People ask me how did you end up with a charter school focused on dropouts? It’s actually a long, deeply personal story that changed my life forever. God introduced me to poverty. Not the poor, or sometimes broken, which I grew up in that defined me in terms of standing up for the little guy (sisters) or the effects of addiction and joblessness. He introduced me to the poor families and children struggling to survive in an America that pretends they don’t exist.
On the research side at Public Works, we were studying the pyramid graduation charts of high schools where students enter 9th grade and then, for example in some Los Angeles schools, only about 50% graduate by the time they are in 12th grade. The students just fade away. No real pressure from the school or the family to finish. As one would expect, these youth are disproportionately African American and Hispanic, teen mothers, from single parent homes, youth in the juvenile delinquency system, and of course, poor. As we were studying the dropout problem, strangely or perfectly, they started to show up to our tutoring center at Learning Works (before we opened the charter).
Maybe “show-up” is strong— I digress. I had started working with a student who was very at-risk. His family was really struggling with him (English Learner, Special Education, middle child), which culminated in him getting stabbed. I remember a moment with his lovely mother, sobbing together in December 2003, when I totally believe God spoke for me and I said, “I will take him on.” He basically became part of my family, and I would tutor him every night. I would pick him up from soccer and it would take at least three hours to get through homework after I put my own children to bed. This work taught me about struggling families, unresponsive schools, youth development (incentives/consequences), but mostly about my own personality of tenacity and “no excuses” attitude. I was going to graduate this kid no matter what even at the expense, at times, of my family and my own sanity. He graduated in June 2006.
At first his friends ignored the lady in the green van who always showed up to pick him up. They were all struggling in school, but they did not have the family pressure to use or want my help. This group was not “at-risk,” but in crisis. However, by senior year… a group of them were reaching out—all in their own time, and in their own way. I have often reflected on what changed my life from tutor/mentor to dropout/youth zealot. It was definitely this group of “seniors,” but I think it started with one text.
I was having a beautiful, abundant Thanksgiving in San Clemente with my in-laws. Given that my mother-in-law teaches and writes about cooking and food, the entire meal was amazing as usual. Table set perfectly, champagne poured, festive, loving—family. I have never learned not to answer texts when trying to not feel/think/enjoy. Text: My life is shit. I am alone. One of the friends, Daniel, had been evicted from uncountable number of places with his single mom who always seemed to have a scheme on housing that always ended in eviction. The current one was not good. He was not too sure where she was, but he was sleeping on the coach at the place they had been evicted with tenants just wondering when he would leave the couch. He was surviving, mentally cracking and trying to graduate. That next day, I drove over, picked him and his stuff up and moved him onto our couch. Six years later, someone has always lived on our couch. I started to learn that parenting the unparented is not easy or glamorous work, but you live for words, texts or moments of blessing. Text: You are the greatest white woman I have ever met. Daniel graduated in June 2006.
Carlos, the funniest, sweetest kid ever—schemer—loved shoes. His mom was a single mom working as a nanny with six of her own kids and his two older brothers were dropouts. They lived in the heart of gang and drug activity—Parke Street. His stories were novel material and could he tell a story! Like his brothers, Carlos became a dropout. Something about excessive truancy and stealing a teacher’s shoes? He found an independent study program in La Crescenta that didn’t work out—he gave up. He ended up talking the district independent study program, Center for Independent Study (CIS), into taking him in. He called me and said that he needed my help and he was “ready to change.” After lots of starts and stops, I took Carlos on—nagging, driving, meeting with the teacher, tutoring, feeding, and chasing (as we now call it). I developed my principle honesty is the best policy, even if you won’t always like what you hear. Carlos graduated in June 2006.
Jaime dropped out. I tried chasing that guy down early on, but he wouldn’t hear it. He was an angry kid very wounded by his parents divorce. He would only call me when he was in trouble, which was often. I think I have been through more crashes, arrests and court dates with Jaime then any other. Finally he came to me. First I tried to walk him back to every teacher at the regular school. The response was—“its November, he might as well stay home until next semester. He has an F and there is no way to recover.” Stay home? Wow! Somehow he got himself in the District’s CIS program, and then something about lighting a firecracker outside the classroom and then kicked out? I never really got all the details. I enrolled him in an independent study program in Glendale. Again, he got kicked out—attitude, words, checking other students. Little known secret, Jaime is really why Learning Works Charter School started. I had nowhere to enroll Jaime. I am irrational or the path God sets requires faith when everyone thinks you are crazy (maybe both).
