June 24, 2021
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your position at Alpha Public Schools?
With the leadership and support of families, I founded Alpha in 2012. I started out as Founding Principal and I’ve always had a role of oversight over the entire organization. Now as Alpha’s CEO I do a lot of external work with funders and elected officials, and I manage the senior leadership team.
Can you share with us the history of how and why you got involved in creating Alpha Public Schools?
I started in education about 15 years ago as a teacher and leader in a small charter school network in Oakland, California. I started thinking about what I wanted to do next in my career – how I could have a bigger impact on students and families from traditionally underserved communities – and there was a little piece of me kicking around the idea of starting my own school. Around that time a group of parents, mostly moms who had been organized by PACT and who had their kids in Rocketship, weren’t seeing the middle school options they wanted for their kids. They went to Preston Smith, Rocketship’s Co-founder, and said that they were really happy with Rocketship because their kids were getting the education they deserved and they wanted Rocketship to create a middle school. Preston shared with them that Rocketship was focused on elementary school, but reminded them that Rocketship parents were organized and powerful. He encouraged them to use that power and their collective voice to find folks who would start excellent middle schools for their kids.
So that’s what these parents did. They visited our schools in Oakland and at the end of the tour they closed my office door and said that they liked what they saw and wanted more schools like these for their children in East San José. They wanted me to commit to starting a school. I was so impressed by these parents and their commitment to their children and to their community. I promised to build a school that would keep their kids safe and prepare them for college. They promised to help with whatever it would take to get the doors open. We started on the journey together – continuing to organize founding families, building political relationships, and designing a program that was going to meet the needs of students and families. Centered in Alum Rock, with our founding board chair, Cindy Avitia, we really got to work. I remember one of our early conversations with Cindy and she said “I don’t know who Harry Slonacker is. I don’t know who William C. Overfelt is. We need to find some folks in our community that our kids can look up to and we need to name our school after that person.” She introduced us to Blanca Alvarado, who became the namesake of the first school we opened at the end of the summer of 2012 with 160 kids in 6th and 7th grade. It was incredibly difficult work, but in partnership with parents and with the community, we made it happen.
You mentioned previously considering opening a school, but not acting on that. What made this feel like the right thing to do at this time?
It was our families. They were so deeply committed and there was such a sense of urgency with them. There was an urgency around safety and there was also an urgency around college readiness. We heard from parent after parent in the founding class that their dream for their kids was to get a college education, and that they needed schools that were going to help prepare their children for that. To hear the testimony of families and to see them meet with elected officials is something that takes a lot of courage. Especially since so many of our families are undocumented, the idea of engaging with people who are in a position of power is not something that comes naturally and it can be a scary thing. They are brave, and they were being really brave and courageous for their children and for their families’ futures.
When our first school was approved, it was a very emotional night. It was a lot of laughter and it was a lot of tears, hundreds of parents sitting in the boardroom behind me. I remember going back to my car sitting there by myself and I really felt the weight of the promise we had made to these families to deliver on the dream of college. To deliver on the vision of education equity and opportunity that wasn’t sufficiently present in the community before. I felt scared, honestly, that we weren’t going to be successful in keeping those big promises – that we were going to let our families down. There have been lots of moments when we haven’t lived up to my expectations, when we haven’t lived up to our families expectations. In those moments when we haven’t been as good as we’ve wanted to be, the weight of that promise is really what has driven me. It’s a constant reminder of our commitment and the trust our families place in us every day.
As you reflect on some of the biggest challenges that Alpha faced during its early years, what comes to mind?
