The Trials and Tribulations (and Exhilaration) of Starting a Charter School

June 14, 2011

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This September, Jim Kennedy will be heading a new elementary school opening on the eastside of Los Angeles called Extera Public School. This exciting new beginning is also the culmination of two decades of work in education for Kennedy, who visited the CCSA offices recently to reflect on the events of the past year since taking the plunge into the charter school landscape.

Both my parents were teachers - that's where the seed was planted. I'm bilingual and, after college, I went where I thought my skills might be of most benefit. Interestingly, I began my teaching career at Vaughn Street School in Pacoima. Although I was there and gone before it became a charter, my experience at Vaughn is what began to inspire the passion and possibilities - understanding the potential that is lost when kids aren't supported in the ways they need in order to be successful with their lives. Later they're stuck with severely limited options. I felt a very strong personal connection with the students and their families.

Kennedy would go on to work in various roles for Los Angeles Unified School District for 17 years, as a teacher and administrator. He went on to become principal at a magnet school, then moved into the district office as an elementary mathematics supervisor.

It didn't take long before I realized I really missed having a direct connection with families as well as the flexibility and opportunity to make decisions I felt would have the greatest impact for kids. I was less comfortable being in a position where I felt like I had little to do with how those decisions were made.

He returned to the school site level as principal of Magnolia Elementary, a persistently low-performing school in an urban community. Despite plans to stay long term, a few years later he found out about an opportunity to head up the UCLA Lab School and decided to pursue it.

I made the decision to take my chances there and to try to capitalize on the mission of the lab school as a partner having an impact on public education. It was really exciting for me. My attention was much broader than that single campus - we wanted to create a network of schools.

Ultimately, he needed to make structural changes to implement that vision but felt he wasn't getting all the supports he needed to pull it through. It was hard to let go of the project.

Just prior to my last year there, I said that if we weren't going to pursue a broad mission for the lab school, I was going to go about it another way. I didn't know exactly what that way would be, but I was determined to make it happen somehow by hook or by crook. I decided that I was going to start a charter school. There was no looking back at that point - I needed to move forward.

It was a real learning curve for me. It was a different world - I felt very established in the world of LAUSD, where I worked for 17 years, and I felt comfortable at UCLA. With charter schools, I didn't know anyone, and they didn't know me either.

It was building new contacts and learning about the process. I began to pull together people who I felt would support this work, who would be engaged and motivated and involved. Our Board of Directors weren't just going to be names on a paper - I specifically sought them out. I took charter workshops with CCSA and tried to figure out the logistics of how to make this happen. Initially I was still working full time, so it was evenings and weekends, beginning to put together our board.

I hit the ground running on July 1, the first opportunity I had to sit down and start writing the charter. I was already months behind in my homework for the start-up charter school class!

It was a big jump for me. In fact, on my birthday that year, I jumped out of a plane to prepare. I had always wanted to do that, and I finally did so I could know the experience of overcoming my fear and letting it go. I left a lot of stability and resources behind and took a leap of faith into the unknown. A lot of the pieces weren't in place. To be psychologically ready for the challenge, I would highly recommend jumping out of a plane. I would reflect on that experience during the petition process and think, "Remember that? That is what this is like too. The chute will open."

I was fortunate to receive a lot of support at home. That was certainly very helpful because there were a ton of times when I experienced anxiety, and there were plenty of low moments when I asked myself, "Did I make the right choice? I can't believe this." I felt like nobody with nothing all of a sudden.

As much as the charter petition development was on me, I didn't go through it alone. I had the support of board members and that was huge. Our capacity as a team surpassed a lot of other start-up groups.

In many ways, our petition reflects a culmination of ideas from my years of experience in schools, including schools I have visited. I tried to create the strongest school model based current and past successes. Then I had to get that to fit within a very tight charter petition process with a lot of specific requirements. It's not easy, and the resulting document is clearly impacted.

Kennedy decided to tune out any naysayers who said the timeline was simply too tight and he managed to get the petition submitted in October 2010. He got feedback from the district in December - about 200 suggested edits - and spent the next three weeks working to address them.

There were things along the way that were extremely frustrating, but there were only a few. The charter office in general was not problematic - challenging -yes. Rigorous - yes. Unfair or unreasonable? I don't think so. At least that was not my experience.

The district needed the revisions fully addressed by January 10.

The new year began with getting up, sitting down at the computer, then going to bed. As the week progressed, I didn't take a shower, and the last two days, I didn't go to bed either. There was so much to get done, and we wanted to get it right. Meanwhile, I still had not received any feedback about our business plan and financial model, even though I had submitted those at the same time.

On Friday, January 7, Kennedy was told he couldn't include any fundraising dollars unless he already had the documentation to support the commitments. That was five years, $65,000 a year. Then the following Monday, district staff called again and told him he couldn't include the $250,000 revolving loan from the California Department of Education in the first year budget.

Of course I'm thinking the sand has run through the hourglass and there is no time. They're getting ready to deny us. I'm beginning to feel panicked, so I said, "Let me work on this and call you right back." None of the options were appealing to me - delaying the purchase of textbooks, pushing back salaries... I couldn't see a viable way to do it. We needed to replace the $250,000 in the CDE loan. I called our board chair and explained the situation. In the end, we were only able to solve the problem because of the capacity of our board. He agreed to make an immediate $50,000 donation to the school and to write a loan agreement for $200,000 at zero interest. All of that happened overnight. Our board had to be hands-on and supportive because, really, I'm dragging them through the trenches.

Their solution met the district's requirements, and they received a recommendation for approval from LAUSD staff. The board granted their petition on February 1, and Kennedy's focus turned to hiring and securing a facility.

We had been pursuing various permanent facilities, but none of those options would be ready for September. Fortunately we had applied for Prop 39, and the district recognized our full anticipated enrollment. That was a huge deal and a lot of work in and of itself. The district may have a one page application to apply for Prop 39, but we included a 10 page legal document, along with the signatures of interested parents representing nearly 300 potential students in support of our request.

The district offered classrooms at two different sites. The first looked great, but when Kennedy did a walk-through at the second site with LAUSD staff, they all had a bit of a surprise.

I have a map and a description of the classes in my Prop 39 agreement. The building is NOT there - we're walking around in circles looking for a building that is no longer there, that was supposed to have two of my classrooms. Again, I'm feeling a little bit of that panic.

With the help of district staff and the school principal, they were able to identify two different classrooms that could be used instead and Extera will have enough space to open with full enrollment.

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