Innovations in Education
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Amigos Por Vida—Friends for Life Public Charter School
School Profile: Selected Variables a
|Year First Chartered||1999|
|Student Ethnicity b||98.6% Hispanic, 0.7% African-American, 0.7% White|
|Free or Reduced-price Lunch b||99.7%|
|English Language Leaners||95.4%|
|Annual Cost per Student||$8,829|
a Unless otherwise indicated, these data are reported by the school and are for the school
b These data are drawn from the Amigos Por Vida—Friends for Life Public Charter School school report card for 2005–06 posted on Texas Education Agency Web site.
c These data are reported online for 2005–06 at http://www.schoolmatters.com.
Mission and Founding
Amigos Por Vida—Friends for Life Public Charter School (APV) emerged from a tumultuous beginning to become a school that has raised achievement for its mostly immigrant students. Carlos Villagrana, the school’s third principal and a primary driver of its turnaround, describes the school’s work as, "We’re in the business of empowering." APV’s commitment to empowerment extends beyond its student population and beyond those families living in the 535-unit mixed-income apartment complex in which the school is located. It embraces all of the families living in the broader Houston neighborhood it serves, irrespective of whether their children attend APV.
In 1999, the school that is now APV opened as Escuela de Reyes, or School of the Kings, under the charter authority of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Early mismanagement and the school’s failure to provide a quality education led to a 2001–02 audit by the TEA, which threatened to close the school. It was due to the diligence of staff at the apartment complex management company that the school was saved. Recognizing the need for a good school in the neighborhood, they helped recruit a new board and convinced the local community to support the board’s efforts to get the school back on track.
The new five-member board issued a tri-fold mandate to rebuild the school. It insisted that the school, renamed by a second principal, create a dual-language program for all students, replace all noncertified teachers with certified teachers, and implement internal controls, including a more accurate accounting system for all finances and operations. A controller was hired to ensure sound financial operations of the school. In December 2003, Villagrana took over as the third principal and set out to rehabilitate the school in accordance with the board’s agenda.When Villagrana started at APV, only 50 percent of its students were earning passing rates on Texas’s annual statewide assessments. Today, APV serves prekindergarten three-year-olds through students in the sixth grade, and 85 and 99 percent of its students are earning passing rates on state reading and mathematics exams, respectively. As Villagrana set about reforming APV, he did so with a dual vision for what the school could be. First, because there is tremendous need in the community, he wanted APV to serve as a safe resource center for students, families, and the local community. Second, he wanted to honor the students’ heritage by instituting a dual-language program that promotes fluency in both Spanish and English.
The area APV serves had not had a school within walking distance for decades. APV was the first charter school in the largely immigrant Gulfton neighborhood, but today there are two additional charter schools in the area. There is strong collaboration, rather than competition, between these schools, and one of the other school’s directors sits on the APV board. In addition, APV has helped change the neighborhood in which it is located. Board member Omar Velez says, "This is a high-risk community," and five to six years ago, "You wouldn’t walk here." Villagrana has made major strides in creating a safer environment by reaching out to the teens in the neighborhood. Today, many neighborhood youths, including alumni and teens from the apartment complex, volunteer at all three schools for such events as Earth Day cleanup.
School Operations and Educational Program
APV occupies four buildings within the large apartment complex. The classrooms are converted two- and three-bedroom apartments, contributing to the cozy, family feel of the school. Having a bathroom in every classroom means that students can go to the bathroom as the teacher continues with lessons. The school converted the apartment complex’s clubhouse as its administration building, and two APV teachers are certified to teach swimming in the complex swimming pool.Of the 374 students attending APV, 99 percent are Hispanic, 97 percent qualify for free or reduced- price lunch, and 95 percent are English language learners. But within this group, there is a lot of diversity, with about 50 percent of student families hailing from Mexico and 50 percent from Central American countries, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. While 57 percent of the student body has been in the United States for more than five years, 17 percent relocated to the United States three to four years ago, and 13 percent moved here within the past one to two years.
