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Social Capitalists: Aspire Public Schools

43 entrepreneurs who are changing the world
Social Capitalist 2008 Winner


Don Shalvey, CEO
Oakland, California
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“My son has been in three schools. They were all burial grounds for his aspirations. Now he’s at an Aspire school and the difference could not be more glaring.”

Aspire Public Schools, a non-profit organization that builds and operates high-quality charter schools throughout California, is rooted in the commitment that every child is college material. Through small classes and a curriculum that constantly reinforces the possibility of college for all students, Aspire works to transform the American public-school system and send a generation of young kids to college who did not previously have that opportunity. Aspire aims to improve the achievement of all students in California by growing to 50 schools—as measured by academic performance, increased college matriculation and graduation rates. With its network of high-performing schools, Aspire seeks to have broader impact at three levels. First, Aspire seeks to create change within its selected geographies, by influencing change at the school district level. Second, Aspire seeks to build capacity among other educators and charter organizations, which collectively will create hundreds of high-performing schools statewide. Finally, Aspire will advocate for changes in educational policies, practices and institutions in California. Together, these three activities will create the changes necessary for improved achievement for all California students.

In its first seven years, Aspire has developed a rigorous and effective education model; joined forces with local districts to serve all students in the community; and created 21 high-performing campuses in Sacramento, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Modesto, Stockton and Los Angeles. Aspire serves nearly 6,000 students in grades K-12, making the organization larger than 740 of the 1,000 existing public school districts in the state. Aspire has established itself as a premier provider of public school choice in California: Aspire schools have had strong academic results, and parents and teachers are highly satisfied. In a parent survey 93 percent of parents gave their school a grade of an A or B. One parent wrote: “You have my six year old thinking about college. Thank you.” In January 2007, Aspire was awarded a Statewide Benefit Charter by the California State Board of Education, enabling Aspire to open 10 campuses under the supervision of the State Board rather than requiring local district authorization. This will facilitate Aspire’s mission by launching more schools in urban areas in less time and ultimately resulting in shorter enrollment waitlists for low-income students.

In 2006-2007, Aspire schools improved by an average of 30 points on the Academic Performance Index, ten times the state target of three points. Seven Aspire schools have now exceeded the state performance target of 800, with University Charter School in Modesto crossing the 900 barrier.

There is concern about whether California’s K-12 education system can prepare the next generation of students for college or the workforce. With the philosophy of “College for Certain” as the cornerstone of its work, Aspire continues to produce more students who are college ready and college bound. Through June 2007, 99 percent of Aspire graduates earned admission to one or more four-year universities to schools such as UNLV, Columbia University and UC Berkeley.

Aspire expects to produce over 1,200 graduates per year and in doing so, spark an educational and economic renaissance in some of California’s toughest and most challenged communities—not only igniting the neighborhood vitality but sparking a revolution for a new generation of college-bound students. In short, Aspire is helping students and families to realize an American Dream that has long been an empty promise for many.