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Judy Burton

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How Fast Can You Get a New School Open, From Scratch? Turns Out, the Answer Is Six Weeks

Posted: 08/16/2013 9:20 am

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is the largest charter organization in Los Angeles, serving more than 10,000 low-income students. Alliance is also one of the highest performing public charter organizations in the nation, with over 95 percent of our graduates going on to college.

We opened our first school in 2004 yet, despite nearly 10 years of unparalleled academic success, finding real estate that is both affordable and located in the needy neighborhoods that we are committed to serving remains one of the most significant challenges facing the organization. When that kind of real estate comes available, you jump at it. But what if that happens at exactly the wrong time?

This is the story of what happens when unfathomable need meets unparalleled commitment.

How quickly can you open a new public school in Los Angeles? Do everything it takes to get a school open: Find a principal. Hire teachers. Buy supplies. Buy desks, whiteboards, pens, computers. Figure out the curriculum. Recruit parents and students. To say nothing of simply finding a building.

It often takes years. At Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, we did it in weeks. Six of them, to be exact. Here's how -- and why.

"It's on the Market?"

Megan Hadden, Alliance's Vice President for Real Estate, was on the phone with me. Our broker was telling her that a building at 49th & Main in South LA, one of the poorest, neediest neighborhoods in the city, was for sale. This was a neighborhood where graduation rates of under 50 percent are routine. Where too many of that other 50 percent end up in jail... or worse. A neighborhood where kids not only need a good school, they need that simplest of things: hope. Alliance has always been committed to serving these communities, these students... when we can find the real estate. Now, here was a building of just the right size, in just the right location, falling into our laps.

But it was mid-June. The new school year was just around the corner. We couldn't afford to buy the building and then have it sit empty for a year. And beyond that, these kids couldn't afford another year of limited to no options. In our high schools, 93 percent of kids graduate and 95 percent of those graduates go on to college. In the schools near us, those numbers are closer to 40 percent who even graduate and a lot fewer who go to college.

Fortunately, we had an approved charter for a new middle school sitting in our back pocket -- we wouldn't have to go through the usual, arduous approval process. And it was for a middle school, where success or failure is the biggest predictor of future high school dropouts. At a middle school, we would be able to give kids the education they need even earlier, instead of waiting until the first year in one of our high schools, where we usually have to start by teaching kids things they should have learned in third grade.

"This is crazy, right?"

My team was even more crammed in than usual around our small conference table. We had an empty building waiting for us. We had reserve funds available to buy the building. We didn't need anybody's approval. We knew we had a model that worked -- our 21 high-performing existing schools and almost 10,000 students proved that. Four of our high schools had just been named in the 25 most transformative schools in the nation. And the need in the neighborhood is self-evident.

But had anyone ever opened a school this fast? Making it even harder, our school year starts early to give kids more time in school -- this year, it started on August 5. We looked at the calendar. It was June 21. It was crazy. Maybe impossible, even. But we just decided we had no choice. We had to try.

"All Hands On Deck"

Yes, it is a cliché. But this was it. The Alliance Home Office is full of smart, dedicated people, and it was going to take every one of them to get this school open. Job titles didn't matter -- the students did.

First, we figured out the money and bought the building, which in and of itself took miracles from our finance, operations, and real estate folks. Plus, it had been vacant for several years, so it needed work. Lots of it. Our maintenance folks got to work.

Then, we needed a principal. Time for HR to kick in. By July 1, just 10 days later, we had one. Robin Manly was a former middle school assistant principal who was currently serving as our director of new teacher development for all Alliance schools. Perfect experience for someone who was going to have to get a new team of teachers going very quickly. She immediately started hiring those teachers, and putting them into new teacher orientations, training, and professional development sessions as they came on staff.

But what good was opening a school without any students? This wasn't a traditional public school where kids from the neighborhood just automatically funnel in. This was a school that parents had to choose. That means they had to know it existed, know what it planned to teach, and feel their child would be a good fit there. And even in high need neighborhoods, most parents know where they are going to send their student the next year by the time summer starts.

So Principal Manly, along with Alliance staff ranging from our director of parent engagement to communications and office personnel, put together a comprehensive outreach campaign to let families in the community know of the new school. We printed and mailed flyers to the families of students on waiting lists at other Alliance schools. We manned tables at nearby grocery stores to let families know we were there. We reached out to local Boys & Girls Clubs. We even put together a Facebook campaign to let parents know of this opportunity. We left no stone unturned.

"Did We Really Do It?"

August 5 was fast approaching, and things were looking good -- but we were holding our collective breath. Kids were signing up... teachers were being trained... hammers were swinging in our new space... the financial and legal and HR and admin teams were all dotting i's and crossing t's... but nothing was quite done. We just had to keep pushing. We reminded ourselves of the famous line in Finding Nemo: "just keep swimming."

On August 2, we looked around and here's what we saw: Our enrollment list showed 110 students enrolled in our sixth grade class, out of a total of 150 slots, in just four weeks' time. Six teachers were onboard, and ready to welcome these eager new middle schoolers. Our office manager had gotten everything prepared for the inevitable influx of parent questions, lost students, and last minute teacher needs. And the building, miraculously, was ready -- walls up, bathrooms ready, desks in place. The only thing left was to finish the paint job, and they assured us it would be done by Sunday. It had to be!

And, we saw one other thing: laptops and iPads. Lots of them. This new middle school would be one of our BLAST schools (Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation), which integrate online learning tools and technology into our college prep curriculum to make education personal, relevant and dynamic for these wired 21st century students. We think this is the education of the future, and if kids in Beverly Hills regularly get access to next generation technology, then we think kids at 49th & Main deserve it, too.

The First Day

It was almost inconceivable. In mid-June, when most schools opening for the first time are basically putting the final touches on their various and extensive preparations, this school was literally nonexistent. And here we stood on Monday, August 5, watching 110 wide-eyed sixth graders walking into their brand-new school for the first time, about to receive what, for most of them, would be a life-transforming education. And that number will only grow when we add seventh and eighth graders in the following two years, and as more families hear about the great new middle school that opened up down the block. But for now, you could see it on their faces, these 110 living, breathing sixth graders, kids who otherwise would have faced the usual life defeating alternatives in their neighborhood, but now you could see that they were feeling something that might be the most important factor of all in giving them the future they deserve: they felt hope.

We say that Alliance Schools are Where Exceptional is the Rule. Usually, by that we mean that exceptional academic results are the rule across our 21 (now 22!) schools. We mean that excellence doesn't have to live on an island -- it can be something that we can truly replicate across an entire school system, even with needy populations, as long as you have the right systems, curricula, and personnel in place. But this time, "exceptional" took on a whole new meaning. It meant exceptional effort by everyone from our principal and our teachers, to the unsung heroes in our Home Office. It meant exceptionally long days and nights. It meant exceptional commitment. Some days, it just meant exceptional amounts of sweat. But on that first day, seeing those kids, walking into that brand new school for the first time... kids who, were it not for this school, would have been walking into who knows where learning who knows what... well, on this day, it was exceptionally worth it.

 

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