An interview with Caprice Young, Charter School Hall of Fame inductee

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, Caprice Young will be inducted into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter School Hall of Fame, which recognizes the movement’s pioneers and leaders whose contributions have made a sizeable, lasting, or innovative impact. Caprice Young has been a charter innovator for over two decades. The former founder and CEO of the California Charter School Association, as well as former board president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, Caprice now leads the Magnolia Public Schools—a group of charter schools ranked among California’s very best. This is her interview, conducted by Fordham’s Jamie Davies O’Leary.

Jamie Davies O’Leary: You oversee the Magnolia Public Schools, a group of California charter schools that are STEAM-focused (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). What is happening at Magnolia that you’re most proud of?

Caprice Young: Magnolia’s schools were started by a group of world-class graduate students in science programs at USC, CalTech, and UC Irvine dedicated to the vision of developing and graduating students who are scientific thinkers and civically responsible. Our academic program is rigorous, hands-on, and student driven. Over the last two years, we have added arts to our STEM-based curriculum because cultivating creativity and imagination is critical to invention and discovery. For instance, our students in grades K–2 do an art lesson centered on the design and engineering of puppetry. Our teachers invented Next Generation Science Standards–aligned lessons in collaboration with the Wallace Performing Arts Center and their artists.

In middle and high school grades, we’ve secured the first ever school partnership with the Mount Wilson Observatory—the center where all of the major astrophysical discoveries of the last century were made, where Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding! Our students have direct access to two solar telescopes there. Graduate students and Carnegie astronomers teach our secondary students about the scale of space and spectroscopy with the actual equipment scientists use! They even get to sleep over, staying up most of the night looking at the stars through The Hooker telescope, then sleeping in the same dormitories slept in by famous scientists. This exposure is important, but just as exciting is the simple act of driving one hour from the city to the top of Mount Wilson. On our first trip, we realized when we got off the bus that most of our kids had never touched snow.

JDO: Magnolia graduates 97 percent of its students, and 65 percent of your college-going students are the first in their families to do so. To what do you credit Magnolia’s success?

CY: Our “secret sauce” comes in several different flavors. One of the most important ingredients is that our students and families get to know each other well. From the beginning, Magnolia has conducted annual home visits to at least 25 percent of our students’ homes. It’s not just about ensuring that parents and guardians know how their children are doing, but also about teachers understanding the context of each student’s life outside of school.

We also truly celebrate science. What I mean is that our science fairs rival what Texas high schools experience around football games. We celebrate our robotics team and our Genius Olympiads. We make science as packed full of adrenaline and school spirit as sports teams.

JDO: Last year the LAUSD attempted to non-renew three of your charters, but the county board overruled them. Can you talk about that, and tell us what the deciding factor was?

CY: The main reason the county approved our charters and overrode the LAUSD school board was that LAUSD was just wrong. The three schools they tried to close are three of the highest performers in Los Angeles. Two of them have held the top spot for charter schools in U.S. News & World Report in Los Angeles; one just won an award in the Washington Post. LAUSD’s attempt to non-renew us ran counter to law stating that the number-one factor that should drive renewal decisions is academic achievement. During the past few years, the Los Angeles school district has engaged in overwhelming, intentionally harassing audits, which go well beyond any reasonable accountability and have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. Fortunately, the State Auditor thoroughly reviewed and cleared Magnolia of accusations independent of LAUSD’s process. We are thankful that the county board approved us, rather than jeopardizing the education of so many of our students. It underscores the importance of an independent appeal process.

JDO: Why is this sort of thing happening—folks opposing not just low-performing charters but even the good ones, like LAUSD did to you? Or like the failed ballot initiative in Massachusetts to lift the cap. What can be done?

CY: In Massachusetts, there simply wasn’t a strong enough movement to back it. It was unfortunate and made me very sad, but it wasn’t a surprise to me. People don’t support charter public schools until they become personally connected to one—as a founder, staff member, student, board member, parent, grandparent, vendor, or other partner. The opponents of charters have long-term cash to put behind their falsehoods, and people have trusted those messengers for generations; they don’t check the facts unless they experience them personally. This is why I really oppose all forms of charter school caps. Strong schools take time to build, but once the momentum gets going it is unstoppable because it becomes so personal. That is the strategy that has worked in Los Angeles: grow fast, help each other be academically successful and operationally sound, build an ecosystem, and become a real community that is integral to families.

JDO: What else can we do moving forward to win the war of ideas and shift public opinion on charter schools?

