K–8 Charter Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
Innovations in Education
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Cesar Chavez Academy, Pueblo, Colo.

School Profile: Selected Variables a

Year First Chartered 2001
Grades Served K-8
Enrollment 1,100
Student Ethnicity b 75% Hispanic, 23% White, 1% African-American, 1% Native American
Special Education 12%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch b 62%
Annual Cost per Student $8,696

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
c These data are drawn from the Cesar Chavez Academy report card for 2005–06 posted on the Colorado Department of Education Web site.

Mission and Founding

Anyone entering Cesar Chavez Academy, a modern adobe-style refurbishment of a former public elementary school, first sees a large black aguila, the square-winged eagle symbol of La Causa, Cesar Chavez’ populist, nonviolent crusade for Mexican immigrant dignity, living wages, decent working conditions, and pride. This symbol of social justice speaks as loudly today for underserved Latino students in Pueblo, Colo., a community characterized by its poverty, as it did when Chavez first united poor farmworkers in the 1960s. With Pueblo’s earlier steel mills replaced today by a low-wage service economy and local families facing rising gang crime and narrowing job prospects, husband-and-wife team Lawrence and Annette Hernandez, along with community activists, founded Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA) in 2000 as a new kind of school, one that could live up to the eagle’s promise.

CCA’s mission, displayed in hallway murals, banners, bulletin boards, and, even, the school’s bus, is to prepare Pueblo’s children for "success as young scholars, citizens of the world, and community leaders." This mission is grounded in the conviction that all children are capable of learning at high levels if they are taught by skilled educators, challenged by engaging curriculum, afforded adequate time to master content, and held to ambitious standards. The mission binds school staff, students, and parents together as familia. Says one board member, "If you don’t buy into the mission that poor students can and will excel, you won’t want to work as hard as you have to at Cesar Chavez—and we won’t let you stay long." "Here," he adds, "we’re family; we’re all here for the kids."

Originally conceived as serving kindergarten through third grade, CCA soon grew into a prekindergarten through eighth-grade program. The school is committed to achieving academic excellence through rigorous studies, team teaching in small classes, a longer school day and year, strong parent commitment, and "healthy intrusiveness"—this last described as the intensive involvement of faculty and staff in the lives of their students. This includes an extensive tutoring program. The school’s motto is "No excuses, no surprises." Every student knows their academic standing, in every course and every assignment, and knows there are resources available to help them excel.

CCA cofounder and principal Lawrence Hernandez grew up in Pueblo and left his hometown to pursue advanced studies. After earning a Ph.D. in education from Stanford University and serving on the faculty at Harvard University, he decided to "go home to make a difference." The core group of founders were inspired by Chavez’ phrase, "Si, se puede" (Yes, we can), and named their enterprise after the Mexican-American leader.

School Operations and Educational Program

Cesar Chavez Academy offers its students an award-winning, ambitious academic program, with a curriculum aligned to meet or exceed Colorado’s high academic content standards. The program also emphasizes the history, culture, and native language of Latinos. "We’re very intentional about our culture," explains principal Hernandez. "It emphasizes hard work, respect, personal responsibility, resourcefulness, and loyalty to the golden rule [i.e., treat others as you would like to be treated]." Of the school’s rigorous curriculum, he says, "It holds students to a higher bar with high standards, and they must meet it over and over." Each student must complete every assignment. Work that receives a grade below 80 percent must be redone with additional instruction, time, space, materials, or other resources needed to ensure mastery. "All students succeed because we don’t allow them to fail," Hernandez says. "We set kids up for success."

Tutoring is used schoolwide to help teachers individualize instruction, modify pacing, check for understanding, reteach content, monitor student work, and build teacher-student relationships. "Kids will work for someone they love," reflects a veteran teacher who believes that when instruction is personalized and teacher-student connections are made, struggling students become more successful learners. CCA’s one-on-one tutoring program is designed to give students whatever they need to master core subjects, improve their writing, hone study skills, and manage emotions that can get in the way of learning (e.g., anxiety, frustration). Students meet with teachers for tutoring before school, during recess, lunch, and teacher preparation periods, after school, during weekends, and on holidays. Students have teachers’ personal phone numbers so they can call after hours for help with assignments. Students receive enrichment, accelerated learning opportunities, field experiences, counseling, and additional time to relearn lessons. They are responsible for taking comprehensive oral and written exams, managing regular projects, demonstrating key skills, and creating portfolios of their work—all of which is graded using rubrics. They must redo work that receives a grade of 80 percent or less, and all written work must undergo an extensive revision process that results in a final mistake free product.

Student success is not left to chance. In addition to academic support, CCA provides its students with clear rules for behavior and conduct. These rules are modeled throughout the school and codified in a student-parent-teacher compact. Students are required to wear uniforms, and dress code violations result in disciplinary action, starting with reflective writing assignments about school expectations. Behavioral infractions are documented and then followed by a "see three before me" intervention by which students receive counseling, guidance, and redirection from three staff members before, if necessary, the principal gets involved. Good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is addressed. The most common infractions are incomplete homework, tardiness, and absences. One board member speaks of a student who was regularly tardy or absent and falling behind in her studies. A home visit revealed that both parents were mentally disabled and no longer had a car. They rode bicycles instead and were unable to transport her across town to school. Board members and teachers came together to make sure the student had a ride to school every day. That same student subsequently won that year’s district spelling bee.

