There certainly hasn’t been a lack of ideas to reverse the malaise that infests most of our K-12 school systems. In large municipal school systems, charter schools – which many see as a partial solution – have been fought tooth and nail by the education establishment. I’ve spent a lot of time on L.A. Unified school campuses, but hadn’t yet visited a charter school – which is why I recently toured the Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy.
Bright Star has a board of directors, but the principal player is their CEO, Ari Engelberg – a pretty fascinating guy. When he was at UCLA, trying to simultaneously earn both MBA and law degrees, he co-founded Stamps.com. After starting another Internet venture, he went into the education business, eventually accepting the position of CEO of Bright Star in 2007. Yet, believe me, he has to use every bit of his business experience, and every morsel of knowledge gained from his two advanced degrees (as well as his Bachelor degrees in Political Science and Psychology from U.C. Berkeley), to run Bright Star’s two campuses.I visited the 7th-12th grade campus. (The other campus – for 5th and 6th graders – feeds into this one, but they also accept students from other sources.) The first thing you notice about the place is that it’s quiet and clean. The 8-acre property, which was “leased” to Bright Star after being abandoned by LAUSD, borders the Los Angeles Airport, near an area where the local neighborhood had been bought out because of the high cost of retrofitting to prevent aircraft noise. With the school population decimated, the campus became available and Bright Star stepped in to put it to use. It has standard post-World War II bungalows that were freshly painted by LAUSD before delivery to Bright Star – who has maintained them meticulously since.
The essential feature of the campus is the 510 uniformed students, 90% of which are Latinos and the remainder mostly African-American. This is not a rich crowd. 90% are bused to the campus from other areas, and 95% qualify for the hot lunch program funded by the federal government (which means that the annual family income must be around $28,000).
It soon became clear to me that this school was quite different from an LAUSD campus. It starts, as explained by Engelberg, with clearly-defined expectations, which might account for the daily attendance rate that exceeds 95%. Each student must earn admission into a four-year college – no community college is acceptable for this crowd – and throughout every student’s years at Bright Star, there are a series of non-negotiable expectations that help him or her achieve this goal. If the student does not get into a four-year college, they aren’t awarded an official diploma until they do, even though they receive a piece of paper saying that they have graduated.
What accompanies these expectations is a system of accountability. Anyone can identify a goal, but unless you construct a strategy to achieve it, the goal becomes meaningless. Bright Star holds both students and faculty to strictly-measured standards, each of which supports the ultimate objective – admission to a 4-year college. Students that fall behind are provided with counseling, but they may also be brought in a weekend – or even their Christmas vacation – to maintain class-level performance. There are no grading curves here, no grade inflation, and no social promotion. If you can’t achieve grade-level status, you are worked with until you do – even if it means that you are held back.
The business operations are not easy to piece together. Engelberg told me that he has twenty different funding sources from federal, state, county and local governments that keep the schools going. Since each funding source requires regular reporting, as well as a continuing series of applications to keep the cash coming in, operating a charter school takes deft skills. Then, of course, there is the interaction with LAUSD. This entire process has given Engelberg a deep appreciation for the people who run LAUSD, which has over 85,000 employees and close to 700,000 students spread over 730 campuses.
The key to making any school work is the instructional staff – the teachers. One good thing here is that there is no union. Bright Star’s teachers come from diverse backgrounds, but a large portion arrives through Teach For America with a two-year commitment to their position. About half of these teachers stay beyond their post-college commitment, though not all of those who leave move out of the profession – some just relocate back to where they grew up. Surprisingly, most of the teachers earn a better salary than their peers at LAUSD, along with competitive benefits.
What teachers receive at Bright Star is a vastly better working environment. 80% of the staff is classroom personnel, which means less bureaucracy, more structure, and fewer discipline problems, all of which creates a cohesive and participatory atmosphere that does not exist in a large school district. Teachers are truly teaching – not just babysitting.
President Obama has spoken of the need to ramp up our educational system to compete in the 21st century. He needs to realize that more money is not the solution; the U.S. already spends more per student on K-12 education than any of the other 33 OECD countries except Switzerland. The President wants more Americans in college to meet the coming technological challenges, a sentiment shared with business leaders throughout the country.
Mr. Obama should sit down with Ari Engelberg. He would soon see that the public-education systems in our major cities need to be completely reorganized and reoriented. The needs of the customer – not the wishes of the employees and their union bosses – have to become the focus of our school systems. Most importantly, schools need to restore a high level of expectations for students, and a clearly defined accountability system to achieve those goals. Ari Engelberg could teach our President a lot about educating our kids. Who knows what we might achieve if Obama would divorce his political allies, who are sacrificing the future of our children and our country for their own selfish purposes. We can only hope.