Exclusive: Charter leaders letter accuses CMO of racialized practices

I think you should know that there are things that charter supporters don’t want you to hear about. In fact, I believe the most convicting critiques of charters often come from their educators and parents. Several charter leaders (principals, Deans, etc.) are asking their Charter Management Organization (CMO) to start a dialogue and take action to stop racialized practices in their charter schools. This letter strikes home because I worked for the Aspire CMO a decade ago before I changed my mind about charters (See My Inspiration and Anger: One day Gary disappeared)

So here’s what Aspire says:

In 1998, longtime public school educator Don Shalvey joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings to launch Aspire Public Schools, one of the nation’s first charter management organizations.

Currently Aspire operates 40 schools in California and Tennessee serving 16,000 students in grades K-12.

Our mission is to open and operate small, high-quality charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, in order to:

  • Increase the academic performance of underserved students
  • Develop effective educators
  • Share successful practices with other forward-thinking educators, and
  • Catalyze change in public schools

But what are their leaders of color saying?

To Carolyn Hack, CEO of Aspire Public Schools and Aspire Public Schools Board of Directors:

We write you today as a coalition of people of color who believe our needs, concerns, and voices have not been heard by the leadership of Aspire over a long period of time. Throughout our tenures, we’ve heard and witnessed many decisions within the organization that have unknowingly undermined the self-determination, resilience, and general well-being of students of color, employees of color, and families of color. Although we understand that the nature of Aspire’s role in education is to support majority students of color to attain high academic outcomes, we believe the organization’s recent approach and method for obtaining and sustaining a state of systematized high quality education is often misaligned with the needs and humanity of the very people we serve. This misalignment is the impetus for the needs and demands established in this letter and listed below. Under the demands, you will find our rationale and context. While these conditions and realities are often unpacked in private, sharing our context publicly will serve to break down feelings of isolation for marginalized members of our Aspire community across all four regions.

Beneath the demands, the context begins by illustrating the ways in which Aspire Forward’s Method is Hegemonic in Practice, then sheds light on Aspire’s White Dominant Culture and Values, then discusses our Different Understandings of Equity, before ending with the ways that we aim to collaborate in Moving Forward .

Our Needs and Demands of the Organization

We believe there are many ways we can grow and improve; we do not believe we have arrived. To clarify and to catalyze transformational change, we have outlined demands of the Aspire leadership that we believe will put our equity beliefs into tangible outcomes that serve our students, families, and teammates. Members of the African American, Latinx, and Asian American Pacific Islander communities have identified issues that need to be addressed specifically and explicitly. We also welcome white allies to support the voices of people of color who are colleagues, friends, and family. On behalf of families, students, and colleagues, our demands are as follows:

1. Enrollment and outreach practices that provide extra services and supports to our African diaspora families who have seen enrollment at Aspire Public Schools in California decrease over the years. This should also include charter lottery priorities that align to census tracts, especially if student enrollment does not match neighborhood demographics.

2. Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with 4-year universities that fully fund African diaspora scholars who graduate from Aspire Public Schools. This is in addition to a recent request from Aspire teammates for MOUs with 4-year universities that fully fund undocumented scholars who graduate from Aspire Public Schools. The latter was sent to Carolyn in another letter in regards to our undocumented communities in mid September of 2017.

3. The creation and/or continuation of African diaspora, Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islander, First Nation Native American, and cross racial and ethnic family affinity groups, to create formal partnership with schools sites and regional teams.

4. The creation and implementation of an Aspire Ethnic Studies department that includes African American studies, Latinx studies, Asian American Pacific Islander Studies, First Nation Studies, and cross cultural ethnic studies for our scholars at school sites. The College of Ethnic Studies at

San Francisco State is an example of inspiration and there are many educators across the country who’ve scaffolded ethnic studies down to kindergarten. Also necessary are case management and advocacy practices that support the most marginalized students in our schools. Examples of combined curriculum, case management, and advocacy practices exist at Oakland Unified School District, namely in the African American Female Excellence and African American Male Achievement programs. The Aspire Ethnic Studies department must have people of color in control at the decision-making level for funding and implementation, especially people with ethnic studies backgrounds and experience.