Except for the prekindergarten and kindergarten programs, the school is structured around team teaching, and students rotate to different classes. In the first and second grades, students have three teachers, one for reading and social studies, one for mathematics and science, and one for writing. In third through fifth grades, students rotate to 11 different teachers, plus a tutor, for writing, reading, mathematics, science, social studies, Spanish, and five different electives. Middle school students rotate similarly but have one less elective teacher. For teachers, mastering deep content and pedagogical expertise is essential to their professional success at CCA, and they rely upon one another for help with specialized knowledge and skills.

A typical day for the school’s prekindergarten through eighth-grade classes begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 4:05 p.m., with full-day kindergarten ending at 3:50 p.m. The half-day kindergarten programs runs from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 12:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Many students arrive about an hour before school to eat a free breakfast and nearly all students stay until 5:30 p.m. for extracurricular activities or tutoring. Middle school students in the award-winning mariachi band program have a slightly varied schedule to accommodate their daily, two-hour practice sessions.

As a way to battle the influence of gang activity in the community and to help foster student friendships, school staff encourage membership in authorized—and supervised—student clubs and organizations. All students must participate in after-school enrichment activities, and all teachers must teach or supervise at least one extracurricular activity. The school boasts champion sports teams; the mariachi band has placed second in international competitions; there are choir, theater, and other clubs, such as public speaking, LEGO challenge, and chess. Student leadership is cultivated through the student council, academic competitions, honor-society activities, and charity work. Middle school students at CCA mentor students in the lower grades. Though the student population is primarily low-income, they collect food for less fortunate farmworkers in the rural part of their county.

School leaders pay attention to individual students’ academic needs and work hard to cultivate a safe environment where students feel they belong. Staff members are also mindful of more quantitative measures of success. "We see ourselves as a totally data-driven school," explains the principal, pointing to ways that teachers use assessment score data to customize curriculum and instruction to meet students’ learning needs. "Data," he explains, "tell us where we are" with each student, class, and grade level and help teachers choose the appropriate interventions. At the center of CCA’s assessment approach is an individual achievement plan for each student, which is based on an intensive quarterly item analysis of a repeat-measures exam aligned to the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). By analyzing student performance on the same test items over time, teachers can gauge student mastery of the standards. "We all do item analysis," says a new teacher. "I fought it tooth and nail, but I lost—and I’m glad because [doing] it shows a clear picture of what I need to teach or reteach." Score data are disaggregated using a number of criteria: student name, grade, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, English learner designation, date entering Cesar Chavez Academy, and special education status. Numbers are presented in graphs and charts for staff to review and then follow up on as appropriate.

One teacher comments that the principal has a computer-like brain, because if someone points to a particular student, he can immediately describe the assessment data for that child.

Family Involvement and External Partnerships

CCA believes student success is enhanced when parents participate in the life of the school and in students’ learning process. Parents, explains the principal, "support us by making sure kids have a place and time to do homework, and [by] coming to conferences." Parents provide transportation for other needy students, drive students to sports events, staff the concession stand at events, work in the library, donate uniforms to the clothes closet, and staff clubs and other activities like Girl Scouts.

School staff and parents agree that two-way communication is strong and consistent, that parent input is constant and valued. Regular newsletters are sent home in Spanish and English, and parents are contacted early in the day if a student is tardy or absent or is missing homework. If such problems persist, the school’s prevention specialist conducts unscheduled home visits to investigate the problem and find ways to support the student. New this school year at CCA is PowerSchool, an online tracking system that allows parents and students to electronically monitor assignments and grades from home.

"We constantly collect data from parents," explains Hernandez. "All parents have opportunities to voice issues." Parents are invited to complete an anonymous online survey at least four times a year, timed with quarterly conferences. Twice a year, a school climate survey is sent home, asking parents how welcome they feel at the school and what staff can do to better serve them. Hernandez has an open-door policy and often walks around the parking lot during dropoff and pick up to speak with families. Parents are invited to join the board of directors and to attend monthly meetings.

From the outset, CCA offered a prekindergarten program, charging families $350 per month. Since full-day kindergarten is not funded in Colorado, CCA provides scholarships, sliding scale fees, and fund-raisers to retain this option for families and to cover the monthly cost. According to the principal, Cesar Chavez Academy has a tradition of not relying upon other organizations to provide services. Except for the local library, few community organizations give services to CCA. Versatile school staff members meet most needs themselves. However, the board and the principal do work with the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce and the Latino Chamber of Commerce "to serve our business interests and help us raise money" and to support the economic health of Pueblo, as a board member explains. The principal also cooperates with the local Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, which is developing new higher-end housing in the neighborhood adjacent to the school. CCA’s success has stimulated local real estate development, with developers aligning their plans with school capacity projections. Additionally, this neighborhood association was recently awarded grant funding to develop after-school programs for neighborhood children and youths and is working with the school as it moves forward.

