Charter School Opens Door to Higher Learning

Special to The Times

Daniel Ortiz looks around Promise Charter School, with its small, colorful classrooms tucked in the community center of Bethel American Methodist Episcopal Church, and sees a gateway to higher learning for his children, Elias and Daniela.

In its first year, the fledgling charter school pledges to set low-income elementary students from southeast San Diego on the road to college. Although its makeshift campus bears little resemblance to the landscaped grounds of private prep schools, it aims to provide the same intensive individual instruction, small classes and extended schedule as its high-priced counterparts.

"It's preparing students for the university and the professions, to be engineers and doctors," said Ortiz, who works as a cook. "They're learning to envision that this is their primary path."

Unlike many private prep schools, Promise Charter School recruited its 200 students, not among the most privileged, but from the most disadvantaged student bodies. Most come from families that earn $12,000 to $20,000 per year. The students began the year with academic skills 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years below their grade level. Yet the school's teachers and administrators see these strikes against them as all the more reason to invest in their futures.

"The ability to choose a private school or move to a higher performing public school is based on income and wealth," said Brian Bennett, project consultant to Promise Charter School. "For lower income families, there is no choice."

Promise Charter School grew out of a sister program at nearby Nativity Prep, a private Catholic school serving the same community. Nativity Prep started last year with 18 students, the brainchild of founder and President David Rivera, a native San Diegan who left a career in real estate for the dream of founding high-quality schools in this low-income community.

His vision followed a model developed by Jesuit priests in New York City. It called for nearly 12-hour school days filled with academic basics and religious instruction.

Nativity Prep opened with a single fifth-grade class last year, and expanded to sixth grade last fall. This month the school will move from its leased building to a new, donated $800,000 facility next door.

To extend the program to a broader student body, Nativity Prep's administrators applied to open a public charter school, and received unanimous approval from the San Diego Unified School District, said Kerry Flanagan, the district's charter school liaison. Officials are closely monitoring the school's performance and are pleased with its progress, she said.

Like Nativity Prep, Promise Charter School went door to door to recruit students for a rigorous academic program that runs 10 to 11 months a year. Pupils from Grades 1 through 5 attend class from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., with two optional hours of after-school activities and tutoring. Kindergartners stay until 3 p.m.

In both schools, 20% of students are African American, while 80% are Latino, the vast majority of them Spanish speakers. In groups of 15 to 20, children study subjects like math and reading, and sample special lessons in visual arts, drama, science and swimming.

"These are lots of things that, for years, we've had to cut from budgets in public schools," said Principal Evva Cross, a 22-year veteran of local district schools. "So we're able to give them enriching opportunities they otherwise would not experience."

In every class, a first-year, volunteer AmeriCorps teacher teams up with an experienced, salaried teacher or second-year volunteer. Volunteer teachers, from universities including Notre Dame, UC Berkeley and Boston College, earn credits toward their teaching credential and receive free training at the University of San Diego, a private Catholic university.

The teachers, Rivera said, were culled from the best and brightest of 90 applicants for 20 slots, with high GPAs, bilingual skills and resumes packed with volunteer experience. They're also willing to apply those abilities to a 50-hour-a-week job that pays $35 a week plus room and board, said Rivera, who draws $140 a week in salary.

"This isn't so much a job for them," he said. "This is a passion."

The two schools share the same advisors, special-subjects teachers and academic model. Some of the teachers at Promise Charter School started at Nativity Prep last year.

But while Nativity Prep subsists on donations and charts its own curriculum, Promise Charter runs on public school funds and must adhere to state standards for testing, textbooks, class work and course content.

Religion, a mainstay at Nativity Prep, is included at Promise Charter School only in social studies lessons on comparative religion. "We're very conscious of the 1st Amendment separation of church and state," Bennett said.

Nonetheless, he said, "if you look at what we think are the key ingredients for both school sites, we still believe that ... access to committed teachers, with an emphasis on basic skills and a high degree of accountability for achievement in small classes, is the key to success."

On a recent afternoon, students cooked homemade tortillas after class, mixing ingredients, pounding dough and frying the finished products. Each student also received a worksheet listing the various steps, out of order, in Spanish.

Their task was to decipher, then order them, a twist that turned a cooking class into a lesson in language and logic.

Maricela Montes waited for her son, Irving Gutierrez, 8, as he cooked, then ate his tortilla. Irving, she said, was reluctant to transfer from his district school this year, and cried about the switch for weeks.

"But today," she said, "he called me up and said, 'Don't pick me up until 6 p.m. because we're having an activity.' "

If test scores in the next few years mirror the current high marks the program enjoys among its students and their families, administrators hope to expand it, adding a high school and later opening other schools in Southern California.

"Down the line," Rivera said, "what we'd really like to see is our students going through our middle school, our high school and on to college, and returning to this community to start up businesses, to be lawyers, doctors and teachers."

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