5. As an extension to the previous request, we demand the creation of success measures beyond standardized test results that explicitly honor our students of color with the same fervor and commitment we see Aspire leadership has for standardized test results. This can include project-based learning, community service learning, dual language immersion, etc. We understand that there are systems of assessment that our students will need to navigate, but over the last two to three years our professional development has almost exclusively centered alignment of curriculum and instruction to standardized tests. This is particularly troubling considering that the historical roots and rationale for standardized assessment in our country are built on assimilation, the belief in a meritocracy, and the belief that one baseline of knowledge is superior to all other bodies of knowledge.

6. The creation of an Aspire Black Academic Excellence Department, focused on teaching and learning, led by a team of African diaspora leaders who create and facilitate the implementation of an organization-wide plan for Black academic excellence that is inclusive of cultural practices and is beyond just looking at standardized test results. This initiative should be one of our top three organizational priorities. Our Black scholars as a collective have had the lowest student achievement and highest discipline rates, but none of our priorities and systems explicitly support our school leaders and teachers in supporting Black excellence.

7. The creation and/or continuation of regional educator affinity groups (e.g. African diaspora, Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islander, First Nation Native American, LGBTQ, etc.) to support our educators with humanizing and safe spaces to discuss the needs of our students and teammates. In addition to providing space, there must be clear lines of communication to offer feedback to Aspire leadership based on the needs of our students and teammates.

8. A formal three-year strategy to increase proportional representation of African diaspora and Latinx members on the Aspire Board, Aspire Senior Leadership Team, Directors Team, and all Regional Leadership Teams for a more honest reflection of our African diaspora and Latinx student populations. Community members including Aspire teachers, school-site staff, school-site administration, families, and students must be on hiring committees because we are not simply looking for representation. We are looking for people who are actively engaged in building culture that fights back against the culture described in Tema Okun’s essay, referenced later in this letter. Our current hiring processes and protocols do not work if we continue to see the same unintentional discriminatory outcomes in representation.

9. Formal African diaspora and Latinx leadership development programming that supports our African diaspora and Latinx teammates if they wish to develop as leaders within Aspire Public Schools.

10. Formal professional development and resources to ensure we can prepare school sites to be “sanctuaries” and “safe spaces” for our undocumented students.

11. A re-committed partnership with the National Equity Project, or a similar entity with experience working with organizations around racial dynamics and systems of inequity, so that voices of color are heard and so that there is a third party mediator in supporting our organization around dynamics of race, gender, and other manifestations of power and oppression. Additionally, we’d like our organization to work with this third party to create and use a performance rubric for Aspire.

12. A collective formal political stance, through passage of a Board resolution in favor of Black lives and Black self-determination, LGBTQ human rights, Muslim lives, and the humanity of all other oppressed groups in our school communities.

13. No retribution or disciplinary action be taken on anyone who supports this letter or this work for our communities. It’s precisely that fear that people have in speaking their truth that has silenced and will continue to silence our community members.

Context for the Demands:
Aspire Forward’s Method is Hegemonic in Practice

First, we’d like to establish that we do not believe the problem is necessarily in the goals of Aspire Forward, although there are parts that are problematic and reinforcing of the conditions described in this letter. Instead, our disagreement lies in the method for achieving these goals. With the recent shift to Aspire Forward, we believe the perspectives of people of color have only been more ignored and devalued, which ultimately impacts our young people and the ways we see our own career longevity within the organization. Although we write this letter as a coalition of people of color, we also see a negative impact on the wellbeing of some of our white allies. The shift has been experienced as top-down decision-making with minimal regard for the assets, experiences, or voices of community members. Although this seems to be the culture at Aspire recently, it’s been heightened by our Aspire Forward initiative. We understand that there were working groups that informed Aspire Forward , but the perspectives of people of color–already decentered in our organization–were a minority in representation in these working groups, thus, objectively speaking, had disproportionately less influence on the program we provide for our majority student of color population. We also question the facilitation of dialogue, decision-making within these working groups, inclusivity of disparate voices, and how these working groups were organized. When we’ve voiced dissonance or disagreement, we’ve been met with responses like:

