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High-performing Alliance charter schools celebrate 10 years

Craig Clough | November 11, 2014

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Alliance for College-Ready SchoolsAlliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter network in LA Unified is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and based on performance, there is much to celebrate.

The Alliance schools, which include 17 high schools and 9 middle schools, are all located in low-income neighborhoods but have an overall high school graduation rate of 94 percent and combined 2012-2013 API scores of 760, which exceeds state (735) and LA Unified (693) averages.

While not all charters have performed well in LA Unified, and with Alliance having faced challenges, too, over the last decade, the network does serve as an example to many supporters of what charter schools can offer students in struggling neighborhoods.

“The first thing I would point to about our success, and it may be a bit hokey, but believing that all kids can do it and having high expectations for students when they come in,” Alliance spokesperson Catherine Suitor said. “Everything we do is focused on and works around that.”

Other key factors Suitor pointed to are longer school days, giving decision-making power to principals, setting aside more training time for teachers and having smaller schools.

At Alliance schools, kids attend an average of 38 days more of school a year, which comes from having an extra hour of school a day plus 10 more full days per calendar year than LA Unified students have, Suitor said.

“We’re very academically focused. When those kids come in and they are behind, there is tutoring, they double up on math and English the first couple of years because they are always playing catch up,” she said. “It’s that expectation that they will get there even if they come in behind.”

Teachers also get extra days, which includes 10 days of training before school opens and six days throughout the school year, which amounts to twice the training days teachers in traditional LA Unified schools get, Suitor said.

While Alliance has seen great academic success from its students, it hasn’t been all wins, as two of its middle schools and two of its high schools performed below the API average of LAUSD schools during the 2012-13 school year. Alliance also had to close a school for poor performance in 2012, replace the leadership and some staff and reopen as the Renee and Meyer Luskin College-Ready Academy.

“It’s all about leadership. I think the principal leadership is incredibly important,” Suitor said when asked what lessons were learned from the school’s restructuring. “I would say the other thing that we learned is move faster if something is not working. Those are the big things learned from that lesson.”

On the subject of principals, Suitor also said that Alliance believes in allowing for decisions to made at the local level. This is possible in part because Alliance uses a model in which each school is run as an individual non-profit, with a separate governance structure, compared with some other charters that operate as a single non-profit. 

“We don’t want to run the risk of jeopardizing the whole network for one school. Let’s say you have a catastrophe at one school, you don’t want it to circulate through the whole system,” CFO David Hyun recently told LA School Report.

The funding structure also allows for the money to go directly to schools, Suitor explained.

“The schools pay Alliance for some backend help and HR, but the money goes directly to the school so the principal decides who to hire, how to spend money, and whatever the particular needs of the school are,” she said. “There are very different communities all around LA, and they do make different decisions based on what’s going on there. And they are all held accountable for results.”

Alliance also keeps the size of its schools small, with all high schools serving fewer than 600 students and its middle schools fewer than 450.

“There is a lot of research to back it up that the size of the school is more important than the size of the district. There is a lot of debate about should LAUSD be broken up into smaller districts, but we have found it is having small schools that matters,” Suitor said. 

And success is breeding the potential for more success: Alliance is planning to open 10 more schools over the next five years, starting with two in Sun Valley next school year.

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