I went to the District, and demanded we work together to start a program for dropouts. I argued that the 24.6% students dropping out of high school in our community was unacceptable. In April 2006, the District supported a partnership between Learning Works (LW) and the CIS program to address these needs, which was housed at the LW facility for free. Within two months of the initiation of this partnership, 67 at-risk Pasadena dropouts had either graduated or remained enrolled in school (17 graduated with a high school diploma). Based upon the Board’s approval to expand CIS, LW continued to provide support to students throughout the 2006-07 school year and 2007-2008 enrolling 188 at-risk youth, including 67 pregnant teens/teen mothers. In essence, we created a dependent charter school, a precursor to our current independent charter school.
Jaime graduated on time with his class of 2006. People say, how? I really cannot explain my house from December 1-graduation 2006. I had Daniel, Carlos and Jaime with DiShaun (another long dropout story that culminated in a major crash in front of Pasadena High School where he was ejected from the car and everyone lived) all at my house tutoring 24/7. Occasional visits from Kendrick for Algebra II tutoring and Aaron Henderson for Spanish. Lots of pizza, everyone sleeping on couches, screaming, nagging, coaching… and yes, my own children. I really don’t know what happened. I believe God asked, and I said yes (lots of arguing with God though). And so…. Learning Works began….Chasing….Decreasing the dropout rate… It’s not a job, it’s a mission.
Sixteen years ago, my husband Kurt and I moved to Pasadena where he had grown up. I was very pregnant and it was his turn to go to graduate school. I liked the idea of moving to a city that had a large gap between rich and poor as a microcosm of America’s problems. I had just completed an amazing four years at UC Berkeley learning the ins and outs of federal and state education policy at work and at school. My boss and mentor at MPR Associates, Dr. Gary Hoachlander, taught me in action about the huge gap between research, policy and practice as we worked in over 20 states on accountability systems and high school reform. My mentor and professor, Dr. Charles Benson, a true believer in Dewey education and the tenants of Democracy and Education, taught me the importance of focusing on poverty issues in policy and practice and the need for both academic and vocational education. All students learn better in context, they need to apply what they learn. Armed with a PhD and two Masters, I was filled with great ideas and the spirit of contributing to needed change in education, especially at the secondary level.
However, transitioning was hard (new mother, new city, no mentors). I really believed that I had already worked in the best environment for me in Berkeley, so I decided it was time to create my own organization—one that tried to do what most organizations don’t do—truly bridge research and practice. I have noticed over-time in my career that people graduate or move up into research or policy. Rarely do people work with families or children AND continue to do research and policy. It was my belief, and still is, that this great divide is what creates most of our poor policies or misses in implementation. So with a new partner, Michael Butler, who knew Los Angeles Unified School District [(LAUSD) a must in LA!] no money, a newborn, and a great Bible Study group, I took a huge leap of faith—Public Works, Inc. started. Our tagline developed by two of board members, Greg and Sloane Mann of the Fibonacci Design Group, was “Public Policy, Public Schools, Public Works.” We saw it as “working for the public” often others saw the name as people who might fix toilets. As Michael would often say, “we fix a lot of plumbing, not that kind, but often just as dirty.”