* –  There were working groups, so you can’t complain because you decided to not participate , or

* –  New leadership has the right to take the organization in the direction they’d like , or

* –  Bain & Company researched and recommended what’s best for our educators, students, and 
families, or

* –  This is a Civil Rights issue and our Aspire Forward initiative is doing right by kids, or

* –  It’s worse in the local school district, so we don’t have it that bad. 
Additionally, sometimes our commitment, affiliation, and loyalty have been called into question. These responses are troubling and problematic considering the many legacies of disenfranchisement that people of color experience in this world. They also unconsciously minimize the intelligence and hopes of marginalized communities, whether they be people of color or any other historically oppressed community. With all that said, we are in agreement that this work is a Civil Rights issue, but our methodologies and beliefs differ, so when we experience responses like those listed above, we are reminded that a select few perspectives are most valued, which also generally happen to be those of people who are in off-site offices rather than at school sites in close relationship with the young people we serve every day.

Along with the points above, the fact that many of our educators and other employees have never been in the same room as Carolyn Hack and other Senior Leadership Team (SLT) members illustrates the disconnect between leadership and the people who are in the position to serve our young people every day. This disconnect is only magnified for some of us who have different experiences and backgrounds from our CEO and leadership. As a result, we’ve come to believe that our voices will only be taken seriously if we communicate our needs in this formal letter.

Aspire’s White Dominant Culture and Values

We also believe the culture in which employees of color work at Aspire is one that unknowingly silences voices of color, centers whiteness and white middle class values, and perpetuates deficit thinking of our communities. Additionally, this culture promotes the rise of leaders who mirror the perspectives and experiences of Aspire leadership, pushes out critically analytical employees, and stagnates the development of people who often resemble the attitudes and perspectives of our very students and families. For these reasons we’ve seen and will continue to see underrepresentation of Black and Latinx voices in Aspire leadership. This combined with demographic representation in who is salaried versus hourly employees at Aspire concerns us.

To our many beloved white allies: this is not a condemnation of white people, but instead a description of an unconscious perpetuation of a system that privileges whiteness and white values over the values and cultures that are closely tied to our identities. This system can also be perpetuated unknowingly by people of color if it is not actively unlearned. While assuming positive intent can be useful, focusing on intention while failing to consider the impact on people of color reinforces and reproduces whiteness as both dominant and superior. As mentioned above in our demands, we want the use of a performance rubric for our organization that aligns to the antidotes described in Tema Okun’s essay.

Different Understandings of Equity

Several years ago, we made a commitment to building our capacity to lead for equity with the National Equity Project (NEP). This partnership not only pushed our organization to think critically of the work we do, but it also provided a third party mediator between many folks of color and Aspire leadership. Unfortunately, much of this work was misunderstood and undervalued. Some viewed this work as emotional and about feelings with little impact on student results, while others thought the potential was stagnated by the pace of the work. As an organization, we have often moved as slowly as our most underdeveloped Aspire leadership member in terms of their understandings of race, privilege, power, and oppression and the intersections between all of these and education. With that said, we too have our own critical analysis of our partnership with NEP

We’ve also witnessed a conflation of high standardized test results with equity. As a result, our curricular, instructional, and cultural decision-making centers the same standardized test results, rather than expanding to broader and truer indicators of equity. This is clear in our college ready metrics in Aspire Forward, where three of the four metrics involve standardized tests (ACT, SBAC, and AP exams). Although we believe assessment results are part of a larger puzzle of inequity, they are not the center of our students’ humanity, self-worth, or dignity.

