help of state and local horticulture groups.

Lee also said he works to keep the community connected to the school, which has a long history of tradition and involvement in the community as the Home of the Spartans. Now the school hosts the Sylmar Neighborhood Council, which meets on their campus monthly. The Automotive Program services cars in the community, and the Culinary Arts program partners with local professional growers in feeding the homeless and bringing produce to local fire stations.

In their latest School Report Card, 89 percent of the parents said they “felt welcome to participate” at the school, but only 39 percent communicated regularly with their teachers about their children’s homework. Lee plans to change that. He is working on encouraging teachers and parents to work together in programs with a goal of getting nearly one-fourth of the students to achieve SAT scores of 1,500 or more. (Currently, only 13 percent score 1,500 or more.)

“I don’t mind competition, competition is good,” Lee said about the charter schools not far away from his school. “If there’s no competition, there’s no reason to change. Now Sylmar is facing a big change. It’s exciting.”

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