When we started, there was a big push for blended learning and a lot of our philanthropic support was geared towards being super innovative. I describe that as trying to do handstands in a canoe. Starting a new school organization is really difficult and you don’t have all the systems and structures that create a stable organization; you’re building those, and you’re building those as fast as you can, but there is a level of instability and change that is happening as you learn and improve and grow. We were trying to do things that other schools weren’t doing, and we were taking on additional challenges and risks, because we genuinely believed that the education system in America can and should be better. We believe that there is a factory model of education that was designed for a different time and a different place and there is more that we can do, and our kids deserve a more personalized form of education. Doing that in a founding school with a lot of newer-to-education teachers without the systems and structures was difficult. In those times, we really lived and succeeded because we started with a strong culture and strong support system from our families. By brute force and with great and committed people, we were able to succeed. It would be silly not to talk about this year; this has been a tremendously difficult time with so much uncertainty and so much that is out of our control. We get the vote on some stuff, but the virus gets the biggest vote. In both of these instances–when we started and this current year–it is through these challenges that we have had some of our most important growth and learnings. This pandemic has brought recognition that we can keep our promise to our students and our families, while also making sure that we are taking care of ourselves and taking care of one another. I suspect that this learning is something that we will carry forth forever and will make us a better place to work and a better place to lead and to teach. It’s interesting to think that when we face these enormous obstacles, we have been able to not only overcome them, but to grow and learn more than we would have if those obstacles didn’t exist in the first place.
In what ways have the families and community members in east San Jose supported the work of Alpha?
We’ve seen the continued involvement and support of the parent community that either is or has been a part of Alpha. Everything from leaning in to support our teachers and principals,to being members of Alpha’s governing board. One-third of that board, where the highest level of organizational decision making takes place, is made up of Alpha parents representing all four of our schools. We have gotten a ton of community support outside of Alpha, as well. Organizations like PACT, Innovate Public Schools, Teach For America, and others have really helped strengthen the ecosystem and allow for us to be a better organization than we would have been otherwise. Also, individual leaders like Blanca Alvarado, Cindy Avitia, our board members have been willing to lean in to provide support. In a time when the politics of charter schools are complicated, we have enjoyed the support of our Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, our Mayor Sam Licardo, and a range of City Council members–all people who have tremendous power and influence and have lent that power and influence to an organization that is trying to serve the kids and families that they represent. There have been a tremendous amount of people outside the organization who have consistently gone to bat for us so we can continue to serve our kids and families with as much focus as we can muster.
Why is school choice so important in San Jose?
It has always been a question of equity. You shouldn’t be able to predict the outcomes that a student will have based on their demographics or their zip code. In the current public educational ecosystem, the demographics predict the outcomes and that is unfair and unreasonable, particularly in a developed country with tremendous resources, and especially in resource-rich Santa Clara County. And yet, depending on where you live in Santa Clara County, you have some of the finest schools in the country or some of the least-resourced and least effective schools. Every single one of our parents wants what’s best for their kids. To the extent that they could try to influence the district that they lived in for better schools, our families tried everything they could. PACT didn’t start by trying to start charter schools; they started by trying to reform local districts and they didn’t get any traction, and that’s when they went into the work of trying to get charter schools into the communities. For folks that have exhausted all of their options and don’t have the resources to move to a neighborhood with higher quality public schools, charter schools are their only choice, their last choice. We heard from families that the options that they had weren’t just failing their kids, they had been failing their families for generations. School choice is a way of changing the trajectory not just of individuals, but of entire families and entire communities. I believe that an excellent public education adn a great school for every kid is a fundamental right; it is a basic human right. We are not delivering on that for everybody in this country, and so choice matters for families that don’t have great school options.
What are some of your proudest moments at Alpha?
