by LeTania Kirkland in Intersections: the South Los Angeles Report |USC Annenberg School for Communication | http://bit.ly/aIYvmP
<<Students at Frederick Douglass High School
Nov 8, 2010-- At Frederick Douglass High School in the West Adams District you are likely to see students working the reception desk, answering the phones, handing out tardy slips and making sure any students waiting in the hallway belong there. Most are volunteering, just looking for a way to spend their time during a free period.
Every five minutes or so you might hear, “Are you late?” If a lie is suspected, the next question is, “Are you lying?” They keep a close eye on everyone.
The high school is one of 15 elementary, middle and high schools in the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools. ICEF is a group of charter schools in South Los Angeles founded by former CEO, Mike Piscal, who envisioned bringing rigorous education to the inner city.
ICEF has become, to many, a symbol of high academic achievement all over South Los Angeles.
As of this year, ICEF schools have a 95 percent graduation rate and more than 85 percent of those graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. Six of ICEF’s 15 schools exceed the 800-point state target for API test scores and 11 of the 15 have scored above 700.
Frederick Douglass Middle Schoolers share the same campus with the high school>>
“I feel that it’s one of the best gifts that we’ve ever been given in the inner city,” said Chris Meadors a parent who has two children, Payton, a fifth grader and Matthew a third grader, attending View Park Elementary School.
Despite gleaming reviews, ICEF ran into financial troubles that could not be ignored. In September, the organization was facing a deficit; ICEF's interim CEO Caprice Young said it needed $9.5 million in immediate cash to operate through February and it was not sure that it would be able to meet its October 1st payroll.
Private donors stepped in to help save the schools. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, Eli Broad and philanthropist Frank Baxter contributed $700,000 collectively. Riordan is now also serving as Chairman of the Board of ICEF Schools. The three philanthropists are all long-time supporters of charter schools.
Young said support from the business community and local philanthropists was key to saving the schools. And though there has been a tremendous amount of anxiety, she is hopeful about the future.
“The threat of losing something that has become so dear has been really galvanizing. People have come out from the woodwork to help out,” said Young.
Sacrifices and Solutions
Saving the ICEF Schools was not accomplished without sacrifices. Teachers and other staff were laid off, classes were restructured and the organization’s founder and original CEO, Mike Piscal, resigned in October. As the organization struggled to slash 25 percent of its payroll budget, Piscal decided it would be best to move on and make room for people who can bring the schools back to financial solvency.
“My specialty is not fundraising or restructuring, mine is building organizations from scratch and building community and partnerships. They’re going to be able to raise the money that I can’t raise,” said Piscal.
Caprice Young has taken the reins as the new interim CEO. She was the founding CEO and president of the California Charter School Association and formerly served as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District School board.
Shortly after ICEF’s financial troubles were made public, Young called in directors and administrators from each school site to discuss solutions. The organization was faced with the task of cutting 20 percent of its budget. Twenty-five percent of payroll, teachers and staff were laid off and the curriculum was reconfigured.
Students at the elementary and high school levels will move to a block schedule. Elementary students will rotate to four teachers who each focus on a different subject.
High school students will take four classes (instead of the previous eight) per semester; giving them extended class time for each subject. The block schedule allowed administration to cut teachers without increasing class size.
At the middle school level, teaching assistant positions were cut, as were administrative costs and class sizes increased from an average of 25 to 30 students per teacher. Young predicts the deep program and operating cuts will erase the deficit by early next year.
<<Dr. David Morrow, the director of Frederick Douglass High School
Losing good teachers was the most “painful” aspects of the changes, said Young. But, she said parent and student reaction has been positive and she is convinced the new structure will not affect the quality of education at the schools.
“It’s actually really exciting. People keep expecting it to look morose,” said Young.
Dr. David Morrow is the director at the Frederick Douglass High School. He said the extended class periods are an asset to students.
“When they get home they leave with an in depth understanding of what the objective is for that night. I think that a real positive for our kids,” said Morrow.
It was not just the faculty and staff that stepped up in defense of the schools. Parents showed up for evening meetings to discuss the future of ICEF and some donated their own money.
Meadors, the parent from View Park Elementary, is the chairman of “Friends of ICEF,” a fundraising committee for the organization. When he’s on campus he often takes the time to make copies for teachers who he knows are hard pressed for time since the changes were instituted.
The ability to be involved in his children’s education was one of the major draws to the ICEF schools. His children attended pre-school at a traditional public school, and he said parental access, what he calls “touchability,” was not always welcomed. Parental involvement is one of the driving forces of the ICEF schools’ success.
“There is more of a sense of family, as opposed to you teach my kids I take them home and feed them,” said Meadors.
Guilbert Hentschke, a professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, agreed that it is often the parent’s drive that lands a kid in charter school in the first place. Their continued participation plays a crucial role in the success of the curriculum, he said.
“Charters expect more of parents…As far as I can tell, parents seem to be, busy as they are, responsive,” said Hentshcke.
This has been one criticism pointed out to those who see charter schools as the cure-all of the American education system. Hentschke said parental involvement will never be as high in traditional public schools as they are in a smaller charter school, so that factor should be taken into account when scrutinizing the traditional public school system.
“They [public schools] find themselves with less options, less drawing power to draw parents. It’s a shared issue between the schools and the parents,” said Hentschke.
LAUSD School Board member Steve Zimmer said he admires the level of parent involvement at ICEF, but said it is not a standard that works for all families or students. In traditional public schools, he see parents who are working two jobs and foster kids who do not have the parental support and involvement that is required at charter schools.
