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California-based charter school system works to win over parents ahead of Memphis opening

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In 2003, New York Times mentioned how Aspire got its start in northern California:

[NewSchools Venture Fund] operates seven charter schools under the name Aspire Public Schools. NewSchools Venture Fund is heavily supported by the Broad Foundation. And in June it received a $22 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create charter schools in California, New York and other districts with great needs.

The New York Times includes Aspire Public schools among the select few "top-flight" charters and reports on the cost:

Nonprofit networks of charter operators with top-flight schools â outfits like Uncommon, KIPP and Aspire Public Schools â have created only about 350 in the past decade, and required $500 million in philanthropic support, according to Thomas Toch, author of a study last year on many of the groups underwritten by the New Schools Venture Fund. He questioned whether successful charters could be âscaled upâ without sacrificing quality and without heavy subsidies from private donors.

Two California professors offer this Los Angeles Times account of how Aspire cherry-picks its students. And demands that parents give time to the schools. See far down in the article: "We will be very flexible" in how families earn points."

There are 18 articles about Aspire on this website.
A number of California Aspire teachers report on another cost-- "constant testing"; 100% teaching to the test."

The U.S. Department of Education calls this "innovation" and gives $800,000 of our tax dollars to Aspire for start-up costs.

James Willcox is Aspire CEO:

Prior to joining the management team of Aspire, Mr. Willcox was the founding Chief Operating Officer of Education for Change, an organization focused on restructuring underperforming schools as independent charter schools in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District.

Before his direct involvement in school system management, Mr. Willcox served as a Principal at New Schools Venture Fund, a philanthropic organization founded to improve the educational opportunities for underserved students across the country. Mr. Willcox has also spent time as a nonprofit consultant with The Bridgespan Group, and served as a U.S. Army officer and helicopter pilot for over seven years.

In 2012, Oprah donated $1,000,000 to Aspire. This was right around the time of the release of "Waiting for Superman." An Aspire principal was featured in the film. The Oprah show was dedicated to the film. Bill Gates was there.

I have not been able to find out what Aspire pays its executives but charter CEOs in New York City rake in salaries and benefits in the $400,000---$500,000 range.

Four of Aspire's seven board members are venture capitalists.

By Jane Roberts

Game night Friday was a church carnival collection of photo booth, sack races, musical chairs and treats in the cavernous Hanley Elementary. Children frolicked between stations, then turned their tickets in for prizes. Winners got purple Hanley ASD T-shirts. The rest got school supplies.

At the registration table nearby, Saree Mading, Aspire Public Schools' director of HR, IT and student services, chatted and laughed with a visitor: "In two years, you'll know who we are, and you'll remember me and the day I told you this."

Aspire is taking over Hanley, near Airways and Spottswood in the Orange Mound neighborhood, this fall. If the "transformation" goes as planned, there will be no outcries over school name or colors. The children and their parents should recognize a number of faces, including a few Hanley teachers who decided to throw their hats in the ring.

The first was hired last week. Friday, the first Orange Mound resident applied for Aspire's teaching residency in California. Besides a stipend, Aspire pays a $600 living bonus. College tuition for those who accept jobs in its schools is reimbursed through its benefit program.

Aspire, one of the highest-performing charter schools in California, was approved last June to work in the Achievement School District, the state's answer to turning around schools that are performing in the bottom five percent, in some cases contracting with charter schools.

Days later, Aspire hired Nick Manning, former principal of Lanier Elementary and a 1998 Melrose High alum, to plow ground as head of community outreach.

By mid-July, executive director Allison Leslie had moved here from California. "I have a lot to learn about Memphis," she says. "It's my priority to hire people who know more about Memphis than I do."

This is the first time a charter has taken over an entire city school at one time in Memphis. "We have a sense of urgency. We want to ensure that all students have the ability to accelerate their learning as soon as possible," Leslie said.

Its need for community buy-in is equally urgent. It budgeted $100,000 this year to get the word out. In early February, 200 people showed up on a Saturday for information day. Next Saturday, there will be free massages and pampering for parents. Last fall, Aspire flew a handful of Memphians to Los Angeles to see its schools in action.

