How an L.A. Charter School Became a Success Lab

Armida Barrera has paid a price for living in a disadvantaged neighborhood: the poor education of her first seven children.
How an L.A. Charter School Became a Success Lab

LOS ANGELES — Armida Barrera has paid a price for living in a disadvantaged neighborhood: the poor education of her first seven children.

"Two of them didn't even finish high school," says the resident of southeast Los Angeles. Only one of her daughters managed to complete college and become a teacher.

"It's a crime, there's nothing else to call it," Barrera said, clearly bitter at the lack of available choices for her children, a common scenario faced by other parents in low-income areas.

Parents like her value especially the opportunities that the primary school Synergy Charter Academy — attended by the two youngest of her nine children — brought to the neighborhood.

But when Synergy Charter Academy opened its doors in Southeast Los Angeles in 2004, the predominantly-Latino neighbors didn't know what to make of it. First, its classrooms were housed in a local church.

"At the time, we had no idea what being a charter school meant," says Raul Barrera, adding that he found it strange that they had improvised classrooms with folding chairs at St. Patrick's on Central Avenue and 34th Street.

Dissatisfied with the quality of traditional schools, the Barreras decided to enroll their two youngest children at Synergy in 2005.

The decision has paid off.

Despite its humble beginnings, Synergy — now housed in a shared building with a local elementary school — has quickly become one of the top-performing schools in the state. It ranks among the top 20 percent, and was recently honored with a 2010 National Blue Ribbon Award.

"My daughter in fifth grade [last year] is at the level of math my older children had in high school," said Armida.

Changing Expectations

Synergy was founded by Meg and Randy Palisoc, both former teachers in the L.A. Unified School District.

Meg says that the lack of facilities — which among other things meant dismantling the classrooms on Fridays, and setting them up again every Monday — posed a challenge, but the greatest challenge was changing people's expectations about their children's performance at school.

During its first year, the school earned an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 709 points, very high at the time for this neighborhood, when compared to nearby schools like Twentieth Street Elementary or Trinity Elementary, which in 2005 got an API of 597 and 613 points, respectively.

"The parents came in congratulating us, but our job was to convince them that an API of 709 would be completely unacceptable at the best schools in the city," she said.

Synergy received an API of 897 last year.

Meg emphasized that one of the "secrets" for their success has been the unconditional support of the parents.

"We treat parents like professionals, and that's how they respond," said Randy Palisoc, chief executive officer of performance achievement at Synergy.

The school shares with parents the same information they provide to the teachers, he explained, using Power Point presentations to discuss state standards, goals for the Academic Performance Index, and what Synergy is doing to help children to succeed.

Teachers also meet with parents one-on-one to review specific goals for their children, to discuss challenges they are facing, and to suggest ways that the parents can help at home.

"After one of these meetings a mother told me that she would have been more involved in her daughter's education and helped her read at home, (and) that until she came to Synergy, no one had ever informed her that her daughter was performing several years below grade level," said Meg, adding, "Sometimes, getting parents involved is as simple as communicating with them."

Encouraged by the success of the elementary school and wanting to create a full cycle of academic excellence, the Palisocs in 2008 opened an intermediate school, Synergy Kinetic Academy, and this year will inaugurate a high school, Synergy Quantum Academy, with a focus on careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Cooperation with LAUSD

The Palisocs acknowledge that their departure from LAUSD stemmed from their frustration with a system that fails thousands of students every year. But, far from considering the district as their enemy, they are convinced that eliminating the achievement gap will only be possible through working together.

"We want to prove that success is attainable even when working with the same children, in the same neighborhood, and with the same socio-economic challenges in which many of them are failing," said Meg, adding that she considers their schools a "laboratory" to come up with new approaches to teaching.

Synergy holds classes at Quincy Jones Elementary, a traditional LAUSD school — a set-up that the staffs of both schools view as an advantage, rather than a source of conflict.

"We share not only the facilities, but the practices that work best, so we learn from one another," said Randy.

This year, the two schools pooled resources, such as the time one paid for buses while the other obtained tickets for a field trip attended by students of both schools. They held joint assemblies, where students from Synergy and Quincy Jones met members of the Sparks basketball team, and students from both schools participated in an Arts Day event.

Next year, teachers from both schools plan to observe each other's classrooms and share best practices during joint staff meetings.

And they plan to replicate this in the two other schools.

Synergy Kinetic Academy (grades 6-8), which has been operating inside Holy Cross Church, will begin this school year in its new location, within the building of Central Region Middle #7, while Synergy Quantum academy will open its doors this fall sharing facilities with Central Region High School #16.

"We're already working together toward a goal of all being on the same page when the school year starts," said Thomas Welch, principal of the Academy of Arts, one of two academies that make up Central High #16.

Welch explains that although the textbooks will not always be the same, the curriculum will be synchronized through weekly meetings among the three principals and a common instructional calendar.

