October 1, 2013 "I've been in the trenches of accountability for the past 10 years," says Allison Kenda, who became Managing Director, Achievement and Performance Management for the California Charter Schools Association after more than 27 years as a teacher and administrator in public schools. In this role, she will work to develop services and supports for schools that are struggling and continue to advance the work of the charter school community to ensure high levels of accountability across the movement.Kenda has plenty of first-hand experience. She was part of a core team that converted Gompers Secondary School in San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) into a charter school and transformed a school that had been failing the community for years. In 2012, 100 percent of Gompers' first class of seniors graduated. Read more about Gompers.
How did you come to work in education?
I tell people that I've been going to school since I was five. I never really left the school house - I've worked in public schools for 27 years. It was where I was most comfortable- being in places where we were trying to make better things happen for kids.
I had many different roles that allowed me to learn public education A-Z. I don't think there is a department I haven't touched so I have a 360 view of schools.
However, I don't feel I was fully educated until I became a charter leader. I was part of a bigger movement of trying to provide educational equity for kids. It spoke to my heart - wanting the schools to represent an awesome experience for kids. I saw myself as part of a bigger movement.
In 2005, Gompers, a chronically low-performing high school in San Diego converted into a charter school. You helped lead that process - what was the experience like?
It was all about accountability. This school had been letting down kids and families for 50 years. Before the conversion, more kids were joining gangs by 8th grade than graduating by 12th. "This is a prelude to prison," one of the parents told me. There were fences in the hallways and 11 security, including an armed police officer on campus. In my first year at the campus prior to going charter, I asked a long term staff member how many kids had been buried that year in the community, she replied, "Seventeen".
Converted under NCLB - No one is taking accountability for our children. It was all about getting the parents to believe again - many of them the exact same parents who had been miseducated in the school in previous years . Converting to charter sparked a huge educational civil rights movement in the community - rallies, meeting in churches at night, kids were protesting and faxing their board members. It was incredible to be part of that movement and to transform that school and watching the community transform - crime rates are going down. The district schools are now competing with us, which I love.
Competition is not kind to mediocrity and our kids are deserving of more than mediocre schools.
In 2012, 100% of our first class of seniors graduated and applied to two or 4-year schools. Now 100, 100 is our cry - that we are responsible for 100 percent of kids walking through our door graduating from high school and100% being ready to apply for two or four year colleges.
What made the difference at Gompers?
Before going to Gompers, I had gone to South Africa, inspired by Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. It was right after apartheid and I was in a shanty town and I noticed that one particular group of students weren't going to school and I started asking about it. Basically, the government hadn't figured out how to get all the kids back in school after such a long time of segregation. I started working to get all of the kids of that town into school every day. I was falling in love with the kids - they deserved access to an education. It took someone saying, what if we think about this differently? What if we don't wait for the government or wait for someone else to do it? What if we just did it?
That ignited a fire in me, when I came back, I ended up at Gompers. I didn't know there was a school in so much need in our country, much less in San Diego. But it was the same kind of work. The child is here today. How do we hold ourselves accountable today? What are we waiting on? If we don't have the answers, who does? No Excuses. It was that mentality that turned things around.
What do you see as the role of charter schools in improving public education across California?
I think charters force the conversation. Charters are good for kids because they force adults to have the conversation about how we provide high-quality schools for all kids.
I wish that everyone could be open-minded enough to see that this is the future of public education in America. Urban students - without charter schools, the bureaucracy can't figure it out fast enough for them. They need to learn to read today. The world they're stepping into requires such a higher skill set, they can't afford to lose any time. I'm not against traditional schools - I'm against bureaucracies that don't move fast enough for kids and charters are an avenue to move faster.
Charter schools are a movement. At Gompers, we had a grassroots, democratic movement from the community and charter schools were the only vehicle that could allow us to turn around the school quickly. Didn't the kids deserve that?
Why are you excited about your role at CCSA and the association's work on accountability?
My personal belief is that every human life is worthy. I'm excited to take my experience at Gompers and transfer it to this position, where I feel like I can represent the school leaders' voice in accountability and bring some credibility. I've been in the trenches of accountability for the past 10 years.
It's about supporting people to make better schools for kids, that are accountable to kids. I believe that this is what we're supposed to be doing. It's a great time to be in education. It's a huge shift from when I started in the classroom . CCSA has engaged with members schools and taken that input from different regions and from the Member Council to look at how we can best support and give access to resources, not only for struggling schools but all schools to foster this cycle of continuous school improvement.
I recently became guardian of a Gompers student whose mother passed away. I watch how he gets treated in the world as an underrepresented youth. It makes me angry and it makes me committed. His future depends on his ability to receive a high level education. He deserves that and can't wait for us to figure it out. He needs the best education today. Coming to know the students of Gompers has taken my passion for accountable schools and for myself to a higher level.