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Success in Arizona: A Focus on Increasing Quality Schools in Phoenix’s Urban Core

Vista Prep founder Julia Meyerson (left) observes a small-group lesson to provide coaching and support for the teacher. Vista Prep is a New Schools For Phoenix pilot school that achieved impressive results in its inaugural year. (Photo courtesy of New Schools For Phoenix)

Vista College Prep founder Julia Meyerson (left) observes a small-group lesson to provide coaching and support for the teacher. Vista Prep is a New Schools For Phoenix pilot school that achieved impressive results in its inaugural year. (Photo courtesy of New Schools For Phoenix)

Phoenix charter school leaders Jenna Leahy and Tacey Clayton believe that something has to change for students in the nation’s sixth-largest city. The majority of the 215 public schools in the Phoenix urban core serve low-income, minority students, and of those schools, only 8 percent received an “A” — the highest academic performance label — in 2014.

After two years of leadership and school development, Jenna and Tacey are poised to help change the life paths of Phoenix students, as CASA Academy opened its doors to 149 students in kindergarten through second grade this August.

CASA and six other schools are part of a new initiative, New Schools For Phoenix, that grew out of a three-year, $1,179,855 National Leadership Activities grant from OII’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) to the Arizona Charter Schools Association in 2010.

A focus on quality from the start

In that year, the Association looked to the future and saw that if enrollment trends continued, charter schools were poised to enroll nearly a quarter of all public school students in Arizona by 2020. As Arizona’s largest charter support organization, the Association recognized the need for the charter school sector to shift its focus from quantity to quality.

ACSA interest quote2With the OII grant, the Association created a program to train new charter school leaders to focus on quality of instruction and academic success from the start. Along the way, the Association also worked closely with the Arizona Department of Education to redesign the focus and timeline of the state’s Start-Up Grant Program to more intentionally support the leaders of developing schools in low-income communities and allow a longer planning period. From 2010 to 2013, the Association assisted leaders in opening 14 new charter schools across Arizona, 11 of which successfully received start-up grants through the Arizona Charter Schools Program. Through the Association’s support, the schools have flourished and the program received praise from Arizona’s primary charter authorizer, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The Association has worked closely with the state authorizer for the last seven years, collaborating on their shared vision of high-quality schools for all of Arizona’s public school students. For example, the authorizer collaborated with the Association in 2007 to adopt a growth model that the authorizer could use in charter review and renewal decisions. The growth measure was so successful that the state adopted it into its A-F rankings for all Arizona schools.

With the CSP leadership grant, the Association also saw a need to increase the transparency of performance data across all public schools, and so developed an interactive map and data communication tool — the Education Evaluator — that allows parents, legislators, and other community members to find and evaluate Arizona’s 2,000 public schools by using a variety of filter options, including searching for schools by grade, number of students, ZIP codes, academic achievement scores, and more.

Narrowed focus on the urban core

In 2012, Arizona received a sobering report on the projected dropout rate for Latino young people. According to Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona’s Economic Future, from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, a persistent achievement gap between Latino and white students poses “a grave threat to Arizona’s future economic health.”

For Phoenix, the economic predictions associated with the status quo were particularly dire: “To avert [a] race to the bottom and ensure Phoenix’s economic future,” the report concluded, “we must work together to change the local dynamic in education.”

ACSA avert quoteThe education system in the urban core of Phoenix, encompassing 15 district high schools, 119 feeder elementary district schools, and 81 charter schools, lacks cohesion. It is defined by the Phoenix Union High School District and its 13 feeder elementary school districts. Most of these schools serve a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; yet, only 18 of the high-poverty schools earned an “A” rating in 2014, representing only 7 percent of the 136,000 public school students in the area. In addition, a large majority of the student population, 79 percent, are Latino.

With the success of the federal leadership grant, the Association spun off New Schools For Phoenix in 2013 as an independent organization, targeting resources to improve student achievement specifically in Phoenix’s urban core. The new nonprofit will guide entrepreneurial school leaders through two years of training that will result in the creation of 25 new, replicated, or reformed schools by 2020.

