By Amelia Hamilton | Watchdog Arena
Phoenix, like any city, has to be ready for the future, and that means preparing children through quality education.
The students in Phoenix’s urban core are mostly low-income, Hispanic children. With the entire state trending toward a Latino-majority population, the future of the state’s education lies with Latino achievement.
But Latino achievement in Phoenix’s public schools is low. With the future of the state at risk, a group was formed to help educators in the Phoenix urban core. Enter New Schools for Phoenix.
NSP started with a National Leadership Activity grant and evolved from there. The group then decided to work, as director Andrew Collins said, “where we can have the greatest impact.” They determined that was in Phoenix’s urban core, where they could provide “high quality options for low-income students.”
Through NSP, “entrepreneur educators” are recruited to undertake a two-year intensive program, beginning with a 5-month fellowship. This program not just for the creation of new schools, but also to drive quality in all schools within the target area. They are, Collins said, “willing to partner with anyone relentless in supporting our vision.”
He went on to say that “There are 136,000 students in our target area,” said Collins. “We believe that every one of those students should be getting a good education.” To that end, 7 schools have opened since the program began, with another 4 in the pipeline for the fall of 2015, all serving low-income minority populations.
Overall, Collins said, the program is “about driving excellence in a geographic area for educators who believe all students can learn and deserve a great education.” Among these innovators are Jenna Leahy and Tracey Clayton, co -founders of Phoenix’s CASA Academy.
Leahy and Clayton were recruited by the organization, which enabled them to visit 50 of the top-performing charter schools across the country. One thing they noticed, said Leahy, was a sense of urgency in closing the achievement gap between student populations. During the program, the two realized they had similar goals and styles, ultimately deciding to open a school of their own.
The school opened this past August, the co-founders having gone door-to-door in the community to speak with parents.
“Families were frustrated with the current options available to their children,” Leahy said. CASA is focused on early education, as lower income students are, on average, two years behind by the fourth grade.
CASA’s goal is to keep kids above grade level beginning in kindergarten. An important part of this is ensuring that everyone in the schools understands that “it’s a movement, not just a school.” In the five-part teacher recruitment process, they found that some teachers believed low-income students could not reach the same education heights as higher income students. Leahy said that these were just “excuses not to hold them to the same standards.”
At CASA, they believe that all students can succeed.
CASA serves a community in need, as evidenced by the fact that 98 percent of their students, who are mostly Hispanic, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Thrilled with the opportunity this school provides in the community, 90 percent of students have already re-enrolled for next year. An additional 5 percent will be going to their partner school which serves older children. This early in the year, 95 percent re-enrollment is an excellent indicator of what this opportunity means to students and their families. Much of that opportunity is focused on college.
The vast majority of CASA parents did not attend college, but the school wants to ensure that college is part of the conversation from Kindergarten. Each class is named after the teacher’s college in an effort to, Leahy said, “create a community where college is talked about.”
As the school grows, they know what they want to see. “The ultimate goal,” said Leahy, is to have 400 students at a school which is “serving every single child at the best possible level.” With the start New Schools for Phoenix provided, they’re prepared to change the community, one child at a time.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.