Students can start attending APV as three-year olds in its prekindergarten program. These children have one teacher for their full day of classes; 90 percent of these students are taught in Spanish and 10 percent in English. The dual language immersion program starts at the next level (prekindergarten for three- and four-year olds) and extends through sixth grade. In 2006– 07, prekindergarten through fifth-grade students began learning through a dual-language immersion program and grades 6 and higher began receiving a different model, consisting of content area classes in English, along with Spanish language enrichment classes. For the majority of APV students, then, half the school day takes place in Spanish and half the day takes place in English. In pre-K immersion through second grade, reading and English language arts are taught in both languages, mathematics and science are taught in English, and social studies is taught in Spanish. For third through sixth grade, reading and English language arts are taught in both languages, while mathematics, science, and social studies are taught in English with sheltered instruction, that is, the teaching occurs in English, but support is given in Spanish.
According to Alicia Garza, the English as a second language (ESL) teacher for kindergarten, the full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten programs make a huge difference, as students learn to read and write at a younger age. In addition, the dual-language program helps the school efficiently differentiate between the needs of English language learners and special education students. If a student is struggling in English, staff can evaluate his or her performance in Spanish to assess whether the problem results from a language barrier or from a learning disability. Thus, although the school provides special education services, it finds that only 5 percent of the students qualify. Teachers also laud the dual-language program’s two-teacher model. Prekindergarten teacher Hazel DeLaFuente explains that the process of collaborating with a co-teacher lends itself to more creative lesson plans, activity ideas, and professional support.
The school day starts with homework support at 7 a.m. and breakfast at 7:20 a.m. After school, there is a tutorial and enrichment program that runs from 3:15–5:45 p.m., which helps working parents who cannot pick up their children at the end of the school day. During this time, teachers work with groups of no more than 12 children in tutorials to help them succeed academically. The enrichment program is diverse, ranging, for example, from choir, dance, and art to nutrition and computer science. Underscoring the success of the after-school program, the school’s fifthgraders entered and won the Hewlett-Packard Robotics Competition in 2005–06. APV also infuses information about college into its program in a variety of ways, including naming classrooms after universities. Students represent their homeroom university in monthly celebrations during which they compete in activities, such as designing the best college banner or singing their college cheer the loudest. School staff also take students on field trips to local colleges. At one point, APV took all third-grade students and their families to visit the University of Houston because none of the students or their parents had ever before been on a college campus. Most years, APV offers an eight-week summer school in June and July that is open to all students, but is required for students at risk of being held back.
APV follows the same school-year schedule as its local district. Students interested in attending the school must complete an application and are then selected by lottery. Preference goes to siblings of enrolled students,20 and there is currently a wait list for prekindergarten and kindergarten. Seven staff members, including Principal Villagrana, send their children to APV.
To bolster the bilingual school environment, APV has adopted a language-of-the-week program, whereby each week everyone (including staff) agrees to try speaking the same language—either Spanish or English—outside of class in common areas. Nonnative-Spanishspeaking staff commented that this program allows them to learn from their students and helps them empathize with the struggles faced by students who are English language learners. Native-Spanish-speaking staff praise the program for giving them an opportunity to serve as role models for being proud to speak two languages. "We come from the same background, [as many of our students], so we know how it is for them," says registrar Laura Lara. One teacher recalls having a student point to her and say proudly to a friend, "She’s bilingual, like me." One parent told the school nurse that APV reminded her of Mexico because of the Spanish being spoken, but that her son’s ability to come home and speak English makes her feel like he attends a private school.
"We’ve developed our own curriculum around the needs of the kids," Villagrana says. Two coordinators, one for mathematics and one for reading, help teachers by crafting curriculum, developing resource libraries, aiding with lesson plans, and working with individual students. The reading coach meets with the Spanish teachers every Wednesday and with the English teachers every Thursday to review lesson plans and brainstorm strategies for improvement. The mathematics coordinator evaluates a specific standard every Friday and determines whether students are ready to move forward.
Using its own internal assessments, APV collects and analyzes data regularly. Assistant Principal Silvia Trinh explains to students that the testing is important because it serves as "a safety net" for them, but she also reassures them that the testing "doesn’t define you." She encourages them to be persistent in their efforts to demonstrate their knowledge of a particular subject, but reminds them that the school cares about who they are more broadly.