"Lessons on both sides of the wall will be very similar," said Welch.

Although holding weekly meetings with all the other school principals in the neighborhood is not practical, Welch is also coordinating an interschool meeting to be held in October.

"Change is happening and it's unstoppable," said Welch, noting that barriers between traditional and charter schools are blurring, thanks to a common approach in which "putting children first" is the only acceptable option.

Promoting Consistency

Jennifer Epps, Synergy's principal, says that consistency is what makes Synergy different.

"Nobody says 'that's not my job' around here," she assures, stressing everyone's commitment to a single common goal: the success of all children.

Her "office" is a table piled high with papers, located within the school's computer lab. All of the school's 311 students — 291 of them Hispanic — spend time there at some point during the day.

"I don't have to worry about leaving the door of my office open, because there is no door, or office, for that matter," laughed Epps.

Her previous experience, at a school in Watts, taught her that she doesn't want to be part of a system that rewards teachers and principals who aren't passionate about their jobs.

Consistency is evident in the classrooms and everywhere on campus. In each class, the children are different, but they model similar behavior in what appears to be an organized mess.

Often the little ones sit on the floor in groups working on different projects, surrounded by slogans like "do not ignore, answer," or "eye contact = brain contact."

Following well-established routines, children pick up and put away classroom materials in record time, so the transition from one class to another is seamless.

"You notice that this is a good school just by the way the kids move through the yard or in the corridors," said Ana Ordoñez, a South Los Angeles resident.

Invariably, with little need to be reminded, the academy's students adopt the "scholarly position" — hands behind their bodies, voices down — when they move from one area of the school to another.

"We've been criticized by some who think this looks too martial. But it works," said Epps.

Mixed Feelings for Charters

But, for some parents in the neighborhood, the notion of a charter school — even one that's housed in a traditional public school — still gives them an uneasy feeling.

Esmeralda Gonzalez said she's unconvinced that the wall between "good" and "bad" schools — sometimes just a few blocks away — is getting smaller.

While she recognizes the achievements of schools like Synergy, she said she prefers to keep her daughter in a traditional school elsewhere in the neighborhood: Trinity Elementary.

"It's true that the academic outcomes are worse [in traditional public schools], but I just get offended by the private school 'smell' that charters have," said Gonzalez, who also grew up in South Los Angeles.

She is afraid that traditional schools end up becoming "the wastebasket."

"If the best teachers and students all go to other schools, what happens to the children who for one reason or another have no choice but to go to the school around the corner?" Gonzalez asked.

Her concerns are not uncommon. Many parents do not dispute the level of achievement of some charters, but believe it comes through attracting the most vocal families, and those who have the motivation to look for better alternatives.

"What happens to the homeless kids, the children of incarcerated parents, the kids of undocumented families who are afraid to ask for anything?" Gonzalez said, adding that she believes all public schools should provide a good education.

The Charter-School Effect?

Many parents, however, are convinced that good results are "contagious."

Ordoñez, who grew up in South Los Angeles and stayed there after getting married, said that her mother sent her to better performing schools in the San Fernando Valley.

"I spent many of my childhood hours in a bus, but I'm sure that if I had stayed here, I wouldn't have finished high school," said Ordonez, who was about to pursue the same strategy with her daughter. But first she decided to look into other options, and ended up enrolling her daughter in Synergy, and then in a middle school run by Alliance College-Ready Public Schools.

"My daughter has improved dramatically in these charters," said Ordoñez, who noticed the change almost immediately.

"When I transferred her to Synergy — in 3rd grade — she hated reading. But after just a few weeks in this school she became the kind of kid who brings along a book to the market or post office, and reads every single minute while we're in line."

Ordoñez attributes the transformation to simple but effective strategies, like challenging the students to read a few thousand words every week, and asking students to take a quiz every time they finish a book. If they pass this test consistently — and for that they need to answer at least 80 percent of the questions correctly — they receive the recognition of being included in the "top tier" of the class.

She also thinks that good results are somehow "contagious," and the academic improvement of many local schools seem to confirm her impression.

Between 2005 and 2010, nearby Trinity increased its API by 116 points, while Harmony's has gone up 95 points, Twenty-Eighth Street Elementary's by 70 points, Nevin's by 92, and even more spectacularly, Twentieth Street Elementary added 148 points to its API score.

Many believe that the factor that spurred the improvement was the opening of Accelerated Charter, in the mid '90s, and then Synergy in 2004.

"People used to run away from schools in South Los Angeles," said Claudia Lopez, a Compton resident whose children attend Synergy. "Now, some students come here from afar."

Yolanda Arenales is an education reporter for La Opinion, where she covers K-12 and higher education issues. She received a 2011 NAM Education Beat Fellowship for ethnic media journalists on the topic of "What's Working For Kids in Your Community? — Innovations in Underserved Communities." The fellowship was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Photo from New America Media.

This article originally appeared in New America Media.

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