Former faculty establish charter schools

A poster proclaiming, “Be Positive, Be Proactive, Be Perseverant” is plastered on the classroom door that Principal Pat Stickley opens promptly at 7:30 a.m. on a crisp fall Monday morning. The early morning sun streaming in through sprawling windows tints the room orange as students file in, adjusting their maroon ties and tucking in their blue dress shirts.

“How did you get along serving food at the Mission last Friday?” Stickley asks them.

Stickley is the principal at Bright Star Secondary Academy, an accelerated charter school in Westchester. Every day, the school buses about 100 students in from a Latino-dominated neighborhood in Baldwin Hills. The students board the buses at 6 a.m. and do not return home until almost 6 p.m.

“We keep students at school as long as possible during the day so getting involved in crime is not even a temptation,” said Harvard-Westlake history teacher Ari Engelberg, who is also the chairman of the board for Bright Star Schools.

“The school day lasts from 7:30 to 5:30 so you’re keeping them at school and providing them with enrichment opportunities.”

Engelberg is not the first Harvard-Westlake teacher to embrace the charter movement.

Twelve years ago, history teacher Michael Piscal left Harvard-Westlake to start the Inner City Education Foundation and recruited Phil Holmes, an English teacher who worked at Harvard-Westlake for 36 years, to work at his flagship View Park Preparatory Charter School. 

Now they have over 1,000 students at three schools located in South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District: View Park Preparatory Charter Elementary School, which opened in 1999, View Park Preparatory Charter Middle School, which opened in 2001, and View Park Preparatory Charter High School, which opened in 2003. In addition, they opened the Lou Dantzler Charter Middle and High Schools as well as the Thurgood Marshall Charter Middle and High Schools this past September after receiving a $4.2 million grant from the Michael and Susan Dell and Walton family foundations.

A fresh start

Words like “rigor,” “expectations” and “college process” are an anomaly in the neighborhood where the majority of Bright Star students come from, but when they walk onto campus in the morning, something changes. Posted along the halls are terms like “diligence” and “integrity,” as an ode to John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, the basis of Bright Star’s values education.

Inside Vanessa Anick’s first period English class, 26 students are entrenched in a discussion about Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“We want our kids to go to college, and the statistics are pretty informing,” Engelberg said. “If you don’t go to college and you come from an environment that is not homelessness but working poor, the odds are very good that you are going to remain in working poverty and working poverty becomes generational. The way to break out of that, the way to move from the poor to the middle class, is through college education.”

In 2003, Jeff Hilger, an alumnus of Loyola High School, asked Engelberg to serve as chairman of the board of Hilger’s nonprofit organization, Bright Star Schools.

The same year, Bright Star Schools opened the Stella Academy Middle School, and in 2006, opened the Bright Star Secondary Academy.

One of the ways that Bright Star gets students to start thinking about college is by placing them in advisories named after different universities outside of California. For example, after school, the Princeton Tigers were going to play a pick-up basketball game against the Florida Gators.

“The cool thing about Bright Star is that the teachers actually care about you and care how you do,” said Infancia Rodriguez, a ninth grade student at Bright Star. “The teachers want to help you, and it’s not like that in public schools.”

Right now, Bright Star Secondary Academy’s inaugural class is in the 10th grade and is due to graduate in the summer of 2009.

“We plan on opening 10 or 12 middle schools in the next decade, and it is our expectation that they will be the 10 to 12 best middle schools in the city,” Engelberg said.

Last year, the students at the Bright Star Secondary Academy had tests scores that gave the school a 762 out of 1,000 on the Academic Performance Index, the scale that the Los Angeles Unified School District uses to compare test scores from each school.

For schools of its size, Bright Star is 10th in the city, Stickley said.

“The higher the test scores are, the more private and public funding we receive,”  said math teacher Raphael Healey, who worked in LAUSD schools for 10 years before coming to Bright Star. “The more money we get, the more we can help these kids and more kids get into quality four-year colleges.”

Engelberg is at either the Bright Star Secondary Academy or the Stella Academy Middle School at least once a week and recognizes the socioeconomic gap between the students at Harvard-Westlake and those at the two Bright Star schools.

