A new charter school serving predominantly low-income Latinos children grades transitional-kindergarten through eighth and offering Mandarin instruction, opened its doors in Santa Ana last week: Scholarship Prep Charter School.
Scholarship Prep is the brainchild of former state Senator and education reform crusader Gloria Romero and education advocate Jason Watts – who are CEO and COO, respectively, of the new school. The new charter school is housed at Newsong Church, where the space became available after Nova Academy Early College High School moved into a new building in Santa Ana.
OC Daily visited the campus shortly after doors opened for the first time on August 24. Principal Matthew Bragman estimated the number of students at around 370, but noted that parents were still bringing their children in to inquire about enrollment.
Romero made her mark in the legislature as the rare Democrat who was willing to defy the powerful teachers unions and push education reforms to empower parents and provide children – especially poor children trapped in low-performing schools — with greater school choice. After leaving the legislature, she focused her energies on helping parents utilize the Parent Trigger Law she authored in order to convert their under-performing schools to charter status. She worked closely with parents at Palm Lane Elementary School in Anaheim as they battled district bureaucrats and union activists in their effort to convert Palm Lane into a charter school.
Prompted by friends and colleagues who asked her why she didn’t just try starting her own charter school, she joined forces earlier this year with Jason Watts, a veteran educator with experience in multiple charter schools, and launched Scholarship Prep. Although located in Santa Ana, the school has no connection to the Santa Ana Unified School District and it chartered under the Orange County Department of Education. Romero noted their application was approved by a unanimous vote of the OC Board of Education.
“After years of writing laws to try to reform schools, I decided to start my own. If we dream it, we can build it, and I expect Scholarship Prep to stand and deliver on behalf of deserving families and students craving a top quality educational opportunity,” said Romero. “Our opening is not only the culmination of a hard-fought dream come true, but a new start in Orange County’s era of education reform”.
“We believe parents deserve to be the architects of their childrens’ education,” said Romero.
Creating Pathways To College
Scholarship Prep is a comprehensive public charter school. It’s name stems from its mission: to give children from poor and working class families to opportunity to go on to college, if they so choose. Each classroom is named after a highly-rank university, such as Stanford; teachers chose from U.S. News & World Report’s list of top-ranked colleges based not all-around achievement – including a high graduation rate for school athletes.
“There’s no reason these kids shouldn’t have the option of college, if they want,” said Watts. “We want to create college scholarship pathways for them.”
Targeting all students in Orange County, California, with a data-driven emphasis on making a dramatic and sustainable impact particularly on Orange County’s foster youth and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, Scholarship’s “scholar students” will enroll in a high-caliber campus with a motto of “Dream Bigger, Reach Higher”.
The school’s curriculum is premised on project-based learning, which emphasizes writing, research, public speaking, properly presenting information and working collaboratively – skills that build confidence and equip kids for success in life. The school’s atmosphere and approach are suffused by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, apothegms from which decorate the school’s hallways.
As previously mentioned, the students are overwhelmingly Latino and between 90-100% qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Most of the children are walked to school by their parents.
Scholarship Prep has made helping foster children a priority, allowing them to bypass the waiting list and be admitted. The school has begun a loose partnership with the Orangewood Foundation and Samueli Academy – also located in Santa Ana – a high school which primarily serves foster teens. This creates the opportunity provide foster children from the youngest ages through high school with a continuum of learning, social stability and wrap-around services.
Flood Of Applicants or Teaching Positions
Teachers at public charter schools are not required to be members of a union, and Scholarship Prep teachers are not unionized – and are all credentialed. The school as provides three hours of professional development every Friday afternoon.
“We can pay our teachers on merit,” said Romero, noting their lowest teacher salary is nearly $60,000. She said they received more than 300 applications for just 15 teaching jobs. One teacher re-located from Arizona in order to work at Scholarship Prep, while another moved from Northern California for the opportunity to teach there.
The school’s physical education instructor is Janelly Farias, a former member of the Mexican Women’s National Soccer Team. Farias grew up in Santa Ana and went to local schools, graduating from UC Irvine and then going on to play for the Mexican national team. Farias came to Scholarship Prep in order to give back to her community and help the kids be successful in life, regardless of their current circumstances.
Outreach To The Community
Scholarship Prep informed the local community about the school the traditional, grass-roots community outreach: delivering flyers to local residents, manning tables and booths at local events and churches.
Despite attempts by public school unions to undermine community interest by spreading the usual, discredited anti-charter rumors – no services for special needs students, lack of credentialed teachers — community response has been very positive and enrollment strong and growing.
Romero noted that most of the students walk to school.
Touring Scholarship Prep, watching the students with their teachers, observing the commitment of the staff, the alertness of the kids – it’s existence and operation is a non-verbal refutation of the various rationalizations use to explain away the failures of traditional public education and the successes of charter schools.
The unions and other apologists for the status quo relentlessly demand more spending, higher taxes and more school bonds – as if those are the sine qua non of quality schools. Scholarship Prep is not lavish or especially modern, but it’s obvious learning is taking place because the teachers are motivated and the students attentive.
Contrary to specious claims by critics that charter schools skim the best students from traditional public schools, Scholarship Prep students are drawn from local neighborhoods – and are there because their parents now have an option other than having their kids’ educational destiny decided by their ZIP code.
Apologists for under-performing public schools often try to blame those failures to large numbers of immigrant students with limited English language skills. A significant percentage of Scholarship Prep students have limited English proficiency and come from homes where their parents speak Spanish – and excellence is expected from everyone. One doesn’t have to be fluent in English to perceive and seize the opportunity to place one’s children in an environment structured for success.
There are many excellent traditional public schools – and many that are failing, primarily in poor neighborhoods. What charter schools like Scholarship Prep demonstrate is that public schools can succeed regardless of the socio-economic status of their families – if they’re not only given sufficient resources, but flexibility and self-governance and the incentive to excel that flows from empowering parents to decide where their kids go to school.
“Charter schools let parents vote with their feet,” said school CEO Gloria Romero. And nearly 400 local Santa Ana families have so far voted with their feet to send their children to Scholarship Prep.