Cultivating a new generation of school leaders

Recruiting potential school leaders is the critical first step in assuring high-quality schools. Starting under the federal grant and now a critical component for New Schools For Phoenix, aspiring leaders apply for selection into an initial five-month fellowship. The process is competitive — in its inaugural year, 20 Aspiring Leader Fellows were chosen from more than 60 applicants. During the five months, the fellows attend seminars, visit highly effective schools, and begin to cultivate their school visions. It is an intensive process, but one that focuses on the multiple dimensions of envisioning and developing a high-quality school.

Former fellow Jenna Leahy, co-founder of CASA Academy, said the school visits were an important part of her leadership development. “You simply cannot replicate an actual school environment in a presentation,” she said. “They showed us how the ideas we were discussing were put into action.”

Evaluation of the fellowship program under the CSP leadership grant led to an increased emphasis on demonstrated leadership skills and developing a clear vision for a high-quality campus — two key selection criteria for an invitation to join the second stage of development, School Incubation.

While only a small number of the fellows would be considered ready for the School Incubation experience, the first-round fellowship is invaluable for all. “I have learned more about school leadership, school design, educational philosophy, school culture and systems, and governance in six months … than I have in four years of two … master’s programs,” noted a fellow. For Association leaders, this and other positive feedback from former fellows told them they were on the right track. Rather than just a school incubation process, the Fellowship was “cultivating a new generation of leaders that believe in the power of high expectations and are grounded in the best practices of school design,” noted Andrew Collins, senior director of school development for New Schools For Phoenix.

Incubating Schools

From each of first two fellowship cohorts, the Association selected “the best of the best,” resulting in new cohorts of the invited leaders and their teams that participate in the next 18-month program. School Incubation unfolds in three phasesplan development, capacity building, and start-up.

Initially, this program was designed to primarily help school leaders develop and submit their charter applications. Since the program transitioned to New Schools For Phoenix in 2013, it has broadened to assist leaders with creating, replicating, or reforming schools — charter or district.

“In addition to supporting the development of new schools, we recognized the need for high-performing schools to expand and for some currently operating schools to undergo a comprehensive redesign,” said Collins.

The visions honed during the fellowships are harnessed to comprehensive training and workshops on academics, governance, finance, operations, and other topics, resulting in a school plan at the end of the plan development phase.

Capacity building for both school leaders and governing boards follows, and can include school leaders serving a residency at a high-performing school to gain increased insights and hands-on experience in school administration.

During a school’s start-up period, incubation program staff assists the school leaders with recruiting and hiring staff, enrolling students, securing a facility, and fully developing the school’s ability to implement its academic program plan.

The five phases of the New Schools For Phoenix model provides aspiring school leaders the opportunity to hone visions for high-quality schools, build capacity, incubate new staffs and programs, and connect with continued supports for their leaders and teachers to help ensure success.

The five phases of the New Schools For Phoenix model provides aspiring school leaders the opportunity to hone visions for high-quality schools, build capacity, incubate new staffs and programs, and connect with continued supports for their leaders and teachers to help ensure success.

For these last two phases of development, timely access to start-up funds, with ample time to plan and to fully engage the community, is critical to establish a solid foundation and put all the pieces together prior to the first day of school. Although Arizona’s Charter School Program start-up grant program is competitive, all seven New Schools For Phoenix pilot schools were successful in receiving the $690,000 three-year grants from the state. Each school also successfully competed for another $250,000 in start-up funding through a partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, demonstrating the efficacy of the New Schools For Phoenix programs in these competitions.

CASA Academy was one of the new schools that received the two grants, which enabled Jenna Leahy, Tacey Clayton, and their team to spend a full year continuing their training and community engagement, preparing their academic program, and setting up systems for efficient operations and governance. In this television news report, Jenna and Tacey share their plans for CASA Academy with families of prospective students, explaining their vision for a K-3 school that aims to put students on a path toward college and will be part of the change that is needed to bring high-quality education to Phoenix children.