“You see neighborhoods and schools where the kids come from very poor families” Engleberg said. “Ninety-five percent of our students are on a government funded hot lunch program which means that their family income is less than $30,000 a year, ninety-eight percent of our students are Latino and 80 percent of our students are English language learners and are behind the curve.”

One of the toughest challenges for Stickley and Engelberg is keeping students out of trouble when they are not at school.

“The Mexican mafia has a big hold on the neighborhood where most of these kids come from, but we can rely on parent support to keep them out of trouble,” Stickley said. “These kids are also really savvy. They have friends and family members who have had something happen to them and they realize they have an opportunity to move out of that and they are going to take it. To be here, you definitely want to be here and you definitely have to make an effort.”

Past, present, and future

View Park Prep’s inaugural class graduated last June and of the 74 graduates, 73 are attending four-year universities this fall. The elementary, middle and high schools, which are predominantly African American all had test scores that place them in the top 10 for student performance in schools their size in Los Angeles.

“Initially, most of my students were verbally deprived,” Holmes said. “They were backward academically, but they were also backward socially. It just took an extraordinary amount of effort, and we were eventually able to get the students under control to the point where you could walk around campus and there was no cussing.”

Holmes came to the school in 2003 as an English teacher, but he is not the only Harvard-Westlake connection to View Park.

Former girls’ basketball coach and admissions officer Brian Taylor (Terbie ’02 and Bryce ’04) is the principal of View Park’s middle school, and Vanessa Viboch ’98 is a fifth grade teacher at View Park’s Elementary School. Holmes is now 66 and spent much of 2006 recovering from a battle with esophageal cancer, yet he will be the first to say that he loves what he does.

“I will work at View Park as long I can keep going,” he said.

To understand why Holmes decided to teach at View Park after 36 years at Harvard-Westlake, one has to go back to before the merger, when Harvard School was “mediocre, just another also-ran private school,” he said.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Harvard School discontinued its status as a military school and hired Christopher Berrisford as a headmaster whose goals were to expand the curriculum and departments of the school. Working with fellow English department mainstay Dr. Bob Archer, Holmes developed a highly focused English program.

In 2000, Holmes went on sabbatical and wrote a book with Archer on the program that they developed. However, they were unable to sell the book to publishers at English conventions because many critics felt that Harvard-Westlake students were too bright and could not be an accurate barometerof whether the program worked or not, Holmes said.

At the same time Holmes was coming off sabbatical and ready to return to Harvard-Westlake, Piscal was in need of quality teachers at View Park. Holmes had trained Piscal while Piscal worked in the English department for four years in the early 1990s.

“I looked forward to the opportunity because Mike was building a new school and that’s what made it fun for me at Harvard,” Holmes said. “I was going to get a chance at the age of 60 to do that again and it was just too appealing. Here was a chance to go work with a bunch of new teachers in a raw environment and start all over again. Because of my sabbatical I was able to go in there with greater clarity than I ever had before.”

Holmes proved that his program could work in the inner city. By the end of his first year, students who had scored in the bottom 10 percent in the state of California in writing and verbal testing now scored in the top 10 percent, though success did not come without toil.

“My first year there it was terribly exhausting getting a handle on [the students],” Holmes said. “The main thing I had to learn, and Mr. Piscal told me this, was that if you don’t quit on them you will eventually win them over because they are used to having people quit on them. By the time we got to the end of the first semester, it just all changed. The kids started to work with us and be on our side.”
Holmes also added that there was a great amount of suspicion directed at him. Students would ask him why he left Harvard School for them. Parents made him target because he was white. It didn’t help that the students struggled with the program at first.

“What turned the tide was when the scores came in at the end of that year and suddenly all these parents that were against me were now thinking that their kid could get into college, Holmes said. “Being able to adapt the Harvard program to those kids was extraordinary for me.

With the opening of the four new schools this year, ICEF now operates nine charter schools in the inner city area of South Los Angeles.

The nine schools service 1,900 students and that number will reach 4,000 by the time the schools have all their grades filled, Piscal said.