"Initially, I had reservations," said Rev. Anthony Henderson from Beulah Baptist Church. "I came home and thought about it. Once I took everything in, I began to realize they could be a catalyst for change."

He saw students "who were very enthusiastic about learning. We talked to parents as well. They were sold on what Aspire was selling their children. Based on what we know about parents, we donât find too many that would lie."

But Henderson is also cautious, saying he expects Aspire to mold what the community wants into its program. "We are going to do what we can to help. We don't expect them to do it alone. We donât want to say, 'You take and teach them.' We are part of the village; we definitely have to do our part."

For now, Leslie and her team are calling on parents of children enrolled at Hanley but not ruling out that dozens of other parents may have already taken their children elsewhere for school. Aspire wants them all.

"Our approach is simply this: We look at communities as having amazing assets and how we can harness those to make sure children get the best outcomes," Manning said. "We just started rolling up our sleeves and going where the people were. We began to meet with church leaders and civic leaders, and the heroes in the community. Those are the people the community looks to."

When school starts, families will see a giant 2030 painted on the front doors -- the year the kindergartners will graduate from college. The school year will be 190 days instead of 180. Parents' contributions will be monitored and posted in the office. "We will be very flexible" in how families earn points, Leslie said. "You can donate your time or your creativity, whatever you can give."

Aspire Public Schools was founded in 1998 in Stockton, Calif. The mission was to give underserved minority children a "college for certain education." In 15 years, the charter management organization has grown to 34 schools, serving more than 12,000 students in six California cities.

Of its 33 schools with test data, 21 outperformed the state average in 2011, according to the California Department of Education.

While other charters have been reluctant to hire teachers from schools they were taking over, Aspire is encouraging Hanley teachers to apply. It made five offers to Hanley applicants last week, and expects more next week.

Friday, its first Orange Mound residency recruit signed on. In January, Aspire scored another coup -- hiring former Hanley assistant principal Nikita Reed as principal. She left her job as principal of Cherokee Elementary last week, one of three city school principals to resign midyear to take jobs with charter schools.

Michael Saine, head of the Orange Mound Development Corp., worries that too many parents don't know the plan for Hanley. If that is the case, he says it would be easy for the backlash over the takeover of Lester School in Binghamton to repeat itself in Orange Mound.

He also is afraid many Hanley teachers won't be hired and will move out. "Who is going to be able to purchase a home when one of our goals is to raise homeownership in the community? From my experience in community development, when we go to try to sell the'e houses, it's easier to sell to someone whoâs already in the community than it is to try to get someone to move from Whitehaven, Frayser or out of state."

Aspire's budget is based on receiving $7,797 in state and local funds per student. It will also get up to $300 per child for capital improvements, plus $1,500 for every special education child. It will also receive $300 for every child who qualifies for free or reduced lunches. It estimates 90 percent fit that bill, according to its application to the ASD.

It also anticipates up to $28 million from philanthropists as it builds out its network. In five years, Aspire intends to take over 10 low-performing schools here. Initially, it will serve K-5 students. By 2018, it expects they will be K-8 schools, with approximately 564 students in each.

By the end of last week, 75 children had registered, including Ryneshia Riley's two children. "It's best for my kids," she said Friday as she dropped them off for school. "We need to get them learning again."

Many parents dropping kids off Friday had heard Aspire is moving in, but due to work or other conflicts, had not been able to attend the events Aspire has been holding, including the sparsely attended game night.

This is the first time Aspire has expanded outside California, where budget worries are making the future cloudy for charter schools. In 2010-11, the average per-pupil expenditure there dropped more than $250 to $7,162. In Tennessee, in the same year, the average district received $9,084 per child.

Charter startups in Memphis and New Orleans are also eligible for federal "innovation" grants. Aspire considered both cities, but chose Memphis. It applied for and received $800,000 in innovation funds this year to cover startup costs. And because it is part of the Achievement School District, it gets schools for free.

The combination, plus "the kind of environment the ASD is creating in terms of supporting school autonomy," is very attractive to charter companies, said Todd Ziebarth, spokesman for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

"They are not going into a hostile school district, the funding is stable and they do not have to fight for access to facilities."

— Jane Roberts
The Commercial Appeal





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