CASA Academy co-founders Jenna Leahy and Tacey Clayton explained their vision to families of prospective students during the start-up phase of the New Schools For Phoenix School Incubation. “From day one when students enter,” Tacey Clayton told the families, “they will be on the path to college.”

Once a school opens or reopens its doors to students, New Schools For Phoenix staff continues support for schools in all areas of operation. Through New Schools For Phoenix’s sister organization, Center for Student Achievement, schools can participate in an annual Educator Summit with other Arizona schools and receive customized professional development for their leaders and teachers, which includes structured support for administering their instructional and assessment systems, as well as further training for their business offices. Schools also benefit from on-going programs and services of the state charter association, such as its joint purchasing partnerships in the Charter Marketplace.

Early signs of success

After just three years, the CSP Leadership Activities grant allowed the Association and New Schools For Phoenix to assist leaders in opening 14 schools throughout Arizona.

This alone is an impressive accomplishment given the increasing difficulty of gaining approvals in the state charter application process — out of 41 applications submitted in 2012, only nine received approval. The incubator teams’ success rate attests to the efficacy of the new program’s training and technical assistance. In the same year, 86 percent of incubator schools were approved. In 2013, four teams submitted carefully reviewed applications and all four were unanimously approved with very little to no revisions needed.

Small-group instruction for kindergarten and first-grade students at Vista College Prep is one of the strategies for reaching high learning expectations. (Photo courtesy of New Schools For Phoenix)

Small-group instruction for kindergarten and first-grade students at Vista College Prep is one of the strategies for reaching high learning expectations. (Photo courtesy of New Schools For Phoenix)

As for academic results, two of the pilot schools in Phoenix that serve predominately Latino and low-income students have completed at least one year of operation and have already seen success. After its first year of serving 4th and 5th grades, Empower College Prep helped students make dramatic academic improvements, receiving an “A” rating and ranking among the top 3 percent of schools in Arizona. In its second year, Empower doubled in size, serving 3rd through 6th grade, and earned an “A” rating once again. Nearly 100 percent of Empower’s students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, and 17 percent required special education services.

Vista College Prep has also achieved impressive early results, as reported in this January 2014 television news report. By the end of its inaugural year, Vista College Prep students made an average of 1.6 years of literacy growth. In addition, its kindergarten and first grade scholars exceeded the national median on the nationally normed TerraNova assessment. Kindergarten students began the school year at the 1st percentile, and by the end of the year, they scored on average in the 88th percentile (the top 12 percent in the country).

An ambitious vision for the future

The CSP Leadership Activities grant provided the necessary resources to design and implement an intentional school incubation model that is delivering on the need for high-quality schools in Phoenix and Arizona. Its unique strengths include building leadership capacity and applying educational program designs from the country’s most successful schools. This initial design and implementation has led to a cluster of schools in a targeted area that serve as models and resources for future cohorts of new leaders and high-quality schools.

Looking forward, with community support and backed by proven results, the Association believes that New Schools For Phoenix can reach its goal to develop 25 “A-rated” schools by 2020. Its highly motivated, entrepreneurial school leaders will open, replicate, or improve schools, and fuel needed student success in the Phoenix urban core.

To deliver on their goal, New Schools For Phoenix is collaborating with the Arizona Charter Schools Association, Walton Family Foundation, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Chicanos Por La Causa, and many other local organizations to recruit and train top educators and maximize program impact through piloting, testing, and implementing proven training models.

The grant funds have not only led to a significant impact in Arizona but nationally as well. New Schools For Phoenix has already shared its work with Cities For Educational Entrepreneurship Trust and has collaborated with other states that have begun implementing similar models. “As interest in charter schools continues to increase, we must ensure that any new school gets it right from the beginning,” says Collins. “We have and will continue to share our school and leader incubation model with whoever is interested. If provided appropriate levels of autonomy, school districts all over the country can redesign and restart failing schools through an incubation model as well.”

With a focus on highly effective educators and the foundational designs in place to transform student learning, the efforts in Phoenix are positioned to change the odds for underserved students and families.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and editor of the OII home page.