Innovations in Education
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Pan-American Elementary Charter School, Phoenix
School Profile: Selected Variables a
|Year First Chartered||2001|
|Student Ethnicity b||97% Hispanic, 2.0% African-American, .04% White|
|Special Education||Less than 5%|
|Free or Reduced-price Lunch b||98%|
|English Language Learners||62%|
|Annual Cost per Student||$6,109|
a Unless otherwise indicated, these data are reported by the school and are for the
school year 2006–07.
b These data are reported online for 2005–06 at http://www.schoolmatters.com.
Mission and Founding
Founded by a principal and her teacher-husband who, while both working in public schools, recognized the potential of charter schools, the Pan-American Elementary Charter School (PAES) overcame a rocky start to flourish as a school that embodies a sense of family. From its full-day kindergarten to its after-school tutoring and Saturday school, the PAES program is designed to improve the lives of all the children the school serves.
PAES’s written mission statement promises that the school will "ignite in every child the wonder of learning and … provide meaningful educational experiences in a safe and caring environment." It also includes PAES’s plan for fulfilling this mission: to use standards-based teaching adjusted to the individual student’s abilities and to supplement the curriculum with foreign language (English or Spanish, depending on the student) instruction and exposure.
Founder Marta Pasos drafted the charter for the school during evenings, weekends, and vacations from her job as an administrator of a 1,400 student K–8 public school in Phoenix. PAES received the charter for the school in 2001 and intended to open in August 2001, but postponed building inspections for the new school delayed its opening for a month. After some families gave up on enrolling that year, the 200 preenrolled students dropped down to 94, and the school was forced to lay off teachers hired in anticipation of the larger enrollment. The state funds that the Pasos were expecting were withheld for five months, arriving in the middle of the school year. "We did not receive one cent from the state [from] Nov. 15, 2001 until April 15, 2002," says Pasos, explaining that she and her husband took out personal loans to keep the fledgling school aloft.
Despite this rough start, PAES more than doubled its student population during its inaugural year, ending the school year with 195 students. By the second year, the school had enough students to offer two classes for each of the K–2 grades and enough money to pay off the Pasos’ debts. They even made plans to purchase a building. Pasos also looked out for her staff during this time and, as soon as possible, she gave them a bonus for making it through the bumpy start. In the 2003–04 school year, PAES was able to cover all of its operating costs through state per-pupil funding and federal categorical funds (e.g., special education), and it received financing from a local bank to buy a building. According to Pasos, the complete turnaround, from the fiscal uncertainty and low student numbers of year one to the financial sturdiness and healthy student population of year three, can be attributed to "not contracting out services. … [and] doing everything we can ourselves."
School Operations and Educational Program
PAES currently serves 270 students across grades K–7, 97 percent of whom are Hispanic and 98 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school’s 98 percent student retention rate and a 95 percent staff retention rate indicate high satisfaction within the PAES community. Indeed, the school has a waiting list of 20–30 students at any given time without formal advertising or fund-raising appeals; word-of-mouth from families to their friends and coworkers functions as PAES’s only recruiting tool.
Tucked away in a building in the back of a parking lot, PAES starts every school day with an 8 a.m. opening assembly outside. Wearing the red shirts and khaki pants required by the school’s dress code, students are in school for at least seven hours a day and may elect to use the teacherrun tutoring provided after the school day ends at 3 p.m. The climate inside the building is warm and encouraging; the hallway bulletin boards are filled with student work and monthly recognition of students who score above 80 percent on Accelerated Reader. The school has what members of the school community refer to as a family spirit among staff and the families. By knowing the people you serve well, Pasos says, "You can better meet their needs."
The PAES curriculum was designed to respond to its student population. A full 100 percent of students enter the school achieving below grade level, Pasos indicates. Offering a full-day kindergarten program, in contrast to Arizona’s half-day programs in most public schools, has yielded large achievement benefits. The full-day program enables PAES teachers to cover the statemandated kindergarten standards in half a year and move onto the first half of the first-grade standards during the second part of the year. As a result, students are at least a half-grade ahead of their peers in other public schools. For example, outside the first-grade classroom, the work on display showed that students have solved math word problems that required reading complex sentences and have written up the answers in neat handwriting. Pasos explains that the school teaches handwriting using graph paper, so that as the students master letter formation, students use increasingly smaller graph paper until they are ready to switch to lined notebooks for writing assignments. PAES second-graders learn multiplication and its fourth-graders read such books as Charlotte’s Web and work on a variety of writing modes, including research reports, literary responses, persuasive arguments, expository newspaper articles, expressive short stories, and poetry.
Prior to students starting full-day kindergarten, PAES invites them to attend a six-week summer session. Once in kindergarten, students have two teachers, one English-speaking and one who is Spanish-dominant. The English speaker teaches literacy for half the day and the Spanish-dominant speaker teaches math, social studies, and vocabulary for the other half in Spanish. Starting in kindergarten, all students receive homework, and parents are expected to read with their children daily and sign a reading log.
One third-grade teacher noted that within any classroom, which might contain between 18 and 32 students, "We teach to the top half of the class, and the rest will follow." To ensure that struggling students can make this leap, teachers tutor students after school, offer a Saturday education program each week from January to April, and provide summer school in June and July. All of these activities are open to every PAES student, but teachers make sure to identify those who would most benefit from these extras and encourage them to use the services.