At the start, there were lots of days where I wasn’t sure if we would be approved or get a facility, or if we would be able to fill our seats on the first day of school. When I look back at the early days, it was such a challenging time but it was also such a joyful experience and I am incredibly proud of all the work that our community did together to get the first school launched. The second moment I would go is the graduation of our founding class. As it was oftentimes a struggle for us to learn and grow and improve, they were along for that ride from sixth grade to twelfth grade. When I think about the promise we made to families, that is the day that we delivered on that promise, knowing that in our founding class we had somebody accepted to every single one of hte UCs. Knowing that we were a part of that journey for our families and that we played a role in a life that, for many of them, means sending the first one in their family to college–it was a really fun day and a really great place to be. The last thing I would say is that I feel incredibly proud right now. I feel proud of the way that our community has come together in a very difficult moment and the way that they have prioritized and focused on the best interests of our students and families. I’m proud of all the extra work that everyone has put in to innovate in a very rapid cycle so that we could deliver high quality education at scale from a distance. Also, I have been reflecting on my transition. There have been times over the life of Alpha where I would have been nervous leaving and I would have been nervous about what would happen. I helped to bring this thing into the world and I want it to be successful when I leave and at times we were struggling as an organization. Right now, despite the challenges of politics and pandemic, this team is incredibly strong and Shara is an excellent leader who is going to be a tremendous successor. I feel both a sense of pride and also a sense of comfort; I am comfortable leaving because I know the organization is in incredible hands and will only be better and more successful in the years ahead.
What do you envision or hope for the future of Alpha Public Schools?
There are so many wonderful things at Alpha – so much excellence! Of course, I want to see even more of our scholars going to four year colleges that will support them through graduation. I want to continue to see increases in our staff retention and find more people that will continue to join the team and feel like they can make a home for themselves at Alpha. In an ideal world, I would love for us to be doing what we do with more scholars. I know that growth is hard but if we really believe that the opportunities and experiences that we are providing to our kids and families are different and better than they would get elsewhere, then I think we have a moral imperative to extend the opportunities to more kids and families. As long as there are people that don’t have good options, if we feel we can provide one, then I think we need to do that. I am really proud of the focus on inclusive and equitable decision making and really thinking about who we have in the room when important decisions are made and how we consult with our team and communities; I am confident that wil continue. I want Alpha to continue to shine and develop on that promise that we made to our families with a sense of joy, determination, adn community. If Alpha continues to do that, I am going to look from afar with a big smile on my face.
Are there any words of wisdom you would like to leave for the staff at Alpha?
Continue to take care of yourselves and one another. This is incredibly difficult work that we are all doing and it is not going to get easier. What makes it sustainable is that we’re doing it alongside great people who we love and trust, so it is so important to continue to create a healthy and thriving community and culture. The other thing I would say, now that I think about where my own kids will be as they head into kindergarten and pre-school in the next couple of years, is that our families put an incredible degree of trust in us. They are handing over to us on a daily basis the most important parts of their lives and they are counting on us to do right by them. Certainly, we need to educate and prepare and support, but we also need to make our students feel known and loved and respected. We need to always build and strengthen relationships and deepen connections with our families. Doing this work in partnership with our families has always been a part of Alpha and I think has only grown in importance as we continue to do this work.
Can you talk a little bit about your role and what brought you Alpha?
I am the mental health counselor at Alpha: Blanca Alvarado. I provide individual counseling for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), who are getting counseling as part of their IEP as well as tier-1, general education mental health services that increase mental health support for all of our students.
What made you want to do this work at Alpha?
I am a Licensed Family and Marriage Therapist. When I was trying to figure out where I wanted to work, I wanted to work in a community that made the biggest impact. There is a disparity of access and I wanted to provide quality mental health and equitable access for all of our students regardless of socioeconomic status. A lot of our families in the East SJ area may not have mental health resources outside of school. School is the first place students go when they leave the home and is the first level of assessment. For students coming in who have depression, anxiety or family loss, the school would know and see the difference in students’ behaviors. That’s why I feel called to school mental health.
In what way has your role changed since the start of the pandemic?
I know all of our educators miss seeing students in person and it’s no different for me. It’s so much easier to pull a student aside and check in on how they’re doing versus getting students on Zoom for counseling. Normally I would be able to just scoop up students from class. It’s particularly hard for our kindergarten students who are so play based. Counseling has absolutely changed in that it feels a lot less like a bird’s eye view. I rely on our teachers to provide me with referrals. Teachers will notice when students are consistently not turning on their cameras or may express that they need help.