Governing for Accountability

A nine-person board made up of business leaders, parents, and community activists governs CCA. The board actively assists and guides the administration, faculty, students, and families and does not provide a rubber stamp for all school proposals and plans. The board’s goal, like that of school leaders, is to make CCA "the epitome of great instruction, a source of pride for all of us."

A site-based leadership team was initiated this year, the direct result of putting kids’ learning needs first and monitoring efforts to close the achievement gap. The leadership team, including the principal, director of operations, chief financial officer, director of assessment, teacher coaches, and family support team members, oversees the quality of teaching and learning and its improvement. The new structure created three academy directors, each a lead teacher without classroom duties, to direct the instructional programs for prekindergarten through second grades, third through fifth grades, and middle school (sixth through eighth grades). Each academy director is responsible for producing a quarterly student achievement plan, a snapshot of how students are doing and plans to improve learning, with current disaggregated student- and grade-level data to identify gains and target areas for interventions.

Teacher talent is key to the school’s successes, and one way the school ensures high-quality instructors is to grow its own. It is accredited by the state of Colorado to train and license teachers.22 "We give teachers a ton of support," reports Hernandez. Teachers agree, describing professional development as being "everywhere, everyday" and "whenever we want it." It starts during the interview process, explains the principal. "We try to hire only people who will be stars," believing that novices "learn to become great teachers here." While using outside experts as needed, "we try to build inhouse capacity and expertise to do our own professional development," which includes curriculum trainings, topical workshops, ongoing feedback, evaluations of student work, analyzing student-level performance data, joint lesson planning, regular observations, and coaching on such techniques as differentiated instruction, which means tailoring instruction to students’ individual needs, learning style, interests, and abilities. All new teachers receive mentoring from a teacher with at least two years of experience at CCA. Induction support is highly valued. The mentor serves as a guide, advocate, confidante, subject expert, critical friend, champion, and reflective partner. One first-year teacher says, "There’s always someone to go to for everything."

The school had its charter renewed in 2005 and will be up for reauthorization again in 2010. Renewal was part of a $2.1 million award settlement against the local district, which did not adequately address CCA’s needs in an approved local bond. Currently, the school is embroiled in another lawsuit with the district over what school leaders believe to be anti-charter and anti-choice bias in the district’s treatment of the school. Despite these challenges, the board and principal are clear that the school’s accomplishments result from its charter status, giving it the flexibility to hire top teacher talent, fire teachers that do not meet the stringent standards, choose effective curricula, and adjust its budget to extend the school day, hire tutors, and add facilities as needed. "Without the charter we couldn’t do what we are doing—it would be squashed," reflects principal Hernandez.

The school has a waiting list of 3,000 students. Spaces are offered by lottery and some families apply years before their children are school age, in hopes that they may be at the top of the waiting list in time. "Love and high test scores make us an easy sell," explains an academy director.

Student Achievement at Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA)

  • Data from the statewide assessment program, Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP), show that CCA students consistently outperform students at neighboring schools serving similar populations and, also, at schools serving students from higher-income families.
  • In 2005, the Colorado Children’s Campaign conducted a study of the state’s achievement gap, tracking CSAP test scores over a decade. The study found that while, for the most part, academic gains for low-income students did not keep pace with those of their more affluent peers at other schools, some exceptional schools beat the odds. One of those schools was CCA, which ranked fourth in the state for improved elementary schools serving low-income students and first in the state for improved middle schools.23
  • As shown in figure 16, CCA students in grades 3–8 consistently outperformed students at the district and state levels on the 2005–06 CSAP in reading, writing, and mathematics by an average of 25 percentage points. In a typical example, CCA proficiency scores in fourth-grade mathematics averaged 94 percent, as compared to an average of 69 percent statewide. CCA sixth-graders scored an average of 87 percent proficient on state reading tests, compared to an average of 69 percent for sixth-graders statewide. On mathematics tests, CCA sixth-graders scored an average of 71 percent proficient, compared to an average of 57 percent for sixth-graders statewide.
Figure 16. Percentage of CCA Students Scoring Proficient and Above on 2005–06 CSAP Reading, Writing, and Mathematics
Grade 3-5 reading: CCA scored 90%, Pueblo School District scored approximately 74%, Colorado State scored approximately 69%; Grade 6-8 reading: CCA scored approximately 88%, Pueblo School District scored approximately 58%, Colorado State scored approximately 66%; Grade 3-5 writing: CCA scored 91%, Pueblo School District scored approximately 56%, Colorado State scored approximately 54%; Grade 6-8 writing: CCA scored 82%, Pueblo School District scored approximately 46%, Colorado State scored approximately 56%; Grade 3-5 math: CCA scored 92%, Pueblo School District scored approximately 75%, Colorado State scored approximately 68%; Grade 6-8 math: CCA scored 61%, Pueblo School District scored approximately 35%, Colorado State scored approximately 49%.

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2005–06 School Accountability Report Cards. Data are reported separately for grades 3–5 and 6–8.

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Last Modified: 11/17/2009