California Charter School Prepares Hispanic Students for College

Published December 1, 2005

Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds Joanne Jacobs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
256 pages, ISBN: 1403970238, $16.47

Author Joanne Jacobs understands a fundamental problem with the way our public school systems are set up: “Less affluent parents are stuck with what they get.” Reform, she observes, can take years. Unfortunately, that is not a luxury kids stuck in the system can afford.

Charter schools offer an alternative approach to education–a way to escape the system. For example, students attending Downtown College Prep, a charter school in San Jose, California, learn in a dynamic environment where teachers and administrators try new ways to provide a learning experience that truly prepares them for college, as Jacobs relates in Our School. Students must work hard to succeed there, and students who don’t devote themselves to their education don’t get ahead.

Helping Underachievers

“Charters flourish where the traditional public school system has failed to meet the needs of some or all students,” Jacobs writes. Two teachers, Jennifer Andaluz and Greg Lippman, decided to start their own charter school to prepare San Jose’s underachieving Hispanic students for four-year colleges. They launched Downtown College Prep (DCP) in the fall of 2000.

In 2004, DCP scored a perfect 10 on the California Academic Performance Index–the key rating tool for Golden State schools under the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999–compared with schools with similar demographics. DCP enrolled the highest percentage of students who are not fluent in English, and tied with another school for the most low-income students.

The school’s success did not come overnight. In the first year, most incoming ninth graders were reading at a fourth- to sixth-grade level, a few even lower. The majority needed to learn how to do homework. The teachers learned early on that they had to dedicate most of their efforts to closing the learning gap in the ninth grade.

For many students, that meant attending summer school or even repeating a grade, but the administrators were determined no one would graduate DCP unprepared to meet the demands of college.

Inspiration, Information

The most difficult task for teachers that first year was to get students to buy into the idea that they could go to college and that it was within their reach, Jacobs reports. Many DCP students were “victims of bad bilingual education, … semiliterate in two languages,” Jacobs writes.

Nonetheless, teachers refused to water down their expectations or their curriculum goals. Instead, they patiently worked to get their students up to speed.

Another problem the school faced in its early days was communicating with students’ parents, who often spoke less English than their children. Some parents were operating under the misconception that “F” stood for “fabuloso,” meaning fabulous.

“Immigrant parents often don’t know their children are doing poorly in school until they’re way behind,” Jacobs notes. To combat that problem, parents of ninth graders attended monthly classes on how to help their children succeed in school. Among other things, they learned it’s not OK to pull their kids out of school for long vacations in Mexico.

Working Harder

DCP uses an eight-hour school day, releasing children at 5:00 p.m., and it requires students to wear uniforms. Kids can be, and are, expelled for bad behavior. Students and faculty alike are required to adhere to core principles relating to motivation, pride, and community.

“We try to build character,” Lippman explained. “It’s not enough to teach basic skills. Students also need to learn to solve problems and handle failure.”

The biggest problem DCP faced in its first three years of operation was finding a school building big enough to house its expanding enrollment. After starting with 102 students in fall 2000, administrators rented a former gym in downtown San Jose in 2002. As 368 students started school at DCP in fall 2004, administrators signed a long-term lease on a closed elementary school building, which currently meets their needs.

In spring 2004, the first graduating class, 54 students, accepted their diplomas. The DCP college counseling program found ways for all of them to pay their first semester’s college tuition.

Nancy Salvato ([email protected]) is president of The Basics Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal, and social issues important to our country.