My sister then Kerri Limbrecht (now Abernathy) was the first employee of Public Works, and our office was in my garage. We started the business at the right time because government spending was up. I just wanted to pay our bills, but the work kept coming. I couldn’t have done it without my ties to my colleague Phyllis Hudecki for national work or Michael Butler for local work. Our non-profit status was approved in June, 1998. Our Board of Directors has always been knowledge and focused on education issues: Dr. Phyllis Hudecki, appointed as Oklahoma Secretary of Education in 2010 after serving as Executive Director of the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition — a non-profit organization working to improve public education — has a special interest in education reform, career and college readiness, testing and accountability, standards, teacher training and professional development; Dave Banis, has returned to teaching in a Pasadena middle school having served as a district administrator locally and in other parts of the state, specializes in the critical areas of fiscal accountability, facilities, science and student disciplinary policies; Ty Gaffney, board member for La Salle High School and Public Works and an adjunct faculty member at USC, has served as a teacher and principal in the Pasadena Unified School District, focused on elementary and middle school education issues, visual and performing arts and teacher education; Kathy Lesley, Deputy Director, Pacific Region for America’s Choice, Inc., has a deep understanding of and interest in standards-based curriculum and assessment, high school reform and career pathways for students; Michael Butler, Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of Public Works has been in the forefront of evaluation of current California education accountability and school reform, specializing in facilitating site and district-level data teams charged to improve instruction in reading and mathematics and English Learner (EL) instructional services; and Dr. Mikala Rahn, President and Co-Founder of Public Works is dedicated to elementary through secondary school reform in the area of accountability, curriculum, intervention programs, assessment, teacher retention and professional development including evaluations for the California Mathematics and Science Partnership, National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, National Science Foundation, and multiple state agencies and school districts.
We were right away involved interesting research and evaluation. We had great clients like developing statewide accountability systems for the National Center for Research in Vocational Education; studying the implementation of the LEARNS initiative in LAUSD to change school governance and improve outcomes; studying a middle school juvenile divergence program called Angel Gate administered by National Guard; and evaluating teacher induction and professional development through Weingart funding. It was in the “hey day” of education funding, and we grew faster than we predicted.
Eventually my dad found us a small space to rent. Over-time we actually moved into all of that space and bought the building in 2001. This allowed us to begin to put our mission of bridging research and practice by starting our community learning center called, Learning Works! The concept was that the Public Works researchers would teacher/tutor K-12th grade children to understand their needs, and therefore, better understand the research. We started to serve families all over the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) that were at-risk academically or socially. Our services were free-$10 per hour for enrichment and intervention classes as well as tutoring services.
Over time we have served over 1,300 children and youth with wide variation of need.
We were so successful with our learning center, youth started to seek us out, not just parents or school staff. Strangely, this was occurring at the same time we were evaluating 60 high schools attempting to implement smaller learning communities or breaking the high school into smaller, more personalized environments. We were study the huge dropout problem where schools begin with a large 9th grade class and some graduate only about 50% of that class by 12th grade. We were faced with the dropout problem in high schools in the data, and oddly dropouts were showing up at our learning center trying to get help to re-enroll in school. Long story, short… our experiment with PUSD led to us chartering a school for dropouts called Learning Works Charter School. Three years later, we serve youth in crisis including every gang in Pasadena (30% of our youth on probation), pregnant and teen mothers, extremely credit deficient student, and we love them and graduate them. We have graduated 229 students.
So here we are, 16 years later—not just an idea or a concept—but actual research meets practice. It was time to revisit ourselves. We started very focused on prevention strategies in elementary, middle, and high school—and what the charter school brought was an induction into intervention strategies and true poverty work. Its time to have three distinct brands that represent the diverse work that we do.
I am grateful for true friends who happen to be ultimate professionals, the Fibonacci Design Group who pushed us, shaped us, and coached us. We enter a very unsure and unfunded time in education, with a very confident and knowledgeable organization—Public Works (Data into Action), Community Works (Coaching into Opportunity), and Learning Works (Dropouts into Graduates)
I recently wrote three lines in a proposal that capture these three related and distinct entities.
- We see our role as researchers influencing policy—bridging policy and practice.
- We see our role as education coaches, tutors and mentors.
- We see our role as advocates for the poor and disengaged, with one goal—all youth deserve a high school diploma.
I mark my days watching my son grow, he is now 16 and in 11th grade. I have a daughter that helps me remember when my life changed with a charter school. Public Works has been an amazing journey. I have the most fabulous staff and community. In a very unoptimistic time, I am very optimistic. People use to say to me long ago, you will lose that “save the world” mentality. You will be jaded and understand there is only so much you can do. I am here to say…we have only started. I am still that “change the world” gal. I firmly believe the Margaret Mead quote:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”