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 and 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 will 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, and 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.
Feb 03, 2021
Mental Health Equity: Mental Health Counselor Larissa Bertos Discusses Supporting Scholars' Wellbeing During the Pandemic
Read the previous article
Oct 19, 2021
From the Community, For the Community: Catching up with Jorge Arellano, Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement
Read the next article