In second through sixth grade, classes use the Accelerated Reader program. Students take weekly tests and need to score 80 percent or better to move to the next level. Because so few students are read to at home, as a way to encourage them to embrace reading, Pasos urges teachers to read aloud to students, using inflection to portray characters as actors would. At the end of every grading period, PAES recognizes perfect attendance and academic achievement with parties and raffles. Participation in the school’s twice-yearly coed soccer tournament is dependent on good study habits and attendance, which further encourages students to work hard and come to school. Luis Pasos, who coordinates the tournament, says the rule for participation is: "You don’t study, you don’t play."
The curriculum is tied to state standards and the AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) test, administered every spring. But because the AIMS results are often not available until after school is out in June, PAES also monitors student progress with teacher-designed assessments in math, reading, and writing. The accelerated curriculum has paid off as test results have improved, and many of the 62 percent ELL students are able to relinquish that designation.
In addition to Marta and Luis Pasos, PAES’s 20 staff members include 12 teachers and an assistant principal. A committee of teachers interviews candidates for school positions, and Pasos is selective about the teachers she ultimately hires. Pasos sets high expectations for her staff and works personally with teachers to help them meet her goals. When possible, Pasos awards her staff with pay bonuses. Giving financial rewards to all of her staff helps Pasos show that the school not only succeeds when the staff works together, but also that the school community appreciates their hard work and recognizes their achievements. To that end, the school set up 401(k) plans for teachers, so PAES can pay into their retirement; with the passage of Proposition 301, an education sales tax passed by voters in November 2000, PAES can provide retirement for all of its employees.
Family Involvement and Partnerships
Cooperation between parents and PAES staff is critical to the school’s success. "Parents are partners with us," says Pasos. "I tell them ‘I need to have your support to effectively educate your child.’ " Parents support the school’s operations in both passive and active ways. By complying with the school’s calendar and waiting to schedule family trips for school vacation periods, parents reflexively demonstrate their commitment to the school’s mission and help yield a 97 percent attendance rate. Approximately 98 percent of the students return to PAES each year. By attending parent-teacher conferences and science fairs and by helping in the cafeteria, as well as with such events as the Back to School Fiesta, parents put into practice their support of PAES.
The school works hard to involve parents in their students’ lives. Teachers speak with parents daily and send written progress reports to parents in English and Spanish every fourand- a-half weeks. The Spanish-speaking office manager helps non-Spanish-speaking teachers communicate with parents. One Saturday in January, PAES also offers Parent University, a program to teach parents how to work with their children on mathematics and reading, as well as how to research high schools and other educational opportunities.
PAES partakes in several community partnerships, such as one with Arizona State University (ASU) through which PAES students participate in ASU’s Programs for Talented Youth. The school nominated 15 children, all of whom were accepted, to this Saturday enrichment program. Despite the $250 cost, all of the families of the accepted children scraped together the money and carpooled to take their children to ASU. These trips were, for many families, the first time anyone had been on a college campus. "It was an eye-opener," says Pasos. "For many, it was the first time they considered university as an option for their kids. We had several families calling their families in Mexico saying, ‘You know, my son is going to ASU; he is going to the university in Phoenix!’ " In another partnership with Arizona Commission on the Arts, PAES hosts artists-in-residence who work with students. Past artists have taught Japanese taiko drumming, Chinese origami, calligraphy and brush painting, and folk tales.
Governing for Accountability
Marta and Luis Pasos embody a "do it ourselves" mentality, and PAES is a family affair. Marta and Luis take care of operating tasks, such as payroll, maintenance, business management, and busing, with Luis driving one of the buses. In the sixth year of PAES, the Pasos’ son, Todd Wade, who taught for five years at PAES, became the assistant principal. Also, teachers helped to write and develop the scope and sequence of the school curriculum. The only contractor is an accountant who monitors school finances to ensure that the school stays in compliance with the law.
In 2006–07, Arizona provided PAES with $6,080.77 per student, but the actual per-student cost is $6,109.77. To make up the difference, the school has applied for and received grants from arts organizations and foundations. The state does not provide charter schools with funding for transportation, so PAES decided to use some of its operational funds to buy three buses, making it possible to transport the 96 percent of its student body who live within an eight-mile radius. Luis Pasos comments that "It was a conscious decision to provide transportation. … [For] anybody who wanted to come to our school. For any parent who was willing to trust us with the education of their children and was willing to support the school, we would, as much as possible, provide transportation." Parents, appreciative of the busing, provided regular donations for transportation costs voluntarily. When gas prices subsequently soared, the school asked parents to pay $5 per week to help with the increased cost.
Teachers have a weekly, 45-minute staff meeting on Mondays and meet after school on Fridays to plan together. Once a quarter, the school holds professional in-service days that are used to discuss how to better serve students, to set annual goals, and to analyze test data to improve instruction. PAES staff also participate in distance learning courses to better prepare to teach English language learners.
A five-member charter school board, including Marta and Luis Pasos, Todd Wade, as well as a teacher and a community member, oversees the school. In 2006, PAES passed the state’s five-year review of PAES’s ten-year charter, a milestone that reflects PAES’s fiscal and academic successes.