CHARTER SCHOOLS TODAY
LITERACY FIRST THE ALEXANDER KUA O KA LA PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL COMPANY, INC CHARTER SCHOOL An Old-Fashioned School with a Reusing andWith Revitilizing Education Aloha High-Tech Edge
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Literacy First Charter School
An Old-Fashioned School with a High-Tech Edge Produced by Eric Gunn & Written by Prem Desai
“We like to say, ‘it’s an old-fashioned school with a hightech edge,’” says Debbie Beyer, Executive Director of Literacy First Charter School and its parent group in El Cajon, California. Beyer studied in New Mexico and at San Diego State, taught in bilingual general education classrooms, taught Spanish, developed and directed a homeschooling program and served as a consultant for bilingual education before deciding to tackle the challenge of starting a charter school. Byer and the teacher group approached the school district in 1999 and, after some battling, a charter was approved in June 2001. “School was starting in August of 2001 so we had about 50 days to get school together,” says Beyer. “We had a church that had an education
US Executive Journal Summer Edition 2008 Charter Schools Today Spring Edition 2009
building they weren’t using that was just kind of a mess so we started trying to make a school. We assembled a team of about six of us and started knocking on doors, putting flyers through doors and or car windows, just every ridiculous thing we could to get students,” explains Beyer. Just two weeks before school started, the school had three students registered. They then started holding information meetings in the community and took out ads in the local penny saver. By the end of August, school started with 114 students for the first year. Word spread quickly and by the end of the second year, this number grew to 300 with a waiting list. “We were maxed out,” says Beyer.
Beginning with grades K through 3, Literacy First added a grade each year and today has about 1,000 students in grades K through 8, across four different locations, and a budget of approximately $6 million. The school just recently began construction of the high school in fall 2008. “That was before the whole financial market crashed,” says Beyer. “Right now we’re frozen with the building because the bond market is frozen. So we’re kind of coming up with plans d, e, and f.” In the meantime, the school is thriving with a dynamic mix of students. Located on the “urban fringe,” as Beyer describes it, the school attracts a diverse student body. Approximately one-third of their population consists of political refugees from Iraq who are Chaldean Catholics and were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Seeking refuge in the United States, many found their way to Literacy First. With Chaldean and Arabic being their native tongue, these students are English-language learners. Thanks to the school’s great technology and teachers, Literacy First attracts students from all socioeconomic brackets. “We’ve got both ends of the spectrum!," says Beyer smiling. Their methods are simple. “We have a longer school day and a longer school year,” says Beyer, “and our teachers specifically train in brain-based research methods - how the brain works and how to use that in the classroom.” The school also has a very strong literacy program, a strong character education program, and a strong focus on American History. Another secret: “lots of hands on and lots of parent involvement - we get 30 additional full-time staff on campus everyday, that’s how many volunteer hours we have every year.” Indeed, a recent auction of artwork by the kids raised $7,000 from engaged parents to help fund school trips. Parents are also very involved in any case of misconduct, though serious incidences are rare. “When students misbehave parents are brought in quickly. We have a standardized policy where kids are given a time out
or have to make restitution or we send them home or parents come up to school and they work on the problem together.” For high school students, Literacy First conferences with parents to get them on the same page as the school in regards to good behavior, “so the expectation is there from home too,” says Beyer. The school also has a unique system where each teacher is responsible for a cohort of students who they keep track of for two years. Through interactions at lunchtime, on a break, calling, or email, students are connected to adults they respect, leading to a much stronger relationship. “That’s been very effective for us this year,” Beyer adds. Given the school’s unique student body, No Child Left Behind, is, naturally and unfortunately, a double-edged
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sword. “There are parts of it I’m not really crazy about but be it good, bad, or indifferent it has forced people to raise the bar. At the same time, we have these children who came from Iraq three months ago and we have to give them the test. How is this kid going to write an essay? He can’t even understand English,” says Beyer.
because some staff felt the one we had wasn’t working well.”
“The major concern is that you don’t want teachers teaching to the test, or having it as the only measure.” Throughout the year, Literacy First teachers give quarterly assessments and complete an individualized profile for each student where they identify each student’s learning style along with a variety of other student learning indicators.
Literacy First also has a relationship with Specialized Therapy Services who sends consultants to help teachers cater to special education students. “We’ve never seen the level of attention that we’re getting, or the progress that students are making and I think that part of that is that our regular classroom provides so much attention too.”
Teachers also get together on a regular basis to have lunch or after school, in grade level teams, and discuss topics. A unique professional growth strategy that LFCS has implemented is called “staff conversations.” Each year the discussions are themed - this year it’s technology. There is also a week of training before school starts as well as in-service days and quarterly school-wide professional growth opportunities. “We’re always looking at making things better. Right now we’re looking at our spelling program and looking at using a different strategy for teaching spelling. Last year we changed our handwriting program
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Literacy First isn’t afraid to implement new programs to supplement their curriculum. For example, they started a local spelling bee circuit to encourage children to get excited about spelling.
In five years, Beyer sees the construction of their new high school being complete as a LEED certified and eco-friendly building. That’s what keeps her awake at night, she says, but added that she’s looking forward to getting a waiting
COMPANY AT A GLANCE Established : 2001 Executive Director : Debbie Beyer
list for this new facility and expanding with even more students in the years to come. The opportunity to dynamically impact a community in this way is a blessing to the entire community, teachers, parents, students and administration alike.
Charter Schools Today
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Literacy First Charter School 799 East Washington Avenue El Cajon, CA 92020 United States