Aspire Public schools
Redwood City, California
Don Shalvey, Founder and CEO
"Hi, my name is Jovani, and I'm your student tour guide. We're learning about the elements of writing, and today we're learning 'voice,' " says a small, olive-skinned boy with his hand thrust out. Jovani Alvarez, 10, is standing before a classroom door decorated with a University of North Carolina Tarheels pennant and the words, "Classes of 2015 and 2016." Already, it is clear that Monarch Academy in Oakland, California, is no ordinary elementary school.
Monarch is one of 10 outposts of the Aspire Public Schools system, a California charter-school management group seeking to transform the American public-school system. Aspire is rooted in a commitment to small classes and schools, and the belief that every child is college material. Thus, the Tarheels banner and college graduation year on Alvarez's classroom door and the banners for Yale, Duke, UCLA, and others along the corridor.
Aspire is the invention of Don Shalvey, a former schools superintendent who opened the second charter school in the nation while heading the San Carlos, California, district. That early foray got Shalvey noticed by the New Schools Venture Fund, which ultimately backed Aspire.
Shalvey's goal was to become a market disrupter—to create a stir too loud for the larger system to ignore or resist. Though his model called for as many as 10 schools in a single district to effect change, it took just two to catalyze the Lodi Unified School District in Stockton. The clamor of parents who wanted their kids to attend the Aspire schools forced the district to offer a deal. "They asked us to sign a noncompete agreement!" remembers Shalvey, clearly thrilled. Aspire agreed to serve no more than 1,100 students—and the system promised to create new schools based on Aspire's model.
What makes that model so powerful? At the school level, Aspire subscribes to a distinctly business-minded philosophy of local autonomy, performance review, professional development, and collaboration. Unlike his counterparts in most public schools, for example, Adrian Kirk, principal of Monarch Academy, has control of his school's budget. So last year, when his staff asked for help teaching multiple age groups, Kirk could allocate funding for a consultant to train teachers and then assess their performances.
And while most public-school systems prescribe a standard curriculum, Aspire administrators and teachers can adapt coursework as they see fit. That explains Monarch's decision this year to focus on improving the weak writing skills of its mostly native Spanish-speaking students. The school's solution: monthly writing evaluations for each class. Teachers gather in teams to grade students' work, and then chart performance monthly and compare it to previous results, before mapping strategies for continued progress.
One result: On state tests of reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics, Monarch Academy's scores have soared. On a scale of 1,000, the school scored in the mid-600 range last year, still below the state median but up from 464 when the school opened in 2000. That's one reason Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of educational programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, calls Shalvey "the most important social entrepreneur in America." Says Vander Ark: "We don't really know what good systems of schools look like. It's one of the most important questions in America today." Aspire may well have the answer.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.