CY: We need to put money into it. A lot of money. The folks opposing us have the advantage of being able to use taxpayer dollars to spread misinformation. We need to make sure that families from all walks of life know that charters are great options for their kids, and we need to make it easy to enroll. We also need to put money into teacher recruitment. Teachers who want to do professionally creative things, who’ve been limited by the stifling nature of large bureaucracy in some school districts, can find a good fit in charter schools. We need to better market ourselves through community outreach directly to families and teachers, and in doing that we’ll have a broader impact on public perception as well.

JDO: What is the biggest myth we need to address through a coordinated campaign?

CY: The whole notion that charters are “privatizing” education is nuts. What does that even mean? Opponents like to say that big corporations are taking over traditional public schools—but this is just not the case. Almost every single school is run by a non-profit, community-based organization. In California, we have a genuine partnership between historically disenfranchised communities, philanthropists, and civic leaders who want economic progress and civic engagement. It is a very positive trend for public education as a whole.

Now, the very few irresponsible large for-profit players do need to be held more responsible—through direct competition. But just because a group is contracting with a for-profit entity for all or part of the program doesn’t mean that the school is bad. The determining factor should be whether the students needs are being met.

JDO: Let’s talk a little bit more about that—the discussion about “profit” in education. You’ve overseen some impressive turnarounds of schools that were failing financially, so your perspective on school quality—not just academically but financially speaking—is unique.

CY: What is important is that you’re running good schools—not whether someone is “making money.” Traditional public schools have an enormous number of people “making money.” What matters most is the quality of education being provided.

When I led a turnaround at the Inner City Education Foundation, their portfolio of schools was academically successful, but financially struggling. They were in real financial duress even though the schools had near 100 percent graduation rates (including from college). It had made some risky management decisions, a bad facilities decision, and some people maintained some faulty assumptions about how much philanthropy could be attracted. One of the reasons we survived is that most of the vendors—bus drivers, food service providers, etc.—were local neighborhood entrepreneurs who had their kids in the schools. So the buses kept coming, and food kept being delivered, even though the payments were months and months late. It was a complete community effort to keep them running.

There was an amazing coalition between grassroots education, parents, and philanthropists. That’s a really important coalition to have, and it doesn’t exist in some states—yet—but we can build it.

JDO: Do we need to be closing more schools? How do we make sure that schools are successful academically as well as financially?

CY: I believe that when one school fails, we should resist the urge to seek a sector-wide systemic fix. That is like prescribing penicillin to everyone when one person catches a cold. Some failure is normal. Businesses fail; some non-profits do. We need to try to save academically successful schools because creating a strong academic program takes years, while operational turnarounds take months. If that is not possible, we need to scoop up the kids and make sure we help them enroll in good schools. We need to make sure good teachers get good jobs where their professional potential can be supported. I’m on the board of a school now that we’re closing—it was an experiment that just didn’t work. We hired Parent Revolution to work with our team to help find those placements for students and made sure other charters could recruit our teachers early. That’s just the responsible thing to do.

I do think, though, that if we try to make rules so that nothing ever goes wrong, we’re going to look a lot like the traditional public school system. Every form, every line on every form, is tied to some previous transgression. Punishing the bad actors makes more sense.

JDO: You’ve done a lot of work in both the tech sector and with virtual learning. What do you think needs to happen with virtual schools in order for them to work better for kids?

CY: What we found as we ran independent study programs was that we absolutely had to have students fully trained and fully engaged within a week of signing up for the program. Sometimes that meant sending someone out to the students’ homes, or having them all come together in a centralized place to train together. Once we did this, students tended to be very successful. Online learning, just like in-person learning, requires a sense of community. Successful online programs are ones that prioritize and are able to build that sense of community. However, fully online programs really are not for everyone, and the law requires online charters to accept everyone regardless of whether the program matches their life situation or learning style. That’s a problem.

JDO: That’s an interesting on-the-ground perspective in terms of what the virtual schools themselves could be doing. Is there anything we can do from a policy standpoint?

CY: Online programs need to be absolutely upfront with families about the skills and support students need to complete the programs successfully. Detractors call this “counseling out,” but it is really just honesty. In most cases, you can’t leave an academically challenged thirteen-year-old home alone all day to complete a program that requires reading on a sixth-grade level. Independent study, online programs, and flex schools can have brilliant student outcomes, but only in partnership with families.

As for rulemaking, it is fair to require a student to show actual engagement prior to the schools counting them as enrolled. You wouldn’t give facilities-based school funding for students who don’t show up. Also, what we found successful in Chicago (where we ran online programs collaboratively with the school district and Cook County jail) was that leadership matters a lot. The head of the online learning program was selected from local staff that led the program on-site. Kids did credit recovery on-site, and only once they reached a certain milestone were they allowed to do their work off-site, virtually (except the ones in jail). The leader knew the students personally, knew who was doing the work, who was engaged, and who was likely to be successful in the learning environment. We found that the leaders couldn’t be just anyone; they needed to have a genuine commitment to the program and be willing to take personal responsibility for its success.