“I do have concerns when parent engagement becomes something that’s required rather than encourage and fostered,” said Zimmer.
In Ms. Mayfield’s first period Spanish class at Frederick Douglass most students were engaged, working on their pronunciation and reciting vocabulary. Chatter would start to creep up every now and again but was kept to a minimum, and one student leaned sleepily into the wall next to her in the early morning hour. Students at ICEF schools face the same distractions and sometimes push the limits.
But the push to do well does not just come from teachers or parents. There’s an air of expectation that comes from students as well.
On a Thursday afternoon at Frederick Douglass Middle School two student workers sat at reception, both of their eyes peering closely at a third student -- a violator caught peaking at Facebook.
Sebastiana Menbreno (left) Paige Shelton (right) both joined ICEF in high school and they say a smaller environment has provided them with necessary guidance>>
“What would your mom say if I called and told her that her daughter got caught on Facebook?” asked one.
“You should never be bored in class,” said the other.
Paige Shelton, a senior at Frederick Douglass High School, said there is pressure from all around. She lives in Compton and attended traditional public schools until this year. She did not like the environment “at all” when she arrived in the fall and said her “laid back” demeanor did not jibe on the campus. But, she has grown to like it. The pressure from her peers, she said, has pushed her to improve her performance in school.
“I didn’t care about school before. I was just going because my mom said I had to go. But now when I think about it I’m like, everybody else is doing good, so I don’t want to be the only one in the class that is failing,” said Shelton.
The girl who did not care about school has now begun her college search.
Parents and community organizations have long viewed ICEF and charter schools as a safe haven for African-American students in a city where the public school system becomes less appealing—both because of academics and issues of safety.
Charter schools largely serve students of color. According to a study by the California Charter School Association, in Los Angeles alone, 25 percent of charter school students are African-American and 59 percent are Latino.
Danielle Foster, who requested her name be changed for this article, is a parent whose children attend Thurgood Marshall Middle School and Frederick Douglass High School. When she relocated recently from San Bernardino County, a friend told her about ICEF and she looked to them as an alternative to large public schools where she feared potential violence and fewer academic expectations. ICEF provides security that is difficult to find elsewhere, she said.
“It’s more like family and it allows students to feel comfortable enough to attend the school and feel good enough to interact with the teachers from a personal place,” said Foster.
Until recently, ICEF has largely catered to African-Americans who live in the communities where the schools exist. ICEF schools are 89 percent African-American.
In 1994 ICEF founder Mike Piscal was teaching at the private Harvard-Westlake school. After reading accounts of the floundering public education system, he left Harvard-Westlake to help kids in the poor public schools receive the same rigor in education as those in private schools. A native of New Jersey, Piscal himself often felt lost in the massive public school system and was unprepared to write a college level essay when he arrived at Georgetown University.
ICEF was founded in 1996. What started with just a preschool and after-school program morphed into View Park Prep Elementary School and now includes 15 schools serving about 4,500 students. ICEF’s reputation precedes it and families are still arriving to place their names on the waiting lists.
<<Jazmin Masiel just started her freshman year at Frederick Douglass
“Kids who didn’t think they would ever be college material, because we believed in them, they started believing in themselves and the community started believing,” said Piscal.
But the community is changing. South Los Angeles also has a large Latino population and ICEF is now beginning to account for that growing constituency.
Overall, ICEF schools have only a 10 percent Latino population, but two of the schools -- Lou Dantzler Elementary, Middle and High schools and the Fernando Pullum High School -- are now predominately Latino.
Interim CEO Caprice Young said she is interested in reaching out to everyone in the community. But the key to much of ICEF’s success is word of mouth and the ICEF “word” has largely been passed through the African-American community.
“In L.A. people tend to stay within their ethnic groups so it spread quickly in the African American community. But it’s starting to spread more quickly in Inglewood. I know that we’ll get more diverse as things go by,” said Young.
ICEF did have a full time position for outreach in the Latino community, but it was cut as a result of the budget crisis.
Hentscke agreed that much of the charter school traffic is guided by “word of mouth and how you pick it up on the street.”
A Missing Population?
Charter schools in Los Angeles have long been criticized for the lack of special education and English learner students.
School board member Zimmer said ICEF is concerned with the small number of special education and ESL students at ICEF. The low number makes it unfair to compare ICEF’s test scores to traditional public schools that are serving large numbers of special needs students in the same community.
“When we look at data for charter schools, what I’m looking at is, do the charter schools accept and retain a congruent demographic profile to their ‘competitor’ schools in the neighborhood,” said Zimmer.
Five-point-six percent of ICEF students are English learners. Seven percent are special education. Young said this is something that should change, but that not all schools are especially “skilled” at serving special needs students.
Young said there should be a place for these students at charter schools—her own daughter has a severe learning disability. But her challenge is finding the resources and teachers that specialize in that work. Given the financial struggles, expansion is not an immediate option.
Despite his scrutiny, Zimmer said he believes Caprice Young’s new leadership will prove to be an advantage to ICEF—both in terms of finances and student diversity.
“Caprice has a virtually flawless track record of not only ensuring economic stability for charter schools, but also her commitment to equity issues. I don’t question that,” said Zimmer.
Young said ICEF’s commitment is to the community. With quality education, she said, this generation’s students will begin the cycle of healing the community in the future.
“Everybody who is part of ICEF is really part of a broader vision than just the kids that are in the school today. It’s about students of the future that are going to come back to the community as doctors and teachers.”
- Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report is a community news web site dedicated to covering South Los Angeles and surrounding areas, with contributions from residents, high school students and journalism students from the USC Annenberg School for Communication.