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Dr. Ponce Shares Our Story of Success on National Stage

Dr. Ana Ponce's Remarks to National Gathering of State Policy Leaders 
Salt Lake City, Utah
October 10, 2018 

Thank you for that kind introduction.

I’d like to thank the State Policy Network and the conference organizers for the opportunity to tell you the story of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy.

It’s a story that has lessons for how we reimagine public education and build schools that ensure student success, especially for black, brown and low-income kids.

It’s a story about how we have chosen a third way at Camino Nuevo between traditional public schools on the one hand and charter schools on the other.

Finally, it’s a story about how taking this third way has allowed us to achieve tremendous success even as we continue to face hard challenges.

To start our story, I’d like to introduce you to one of our former students.

This is Jonathan.

He is a proud graduate of our Miramar High School campus and now attends UCLA.

Two things stand out for me in the photo.

One is the saying on Jonathan’s t-shirt: Ready, Set, College.

Those are words that we live by at Camino Nuevo.

When our students start out, the educational deck is stacked against many of them.

Almost all of them are Latino kids from low-income households.

And 80% of them start school as English language learners.

But when they finish, they finish strong.

Almost all of our students -- 97% -- graduate high school. And 9 out of 10 of our students go on to college.

We achieve these outcomes by cultivating the second thing that stands out in this photo: the light in Jonathan’s eyes.

That is the light of a young man who loves to learn, who believes in himself and who is alive to the opportunities before him.

It’s a light that easily could have gone out.

Like a lot of our students, Jonathan grew up near MacArthur Park, a Latino neighborhood that is one of the poorest in Los Angeles.

His parents separated when he was in middle school. Jonathan’s Mom -- who didn’t speak English and doesn’t have a high school diploma -- raised him and his older brother on her own.

She worked long hours, performing maintenance work on the apartment building where they lived, and still had to worry about whether she could keep a roof over their heads.

Of course, that is not the life she imagined for herself.

Like many immigrants she came to this country full of hope and optimism. She believed in the American Dream.

But making that dream a reality is becoming harder and harder.

Research shows that social economic background is the main predictor of an adult’s income and it’s becoming harder and harder to transcend that background in our increasingly unequal society.

As one economist put it: “The probability of ending where you start has gone up, and the probability of moving up has gone down.”

That light in Jonathan’s eyes? That precious light that is so important to kindle in all of our kids?

It is becoming harder and harder to keep it glowing, especially for kids of color and kids who grow up in poverty.

In a country like ours -- a country dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- I believe that is a tragedy.

I believe that a child’s course in life should not be determined by where they come from or what they look like.

And most of all, I still believe that education remains the best hope for upward mobility and happiness, especially for kids like Jonathan.

How do we create schools that are accelerators of social mobility and that are catalysts for economic productivity?

Part of the answer is  school choice.

There is no doubt that school choice has expanded access to quality education for families.

Today, about 10 million kids -- one out of every six -- attend a public charter, a private school or are home schooled.

The 3.4 million children who attend charters have achieved impressive gains, especially those kids from low-income households.

But having a choice in schools is not a silver bullet.

Because even the best charters are falling short when it comes to preparing kids for success beyond high school.

At a time when earning a college degree is more and more important, too many kids who start a degree aren’t finishing.

Nearly 50 percent of students who start college don’t finish in six years.

For low-income students, the results are even more dire. Less than 10% of them finish college.

This is a challenge even for us at Camino Nuevo. 27% of our graduates finish college within six years. That is three times better than the national average for low income students. But it is still not good enough.

If we are serious about building schools that contribute to ending generational poverty and creating sustainable educational progress, we need a third way.

Call it school choice plus.

This third way entails creating schools that feature a strong curriculum plus a broad range of meaningful non-academic opportunities, activities and experiences for students.

It means creating schools that are model educational institutions plus that are strongly embedded in the communities they serve and recognize the complex challenges -- socio-economic, legal, cultural -- that families face.

It means championing education policies that promote greater accountability plus that support different models of schooling.

We need to recognize that what works in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles may not work in rural Indiana or downtown Detroit.

Building schools like these is what we have pursued at Camino Nuevo.

I’m dedicated to charting this new path because I see a lot of myself in kids like Jonathan, and I don’t want them to have to go through what I did.

Like Jonathan, I didn’t grow up with a lot of money.

My parents came from Mexico to America when I was four.

Neither of them received a formal education. This wasn’t unusual. They grew up in rural central Mexico where children started working right after middle school, if they went to middle school at all.

Neither of my parents learned to read or write. My Mom’s signature was an X.

They worked hard. My Dad was a dishwasher and my Mom made extra money by washing, ironing and babysitting for our neighbors.

They were loving parents, and they wanted a bright future for my siblings and me, but they didn’t see education as being able to deliver that future.

In addition, I went to schools that didn’t see any value in engaging parents like mine.

I was on my own. I had to navigate the education system by myself.

In third grade, I realized I was in the lowest reading group in my school and would have to work to change that.

I wasn’t given the support to improve my language skills, and, as a result, I was held back in the sixth grade because my English was still not good enough.

I didn’t find out about the possibility of college until the seventh grade.

When I declared my intention to be the first of my family to go to high school instead of working full time, it didn’t go over well with my parents.