Finally, it’s important that online learning not be seen necessarily as always a full-school solution. Online learning shouldn’t be an either/or. It can be a good tool for all types of schools to use, for all kinds of kids who may need a more diverse learning environment—students like my own daughters, who thrived in online courses but also attended full-time traditional programs simultaneously.

JDO: You helped unite a variety of charter groups in California when you founded the California Charter Schools Association, which grew to become the nation’s most powerful state charter association. What lessons can you share from that experience, specifically in uniting different groups?

CY: This happened in 2003, and no one back then would have called the California charter movement a “movement” at all. There were plenty of folks feeling frustrated because charters, on the whole, weren’t focused on quality from an academic perspective, and in general were somewhat opposed to an increasingly powerful standards movement. This left them open to criticism about whether charters should exist at all.

Charter leaders of some of the stronger schools got together and realized they needed to stand for academic quality in addition to choice. Around this time, they were looking for someone to unite charters around the mission of quality, so that was when I “left” the LAUSD board to create the state organization. One thing I realized, though, was that you couldn’t have quality until charters had the necessary infrastructure and ecosystem. At the time, charters had no access to cash-flow financing and a host of other support systems normally taken for granted. Successful schools couldn’t even add grade levels and were stalling out in their growth. One other unexpected finding: They had enormous trouble getting access to insurance.

JDO: What about facilities?

CY: Believe it or not, facilities weren’t the number one problem at the time. It was insurance. We met with three hundred charter leaders around the state to learn more about what could be done, and then built goals and objectives for the California charter schools movement by first providing insurance, cash-flow financing, and other resources to schools willing to focus on academic quality (measured in many different ways). We focused first on what they needed most immediately to function operationally so the leaders could shift their focus to quality. And the collective action on operational resources created a funding stream to support advocacy and growth.

JDO: What stands out most about the wide array of charter founders you’ve worked with?

CY: The reason I love charter people so much is that, when you really think about it, they accomplish something amazing. Imagine finding somebody who passionately loves kids and community—that’s a plus in the first place. Then imagine that person can articulate a strong academic learning strategy—an even bigger plus. Now consider that that person is organized enough to write it down into a coherent document called a charter, which is really a business plan with an educational component; and then is articulate and charismatic enough to get the right people to sign it. And they are crazy enough to stand in front of a hostile public body and argue that their theory of education should be approved. And then this person has to convince enough families to entrust their children’s education to them—the most precious relationship of all. And then they have the implementation capacity to pull all that off. You’re talking about really powerful people! Those are the people I want to hang out with.

JDO: Whom do you admire most in the charter movement?

CY: I’m a massive fan of Yvonne Chan, Johnathan Williams, Don Shalvey, Sue Bragato, and Joe Lucente. They were the ones who really established the culture of the California charter schools movement—a culture of community collaboration. That is the DNA that we were able to build from. Joe is a genius around operations. Yvonne encouraged leaders and practitioners to really support one another. Now their teachers have become school leaders and founders expanding the movement.

JDO: What other models do you see doing innovative work that we should all be following?

CY: I love da Vinci Public Schools—Matt Wunder’s schools in close partnership with Wiseburn school district. He does two kinds of schools: high schools that are tech related, where the kids are engaged in projected based learning and discovery, and that have deeply embedded partnerships with local industry; and also schools that are K–8 flex programs, in which students attend school two days a week, work from home two days a week, and one day is an enrichment day. We really have the opportunity to learn from and build on the flex model. Kids want school to be a place where they do things, where they learn by getting involved, and where what they’re learning really matters to their daily lives. If I could wave a magic wand, every school would not just be creating kids who can get jobs—I want to build schools so that every kid also can create jobs.

JDO: What’s your biggest accomplishment, and what do you see in your future?

CY: May I take some credit for getting out of the way of my kids—who are now twenty-one, seventeen, and fifteen years old? They were sort of my guinea pigs in the education system. Figuring out what works uniquely for each of them was a big challenge. Starting the California Charter Schools Association, which grew out of my work as a school board member and an understanding of what we collectively faced, has been an accomplishment in which I take pride. Even bigger than that is that my successor, Jed Wallace, has made it twenty times more successful. I’m proud that I created enough of a foundation and gave him something strong to build on.

I love educating kids and supporting creative educators, and I am having a great time leading Magnolia. I just want to reach more kids and nurture this blossoming movement. Charter schools leaders are putting the public back in public education of all kinds. I want more kids to get the kind of education that enables them to develop self-confidence, to love learning, and to create industries and social inventions we haven’t imagined yet. 

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.