August 29, 2011 We took a "throw-away" school that the traditional school system had failed miserably and developed a new, no-excuses entrepreneurial system in which the entire school community was empowered with the resources to make substantive changes. The resultant success remains evident in student achievement and physical and human resources unheard of in a public school. As one of the founding co-directors, I am most proud of the fact that an outstanding staff and supportive community have continued to sustain Fenton as one of the Valley's most successful charter public schools! - Joe Lucente, who was Principal of Fenton Avenue when it converted to charter status in 1993
No matter how well-intentioned you are - you may have the greatest teachers and the greatest programs - but at the end of the day, you really have to have the money to do what you want to do. It's going to take money. - Irene Sumida, Current Principal of Fenton
Fenton Avenue Charter School has plenty to boast about - it is a California Distinguished School, has been visited by dignitaries like former First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton and more students want to go there than for which it has space. That is now, but let's step back to 1993, when the school's staff decided to convert the former Los Angeles Unified School District school into an independent charter school, a tremendously bold step at the time and a key factor of their success.
At the time, the state law establishing charter schools had just passed and there were only about 25 charter schools in the state, primarily small start-ups, and just seven charter schools in LAUSD.
Joe Lucente was principal of Fenton Avenue and Irene Sumida, who currently heads the school, was his assistant principal. Both knew Yvonne Chan, who was principal of Vaughn Elementary School, the first LAUSD school to convert to a charter school.
"Yvonne Chan, who is a very different kind of thinker, knew the charter school law had passed," said Sumida. "She started talking about how she was going to take over everything, how if she had control of the money, she could really effect change in her school and make dramatic changes in accountability, achievement and attitude. She would talk about it at LAUSD principals' meetings and everyone thought she was a little crazy."
As crazy as the option seemed, the team at Fenton Avenue decided to take a serious look at it. At the time, few LAUSD principals actually knew how much the district was receiving from the state, how much money was making it to their site and how much was being spent on different aspects of operations. Lucente did a detailed calculation and was able to see how much more money their school would have to work with if it received its funding directly. "We asked ourselves, 'With that much money, what could we really do?" said Sumida.
Frustration with the centralized district bureaucracy was one of the major factors driving Fenton's decision to convert. "Whatever downtown decided, that's what everyone was going to do. It was always one-size-fits-all," said Sumida, who shared a story to illustrate this point. One day, she had several boxes of expensive science equipment show up at her school with no notice, accompanied by detailed instructions for her science teacher. The teacher was to tune into a particular community TV channel on certain days at certain times to get guidance on implementing the science curriculum. Irene thought it was a good idea; however, she would have appreciated a heads up from the district because she had a major problem - their school was nestled in the foothills and didn't get television reception.
They decided to move forward with the conversion and haven't looked back. Within the first year, Fenton Avenue reduced class sizes from 29.5 to 25 students per class. They added a lot of full-time staff: a psychologist, a school counselor, a Family Center Director, a nurse's aide, an attendance officer, four people working in technology, primary and upper grade science specialists and an art specialist, as well as a part-time art teacher and music teachers and other paraprofessionals.
They also made a significant investment in technology. Before the conversion, there were only two computers in the whole school. After converting, they wired the entire school for internet and put computers in every room, seven iMacs in all kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms and eight in 4th grade classrooms, with a computer for every student by fifth grade. They added an art studio and two science labs, installed a voice amplification system in every classroom along with ceiling-mounted video projection unit and drop down screens and were able to loan Macbooks to all of the teachers.
As one of the earliest charter school conversions in the state, Fenton Avenue Charter School offers a number of lessons. Read "Charter School Conversion: Advice from the Front Lines" here.