Especially now, why is it so important to focus on mental health?
This is a scary time. When things are unknown and when things feel really unstable and it might create fear in our students. It’s important for them to know that they’re safe, that they can still feel in control even when things feel out of control. Even for adults, this is jarring. We question all the time – will I have my job? Can I still provide for my family? Mental health in a lot of communities used to be taboo. Now there’s a behavioral and mental shift in our families during this unprecedented time. It’s important to connect with counselors and to resources if you’re feeling worried.
Do you also provide support to staff and teachers?
For staff, I do some professional development. We will talk about mental health symptoms and signs for our students so that they’re able to assess on a lower level. In terms of parents, I have a website on our Alpha: Blanca Alvarado online school website with an abundance of resources that are crisis based and are available for medi-Cal families.
How do you help our students better understand what’s going on around them?
We have established “Mental Health Wednesdays” – a half hour session where we engage our middle schoolers. The way that we make sense of the world is trying to understand our feelings and thoughts, to be in tune with what we’re feeling. It’s important not to minimize them so that it can inform what is happening to you. Say grandma gets sick and you don’t know if it’s COVID, it’s okay to get in touch with that sadness and fear. It’s okay to say “I’m afraid and I’m scared” and then you do something about it that is going to be healthy. I provide 5-10 minute video lessons as well that cover a variety of topics. These are the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) blocks that we’re implementing. This is perhaps the one silver lining in this virtual space. Normally I would not be able to spend this much time being face to face with our students. I would have loved to do these learning blocks in person but it would have presented a logistical challenge in person. Now I can create these videos that get pushed out to a much larger number of students and get about 160 responses each week consistently. That’s 160 students checking in, telling us whether or not their cup is full. They’re expressing their thoughts and feelings.
Have you noticed a trend amongst what kinders are feeling vs what our middle schoolers are feeling?
Kinders and first graders are really engaged. They’re resilient. For many who have not been to a formal school setting before, this is all they know and they’re adjusting. For our older students who have been in school and know what it’s like, they miss being with their friends.
What are some of the moments you’re particularly proud of as you reflect on your work?
I would definitely say it’s those SEL blocks because we’re now able to provide tier 1 support to as many students as possible. I was seeing a larger number of individual students last year. This provides a bigger touchpoint and I’m able to connect to more students. We have an Instagram account that our counselors run as well to push out resources and connect to a wider audience. We’re also trying a lot of other ways to engage with parents.
Can you speak to some of the work you’ve been doing in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)?
I come from a diverse background myself. DEI is trying to understand that there is room for everybody on every spectrum (what equal access to opportunities look like). We have to confront the reality of whether or not people have had equal access throughout history and of course that answer is no. As educators it’s important to understand what DEI looks like – everything that comes with the student – their experiences, culture, social economic status, race, gender, shapes who they are. We need to understand what their experiences are on an individual and group level to be able to teach them in a way that would be the most equitable. We begin to focus on restorative or trauma based education, helping our students understand that there’s not a pipeline to push them through. We want people to have better opportunities and we need to understand why those opportunities weren’t given to their parents and grandparents. This awareness is important so that we’re becoming a system that helps our children get access. We also have a lot to celebrate in our cultures. Our traditions may have been brushed aside when acculturating and I want our students and staff to know there is room for their culture here.
If you were to give one piece of advice to educators, administrators, or anyone working with students to support them, what would you say to them?
It’s important to have basic knowledge of mental health and how it factors into education health. Our children may be struggling to reach an academic potential due to mental health blocks. It’s not because they don’t want to. There are going to be more reasons than what we see on the surface, or even assume about them. We have to peel back the layers. Some of those layers could be mental health or environmentally related. They come with baggage and it’s important as educators to unpack some of that to better help our students learn.
Feb 03, 2021
Mental Health Equity: Mental Health Counselor Larissa Bertos Discusses Supporting Scholars' Wellbeing During the Pandemic
Read the previous article