Getting to Know: James Wilcox, CEO of Aspire Public Schools

October 19, 2010

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If you tuned in to "Oprah" earlier this month, you would have seen Bill Gates talking about the new documentary Waiting For "Superman" and what's wrong in public education. You would also see, in the front row, a group of charter school leaders, including James Willcox, CEO of Aspire Public Schools, whose programs were held up as an example of what a great school can be.

Aspire Public Schools, founded in 1998, now runs 30 high-performing charter schools in East Palo Alto, Oakland, Modesto, Stockton, Sacramento and Los Angeles, serving almost 10,000 students. Their waiting list is usually about half their enrollment. We sat down with James to hear about his involvement with the movement, his brush with fame on "Oprah," and his thoughts on "Superman."

How did you get involved in the charter school movement?

It's a long and not very predictable journey. My dad was a banker for the first half of his career and an assistant superintendent for the second half. I was in the military at the time that he made that career transition, and was in the process of leaving the military. He gave me the advice not to settle for a job I didn't care about. He had been the non-educator in his family - his three siblings are teachers; ultimately, he ended up as an assistant superintendent. Because of my family's commitment to public education, this was a natural place for me to be. I earned a dual degree at Stanford with a Masters in education and an MBA; shortly after, I got involved with New Schools and it just went from there.

What is the story of Aspire schools?

Don Shalvey, our founder, was the Superintendent of San Carlos School District when he decided to approve the first charter school in California there. He went on to help to lift the statewide charter school cap from 100 to what we have now. He saw the opportunity to build a system of schools much like a district, but not bound by geography. It was his dream as a 30-year educator in California.

How did you make the connection with Oprah?

As we understand it, they took a path across the country to look for groups that were doing great work with students. We got interviewed on the phone a few times; they came out to see our schools and were impressed with our work. Later we were invited on the show. We didn't know what would happen when we were there. They asked us to stand up and be acknowledged as a group by the audience - (the $1 million gift) was a complete surprise.

How will you spend the $1 million?

How to spend it is totally up to us. They want to support our work to make sure we get our kids prepared for college. We'll be spending the money by helping our students and helping our team. Our team hasn't had a raise in three years because of the budget. The money will help our team by giving them a one-time 1-percent payment of their salary and the rest will help our schools. One million is a lot of money, but the state has cut a lot out of our budget - over $10 million this year alone. This will help a lot, but certainly will not solve the budget crisis for our 30 schools.

What do you think of Waiting for "Superman?"

I think it's a really compelling story. It's a heart-felt story for me. It's about the right that every student and every family has to a high quality school in their neighborhood and the fact we as a country are not providing that right now. It could just as well have been about parents lining up outside a magnet or outside a great district school. It happened to be about some great public charter schools doing great work across the country.

What will be the role of charter schools in improving public education?

It will be similar to the opportunity we've had all along - which is to demonstrate there is a different way to approach public education in our country and that one size doesn't fit all. We can have successful schools in every community with every kind of kid and with numbers that can't be denied. Charter schools will show what is possible and hopefully people will start demanding it.

Who needs to see this movie?

Everybody. It's an important conversation we all need to have. It doesn't matter whether you're a parent or just a taxpayer - this matters if you are part of our society. Everything in our country rests on a great education system and there are a lot of places where families don't have great options for their children. I just hope that people don't just pay attention for a few minutes or a couple of hours and I hope the great American public doesn't turn this into an issue about charters vs. traditional schools. This is about all schools and students. We just need to stand up and stand together and make this a priority.

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