This is not an indictment of Aspire as an organization, but instead, the exercising of our voices to communicate the needs of our community in ways that have not been communicated before in writing, trusting that–if given the opportunity–Aspire leadership will hear us and in turn be supportive and responsive. Over the years, we’ve built our work around equity, but much of that work on an organizational level sits in writing versus practice.

Moving Forward

We believe we have tried to voice our opinions in many ways over the years both formally and informally. Now, we’d like to be much more explicit about what we need in our communities. Furthermore, we’d like to establish that the contents of this letter are not intended to disrespect our CEO, Carolyn Hack, or the Aspire Board of Directors. Our intent is to be honest about the conditions experienced and needs witnessed by a driven and passionate group of community members.

Our hope is that this letter is met with seriousness, compassion, and thoughtfulness that honor our perspectives, experiences, and humanity. If so, we believe we can work in collaboration to see this through. There are patterns in these demands. Although all are belief and values-driven, some are more logistical (1, 2, 10, 12); others center safe and humanizing processes and/or diversification of voices for democratic decision-making (3, 7, 11, 13); others are programmatic for school sites (4, 5, 6); and others are more connected to diversifying organizational leadership (8, 9). In other terms, some are more student and family facing (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12) and others more employee facing (7, 8, 9, 11, 13).

Lastly, we believe this letter outlines the steps of a significant shift from the direction that we are headed. This shift would make us proud to work for this organization and would be a national model of excellence for students, families, and employees of color. This is a moment and an opportunity for our organization to lead with an inquiry stance instead of “problem” solving around people of color voicing a collective perspective. We know this may make some feel uncomfortable, but many folks of color are and have been experiencing more than just discomfort. Additionally, many of us are concerned that important people of color in our organization will transition out of the Aspire organization if we continue to move forward in the ways we do; this was one impetus for writing this letter.

Moving forward, we believe both the process of understanding these demands and progress toward transforming the culture we describe requires the centering of non-SLT employees as drivers of change. When ready to discuss further, we ask you to meet with chosen representatives of the larger collective to discuss experiences and needs described in this letter. They were chosen as a group because they understand the content of this letter and can speak on behalf of the larger collective at this particular moment in time. We ask that they be in dialogue with leadership as a group and not as individuals or in small groups. We believe they must partake in the creation of a formal plan with embedded milestones to realize these demands for our organization. Although Memphis is not in representation at this moment, we welcome their support and work to be in solidarity with their students, families, staff, and communities. Lastly, we would also like to be a part of creating a plan to address our demands by January 1, 2018.

Thank you,

Critical Education Coalition at Aspire

The article referenced in the above letter can be found at http://www.cwsworkshop.org/pdfs/CARC/Overview/3_White_Sup_Culture.PDF

I respect the principled stand these educators are taking. I hope that Aspire listens.

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  • In our low-income school, Title I money was available to school reformers if it was used for “professional development.” It wasn’t long before I realized that the massive (endless) push for more and more “teacher development” focused almost exclusively on test score production. I fully appreciate your statement that “…professional development has almost exclusively centered alignment of curriculum and instruction to standardized tests. This is particularly troubling considering that the historical roots and rationale for standardized assessment in our country are built on assimilation, the belief in a meritocracy, and the belief that one baseline of knowledge is superior to all other bodies of knowledge.”

    Liked by 1 person

  • This is a powerful letter. Are there any examples of charter schools where the humanity of the student is central, where whiteness and test scores are not the underlying metrics by which all students are judged? In an attempt to gain academic freedom, flexibility, and focus on the whole child, it appears that most charter schools reproduce the most egregious aspects of our culturally white normed, standardized test based schools, while their existence further divides resources between those who have and those who have not. I applaud such educators as they reimagine liberation. I cry for you to embrace our local public schools, be bold in your designs, and be triumphant. . . We need you with all of our children!


  • Julian,

    What is “African diaspora”? Is that just synonym for “African American”?


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