Three decades after leaving her native Panama, Vielka McFarlane hasn’t forgotten how a first-class education can transform a poor kid with a hard-knocks life.
The Los Angeles charter school operator remembers leaner days and long hours helping her struggling family sell empanadas from a street cart. Her eyes mist when she speaks of her hardworking parents, who sacrificed to send her to the best schools in Panama, despite discrimination from that society’s upper-class, and then to Los Angeles in 1982.
So when the Compton school board rejected her petition this year to start a charter school in a city with some of the state’s worst standardized test scores, McFarlane got fired up. Determined to fight for Compton parents the way her mother and father fought for her, McFarlane appealed the board ruling to Los Angeles County education officials — and last week announced that she had won.
She will open her new school this fall — Celerity Sirius, named after the brightest star in the night sky.
“For me, it’s personal,” says McFarlane, 48, whose African roots and fluent Spanish reflect Compton’s racial and ethnic demographics. “I see my parents in those Compton parents. Now I can do something about the injustice, the denial of opportunity, the idea that it’s OK for some kids not to read.”
McFarlane’s Celerity Educational Group has been at the center of the state’s first test of a landmark law allowing parents to petition for major changes at low-performing schools. In December, parents at McKinley Elementary in Compton submitted petitions to convert their campus to a Celerity charter operation under the new “parent trigger” law. Those petitions are tied up in court.
But armed with county approval of her separate charter petition, McFarlane is moving forward with plans for her new school for 220 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Church of the Redeemer in Compton. She has already hired a principal, plans a facelift for the space and expects to open her doors for applications beginning Wednesday.
Celerity Sirius will be one of three new campuses the group plans to open this fall, bringing its total to seven schools. Three of the schools have standardized test score data, and all three rank in California’s top 10% of schools with similar populations of mostly low-income Latino and African American students.
Through a quality education, McFarlane says, she aims to give children broader choices in life — to attend college, to start a business — instead of dropping out of school, an all-too-prevalent path in places like Compton.
“We want to prove we can take the bottom kids and move them as high as they can go and get them through college,” says Grace Canada, Celerity’s school services director.
McFarlane’s venture as an educational entrepreneur started in 2004 the same way many of her other abrupt life changes began: with an epiphany. By then, more than two decades had passed since her father mortgaged their Panama home to give McFarlane a plane ticket to Los Angeles and $1,000 in cash.
“I have nothing left,” McFarlane says her father told her. “You’re going to have to make it with this.”
Her cash was stolen shortly after her arrival here in 1982, and she was penniless when she fast-talked her way into a job with a California milling company by touting her bilingual skills. After an assortment of jobs, including pitching tourism for the Egyptian government, McFarlane says, she decided she was a “loser with no purpose in my life.”
She walked into Los Angeles Unified School District offices in 1991 and asked to teach. Pressed by a teacher shortage at the time, the district gave her an emergency credential and sent her to Holmes Elementary School in South Los Angeles, which McFarlane says was caught in the crossfire of a gang war.
On her first day there, McFarlane says, she saw a fourth-grader chasing a teacher with a knife. But she loved the experience of seeing the light of learning in children others considered lost causes.
“I found there is no kid who doesn’t want to learn and not one parent who doesn’t want her kid to be a success,” she says.
She moved into administration four years later as a bilingual coordinator, then assistant principal, then principal at Overland Avenue Elementary School near Westwood. Ever the serious student, she improved her English at night school, earned an undergraduate degree in economics at Cal State Los Angeles, acquired her master’s degree in education administration at National University and is working on a doctorate in organizational leadership at Pepperdine University.
In 2004, she was working as a coordinator for the district’s charter schools office when, she says, she realized she was “bored out of my mind.” That’s when she took the plunge, mortgaged her home and launched plans for her own charter school.
At Celerity schools, McFarlane demands a “no-excuses” regimen of discipline and accountability. Children are assessed every week to monitor their progress, with individual test results publicly posted. Teachers are evaluated and paid in part by how successful they are in helping raise student test scores. Most students stay for after-school tutoring sessions, McFarlane says, adding 10 hours or more of weekly study.
But the school also offers yoga and performing arts, computer education and field trips to such far-flung places as Honduras.
In 2007, McFarlane fired two teachers. She says the firings were related to job performance, not the teachers’ desire to have students present a poem about Emmett Till during a Black History Month celebration. Public education advocate Robert D. Skeels says McFarlane was “covering for institutional racism” in objecting to the poem being read, which, McFarlane said at the time, wasn’t appropriate for the celebration’s young audience. Emmett, an African American 14-year-old, was killed by white men in Mississippi in 1955.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an African American writer and political analyst, looked into the issue and said he accepted the school’s explanation that the firings were performance-related. He spent a semester teaching writing at Celerity and said he was “very impressed” by the curriculum and staff dedication.
“They do seem to be performing and delivering,” he said.
Kailyin Perry, whose 6-year-old niece attends Celerity Nascent in Jefferson Park, McFarlane’s first campus, says she is pleased by the charter school’s results. Her niece, Kristiona Brown, reads, spells and writes better than her nephew did at the same age attending public school, she said.
“In public schools, they don’t enforce learning — it’s more, ‘Do what you want to do,’ ” Perry said. “At Celerity Nascent, you have to learn. They enforce it. They contact parents to tell them how they’re doing.”
McFarlane says some parents have left because they find the school too regimented. But she says she refuses to expect less from her children in South Los Angeles or Compton than parents expect from theirs in West Los Angeles or Beverly Hills.
“We know we can make a difference,” McFarlane says. “If I can stop 100 kids from going on welfare five years from now or stop kids from getting into a gang, then everything will be worth it.”