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Transparency and accountability: Measuring school effectiveness through growth

LA School Report | November 17, 2016

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By Dr. Cristina de Jesus

America’s inequality crisis is getting worse, with the gap in opportunities based too often on parents’ income levels, ZIP code or ethnicity. Too many students and families are not able to tap into the promise of the American Dream because their public education options are limited, and it is long past time we all focus on closing those opportunity gaps to ensure all children can have choices throughout their lives.

In historically low-income neighborhoods across LA, improving the quality of schools is the most important social justice challenge of the day — and it is not idealistic to think we can make an impact on these schools and the families they serve.

A particularly challenging and important element of this work is the partnership between charters and school districts to turn around persistently low-performing schools where the achievement gaps are the greatest and most intractably rooted. Turnaround schools are uncommon in the public education landscape. These are neighborhood schools, free and open to all students, with a long history of poor outcomes. It is rare to find school leaders willing to take on the work of turning around neighborhood schools, as it is some of the most difficult work in public education today. Green Dot Public Schools remains one of the only groups willing to take on such challenges, as we have, in collaboration with LAUSD, at Locke High School and Clay Middle School.

Let me be clear, the work we have done at Locke and Clay is changing the odds for students and is to be applauded. Since Green Dot began leading Alain Leroy Locke High School in Watts, more than three times as many students graduate college-ready. Additionally, student growth on standardized tests tells us we are closing achievement gaps. Locke more than doubled the percent of students meeting or exceeding standard on the Smarter Balanced ELA/Literacy exams this year and has an A-G graduation rate of 61.3 percent — far surpassing California’s statewide rate of 43.4 percent.

These are big strides for a school that used to graduate only 5 percent of students college-ready and continues to enroll ninthgraders who, on average, read at a fourth-grade proficiency level. It is worth noting that students matriculating to Locke from one of our very own middle schools (grades 6-8), Ánimo James B. Taylor Charter Middle School, outperformed students matriculating from nearby LAUSD middle schools at a rate of 2.7 times on their eighth-grade Smarter Balanced ELA/Literacy exams. On this pathway, students who learn under our academic model sooner are meeting or exceeding grade level proficiency by 11th grade, representing astounding growth and truly closing the gap in the communities we serve.

At another of our turnaround schools, Ánimo Phillis Wheatley (APW), despite entering our doors in sixth grade at the lowest 5 percent of proficiency in the state, we are encouraged by our students’ growth achievements.  Based on 2016 results, APW’s eighth-graders have more than doubled the statewide growth average in ELA/Literacy, and they are outpacing statewide growth in math. At Ánimo Western, also on the Henry Clay Complex, students outpaced statewide growth in eighth grade math by 1.5 times. In fact, student growth percentiles at both Ánimo Western and Ánimo Phillis Wheatley indicate that our students are growing substantially more in one year than the state expects from any school. These results are just the start of the growth trajectory we have been able to put students on, despite three specific challenges of the turnaround environment: continuing enrollment, student transiency and incoming proficiency.

Incoming proficiency is, of course, a major barrier to putting students on the road to college. In fact, 71 percent of newly enrolling 10th, 11th or 12th graders at Locke arrive credit deficient. Students matriculating to Locke from neighborhood middle schools  (based on 2014-15 eighth-grade SBAC scores) are scoring in the 2nd percentile in English and the 6th percentile in math. At APW, students matriculating to sixth grade from neighborhood elementary schools (based on 2014-2015 fifth-grade SBAC scores) are scoring in the bottom 1 percentile in English and the 3rd percentile in math.

Forthcoming statewide accountability reforms promise to prioritize growth measurements, and that will only help families find the best public schools for their children, but to do that, we must work together. And together, local districts, Green Dot, other charter school operators and the entire Los Angeles community must figure out how to come together as a community and serve the students of Los Angeles.

We are eager to support transparent and stringent oversight of all schools, and we must stop playing “gotcha!” with our students’ futures at stake. We have been humbled by our work at Locke and Clay and have realized that it is going to take continued collaboration across the pre-K to12 pathway to ensure all of our students can be successful in college, leadership and life. The partnerships needed to ensure that students in the communities we serve are only hindered if public educators are at war with one another.

Dr. Cristina de Jesus is chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Schools California. She originally joined Green Dot as the founding principal at Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School, Green Dot’s second school. Subsequently, she became Green Dot’s vice president of curriculum and instruction, serving in that role before being named chief operating officer, and eventually president and chief academic officer. She plays an integral role in the collaboration with Green Dot’s board of directors and AMU, the union representing Green Dot’s teachers. Cristina has earned a Masters of Education, a Masters of Education Administration and earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership from UCLA.

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