They only let me go if I paid my own way. So I worked as a cashier to pay the tuition at an all-girls private high school.

I went against my parents wishes again when I moved across country to go to a small liberal arts college on scholarship.

It was a difficult transition. I wasn’t as well prepared for the rigors of college as the other kids, and I felt out of place as only one of a handful of fellow students of color.

But I persevered, and I graduated.

I also discovered my passion for education.

I had learned what access to a good education can do. It had been a path of opportunity for me, and I wanted to clear that same path for other kids like me.

But I had also learned that if more kids were going to have the opportunity to succeed like I did, we couldn’t accept the status quo.

I knew that from my own experience. In high school, every semester I had been on the honor roll. But I was still grossly underprepared for college.

I knew we needed to disrupt a system that was not doing right by kids from the same background as me.

We needed to build schools that lit the light of learning and kept it burning.

At Camino Nuevo Charter Academy we have so far built eight such schools. We serve 3600 students from preschool through high school.

In addition to a rigorous academic program, our work is based on three key principles:

One: Engaging families as true partners in the education of children.

Two: Exposing students to real world experiences and enrichment opportunities.

And three: Building trauma sensitive and informed schools with strong community partnerships.

Let me illustrate these principles through Jonathan’s experience.

We know from the research that when parents are involved in the child’s education it makes a difference.

With involved parents, kids go further and the schools they go to get better.

We worked with Jonathan’s Mom from the beginning. Growing up, Jonathan spoke Spanish at home, so it was important to her that her son receive a solid bilingual education.

We worked with her to make sure that happened, and within a few years of starting school, Jonathan was fluent in both Spanish and English.

We built a partnership with Jonathan and his Mom, working with them to reinforce the expectation that Jonathan would go to college and helping them navigate the application and admissions process.

We offer all of our parents these services and more. We have workshops on literacy skills, parenting and leadership and advocacy training. Our schools employ full-time student and family services coordinators to keep parents informed and involved.

It is impossible to be a Camino Nuevo parent and not be involved!

As I learned, success in college requires more than just good academic skills. It also depends on confidence, social capital and resilience.

That is why we spend a lot of time exposing our students to rich experiences outside the classroom.

We want them to understand what is possible and open to them in the wider world. We want them to build relationships with mentors and community leaders that they can draw on later in life. We want them to love to learn and experience new things.

That is why Jonathan and his classmates were required to participate in four outside experiences a year. They range from visiting colleges, to attending diverse cultural performances and exhibitions, to participating in community service and completing an internship.

If our schools are to be truly embedded in the communities they serve, we have to recognize the challenging and traumatic circumstances that our students and their families face. They are confronted by food and housing insecurity; lack of medical and dental care, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence.  We have to help them meet these challenges head on.

That is why we offer our students and families a variety of supportive services. Our family coordinators help students and their parents with such services as health case management and emergency financial assistance.

In Jonathan’s case, although he worked part-time, five days a week, the family still faced financial pressures. We were aware of this and were able to help him and his family out.

At Camino Nuevo, our care for our students does not and cannot stop at the schoolhouse door.

As we look to the future, what policies will help us continue to make progress along our third way?

In thinking about this, I am guided by something the poet Audrey Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”

We all care about educating the next generation.

We believe in the right to a free, public education and that education can be a gateway to a life of opportunity.

But following Audrey Lorde, we need to realize something else.

Our schools and our students don’t exist in a vacuum. Their success is influenced by a host of social and political factors. Our approach to education policy must take that into account.

My students -- low income students of color -- live in complex ecosystems.

Education policies that are developed in isolation of this ecosystem won’t improve student performance, student engagement or student outcomes.

We need a more comprehensive and equitable approach to education policy.

What does this mean?

It means taking language barriers seriously and advocating for policies to effectively educate English Learners and put them on a college access pathway.

It means recognizing the serious disadvantage that many students of color and low income students face when they start college underprepared and confronting this disadvantage by better preparing students for the start of their college careers.

It means combining our education advocacy with advocacy for affordable housing and living wage jobs.

The lack of affordable housing and low wages are key barriers for families in urban areas. High rents force families to live in overcrowded conditions. Low wages force parents to work multiple jobs, and they don’t have the time or the money to support the education of their children.

And finally it means being honest about how current immigration policies are having a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of children who have immigrant parents. The vast majority of these children are US citizens.

I know that immigration is a complex topic, but certainly we can agree that it is not in our best interest to intentionally traumatize a generation of US born children by preventing their families who may or may not be legally here from accessing critical resources children need to thrive – such as food, housing and healthcare.

I am specifically referring to the proposal to radically redefine the existing “public charge” policy.

The change in this policy will inherently make mothers and fathers choose between adequate healthcare for their child or the possibility of one day establishing permanent residency in this country.  Those parents will have to choose between one or the other. What would you chose?

These and other draconian immigration policies risk disrupting the education of an entire generation, a generation whose success will be critical to the future prosperity and vitality of our country.

We do not live single issue lives.

Our schools are not isolated from the social, political and cultural currents of our times.

They are and should be embedded in the communities that they serve.

And that means getting an education is not solely about academics, it is about creating an environment that allows kids to learn and thrive.

That is the moral of the Camino Nuevo story.

Education is the shared responsibility of me…

Of you…

Of every American…

I ask you to have courage to stand for ALL children.

Thank you.