Family Involvement and External Partnerships
Parents were instrumental in the turnaround of APV, and they continue to devote time and effort to making the school a clean, safe, and beautiful place in which to learn (e.g., by repairing the playground, planting a garden, painting the buildings). Regular communication between school staff and families contributes to the school’s attendance rate of above 97 percent. Because many students live in the apartments surrounding the school, administrators can walk down the street to meet with parents and find out why their children are not in class. Similarly, most parents pick up their children from school, which gives them frequent face-to-face contact with teachers. There are two formal school-parent conferences a year, but if a student is struggling, the school informs the parents and convenes a meeting in which school staff, students, and parents sign a contract stating what their responsibilities are in helping the student succeed. A regular bilingual newsletter helps APV keep in touch with parents about more general school issues.
In conjunction with the school’s parent-teacher organization, APV also hosts free enrichment classes for parents on the first Thursday of every month on topics that range from nutrition to violence prevention. There are also reading, writing, science, and math nights for parents at which students present their work and teachers model lessons and expectations for students, so families learn how to support their children in school. The full-time school nurse, Marisol Villegas, treats entire families as well as other community members; she also arranges vision and dentistry screenings, free flu shots, and free mammograms, and she coordinates preventative health-care fairs. The school asks parents to volunteer 10 hours of their time per year and also concretely shows the value it places on parent input in other ways. For example, when the school was debating about whether to add grade levels, staff surveyed the fifth-grade parents. Based on parents’ clear interest in expanding the school, APV then added the sixth grade.
Key community partnerships also have influenced the school’s success. The DePelchin Children’s Center, a local nonprofit social services agency, offers parenting classes at APV, while Houston Community College pays for and sends a teacher to provide ESL classes for parents two nights a week. The Gulf Coast Literacy Center gives ESL, computer, and GED preparation courses, and Head Start provides an extra prekindergarten teacher. One private school donated over 2,000 books to the APV library, and the Harris County Department of Education’s Cooperative for After-School Enrichment (CASE) helps support the before- and after-school tutorials.
Governing for Accountability
The five-member APV leadership team, which meets weekly, includes the principal, assistant principal, reading specialist, mathematics specialist, and controller. Villagrana stresses that staff commitment to the school’s mission, parent and student dedication to success, and the school’s ability to adapt are what make APV thrive. Reflecting on his time at the helm of APV, Villagrana says, "This is a marathon and I’ve come in sprinting. We’ve been fortunate to recruit a dedicated staff, and that makes all the difference."
Formal professional development meetings take place every Thursday from 3–5 p.m., but Villagrana makes it a point to visit at least three classrooms daily and to collect lesson plans weekly to help create a professional culture among the staff. The school encourages collaboration and often sends teachers to trainings with the expectation that when they return they will share the new knowledge with everyone else. Last year APV began using Teacher Report Cards that incorporate incentives, such as extra pay for high-attendance rates, and require teachers to develop portfolios that showcase student learning and school service. The school’s in-house problem-solving team, composed of selected teachers and the school counselor, provides a forum to discuss and troubleshoot any studentrelated concerns. For example, if a teacher is having difficulty with a particular student, the team will offer strategies and resources for the specific situation. Teachers earn salaries equal to those offered by the Houston Independent School District and can earn bonuses for high classroom attendance rates, conducting home visits, performing well (as indicated on the school’s teacher report card), and for campuswide achievement on state testing. In addition, there is a stipend for ELL teachers that all teachers receive because all are ELL-certified.
When Villagrana joined APV, the school was cash-strapped, he says. But thanks, in part, to the principal and the controller’s intensive line-by-line scrutiny of the school budget and two successful federal grant applications (i.e., Reading First and Title I School Improvement grants), the school has become financially solvent. Just over a quarter of the budget comes directly from grants while the state contributes $6,436 of the $8,829 per-student cost. APV also receives a prekindergarten expansion grant for high-need communities through the Texas Education Agency that enables it to offer a prekindergarten class for three-year-olds and another for fouryear- olds. The school currently leases its buildings from the apartment complex owner, but has launched a capital campaign in hopes of acquiring a permanent facility of its own.
The same five-member board of directors that helped resurrect the school continues to oversee it. The board set conditions for recreating the school and ensures that past mistakes are not repeated. In 2004, the state renewed APV’s charter for another three years. The school will go through the renewal process again during the 2007–08 school year.
* In Texas, there are multiple test administrations for third-grade and fifth-grade reading, and fifth-grade mathematics. Only students who do not pass the first time take a second administration. These test scores are used for promotion to the next grade level, so students are given multiple opportunities to pass. However, there is only one administration of the third-grade mathematics test because this test is not used for promotion.