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Editor’s Note: For this CHARTER EDtalk, our Head of Business Consulting, Tricia Blum, and CMO, Janet Johnson were honored to sit down with Michael LaRoche, Founder and Executive Director (ED), SALTech Charter High School. We wanted to learn what unique challenges he faces as the ED for a dropout-recovery high school for “at risk” or as he prefers to say “at promise” students. On the flip side, what are the greatest rewards in serving this economically disadvantaged – and underserved – student population. Read the transcript and/or listen to his inspiring story and perspective on both below.
TB: So Michael, we’re starting this conversation, which I know is going to be great, with a question. We’re doing a campaign called “We Love Charter Schools”, you know that — you have socks that say that. Can you please tell us in two sentences or less why you love charter schools?
ML: Charter schools, I believe offer an opportunity for most educators to be very innovative. No one likes to come into each and every day willing to be constantly told what to do. In the traditional school system, this is just a regular part of your day. In the charter land, as I like to call it, you really have a chance to be an innovator. You are in charge, it’s your school. You can decide what works and what doesn’t work and to me, that’s the ultimate challenge for an educator – or person really – and come to work each and every day. It’s just the best place to work.
TB: I know about that. The next question I have for you is, what is the biggest challenge you face as you serve your student population? I thought maybe what you could tell us a little about SAL Tech Charter High School and then we can jump into that question.
“They are termed “at risk”, but we like to look at them as “at promise”, given the right situation, resources and caring staff, we help them get over the next hurdle.”
ML: I serve an underserved population, economically disadvantaged population and at-risk population. I serve those students that are not maybe in the traditional school for one reason or the other. Maybe a new immigrant to the country may have aged out of the traditional schools. And therefore, that’s a very challenging population to serve.
That’s the population that most traditional schools don’t want on their books because it affects their graduation rate and therefore is a huge challenge with helping such a population. They are termed “at risk”, but we like to look at them as “at promise”, given the right situation, resources and caring staff, we help them get over the next hurdle.
ML: So, one of the challenges, the biggest challenges with that population is attendance. Attendance is huge because as a charter school you are looked at as a special assignment school by choice.
You are not a neighborhood school, students are not sent to you, students made a choice, along with their parents in basically deciding to attend your school.
As a result, there is no transportation provided for these students to come to school. This poses a real challenge—some of them have to sometimes take two buses. We give away bus passes, but even that doesn’t help all the time. So, attendance remains a major challenge.
One of the things we have been doing to sort of combat that challenge is really making the curriculum 24/7, so if they cannot make it to the school building they can at least continue to work using their cell phone, iPad, what have you. But attendance remains a major challenge for the at risk community.
TB: You just mentioned that attendance is one of the biggest challenges. What is one of the biggest rewards?
ML: One of the biggest rewards, of course, is seeing that you were able to make a positive difference in a student’s life, if not in a family. Sometimes these students are the first in their whole family to basically finish high school. That’s huge for the home.
So you are not only making a difference with the student that you are seeing, you are making a difference within that home. You are helping that student become a tax payer instead of being incarcerated or just to be dropped out of the system – you are maximizing ones potential.
All those things are very, very important as we look at a capitalist nation that we have where education plays such an important part in really helping us to be competitive as a nation. We don’t want to have to be constantly paying to support folks who don’t have the right education or aren’t prepared for the future. We want to be sure our workforce is well prepared, so I feel very, very positive and rewarded for being given this small part that I am contributing to our nation and future.
TB: I like that.
JJ: Me too.
TB: I know. The next question goes to academic performance. Can you tell us a little bit about, it says, “What do you think about required academic performance measure currently used to evaluate alternative schools serving underserved students?” Now, I know in your situation, with your authorizer, it’s kind of been back and forth, right?
TB: Can you tell us a little bit about that and then maybe moving to more general?
ML: Absolutely. One of the things that you really have to fight for and make sure to see it’s within your contract is that as an alternative school, which SAL Tech is, is we deal with students who were unable, like I said earlier on, to make it in the traditional schools, so we are looked at as an alternative, dropout-recovery school. We are trying to get students to recover credits that may have gotten a D or an F in, recover enough credits so that they can graduate with their cohorts and therefore we are doing so at an accelerated pace.
Even though we are doing a super job, and have done a super job since 2003, the contract itself in measuring academic success in an alternative school is written by the district and the district, obviously in writing that contract, will not not write that contract to favor the market, the situation, as exists, and you have to be very cognizant of that fact and be willing to amend that contract so that you can keep your business, charter school in this sense, operational.
So, at the alternative school, it would be very crazy to say you want to compete with a traditional school by letter grade, A, B, C or D. Therefore, alternative schools are governed by an alternative performance measure (which is written by the Florida Department of Education) which basically asks that we are able to move a student through one grade level, in one year of schooling.
I think that’s reasonable, that’s what the traditional schools do. Move from nine to ten, ten to eleven, eleven to twelve. Or then if you have a student has spent three or even four years in those traditional schools and was unable to be successful in obtaining a high school diploma, why then should we be tasked with any percentage, or basically saying you weren’t able to complete your high school diploma at the same time as your cohorts or you should complete your high school diploma by a certain time.
No, you should be tasked with the very same thing that they are tasked with, one grade level with one year of schooling and therefore the high school diploma is icing on the cake. You have taken an at risk student to now basically having them obtain their high school diploma.
Of course, that’s always going to be a toss-up when your authorizer is the one who has authored the contract and you understand the situation that you are in. It is something those of us in charter land have to be constantly aware of—that we are basically working for our performance to be measured fairly. That’s what we are asking for.
JJ: Sounds like a man who’s had that experience.
TB: I really like this question and I think it’s a tie in question, but what do you wish people knew about the students you serve? I think that’s a great question.
ML: It’s a wonderful question, because many a time, when you hear the word at-risk, a lot of folks basically say, I don’t want to have to deal with at-risk student; you conger up this image of what at-risk students look like and therefore you want to deal with students who are very talented, you know you have very little to do to motivate them, inspire. All that is good, and that’s what most educators wish for, but there’s another side of it and that is those students with great need.
You would think that as a district or any company, in recognizing that that’s the area that needs the most help and resources and that you will funnel the correct help and resources and especially to those who are only dealing with that population, groups such as SAL Tech. But, that’s not the case, unfortunately.
And as a result, how we’ve dealt with that population since 2003, now almost 15 years, one thing we do know for sure, is that they are very, very resilient. Stuff that you would think would ordinarily take down people, a regular student…my dad just got incarcerated, my brother just got shot, my mom is pregnant again with the fourth child and I don’t know who’s the father, I just basically found out that I am pregnant or I’m pregnant with my second child, you know, on and on.
Anything you can basically conger up with an at-risk population, and you are dealing with students who live in that environment and to have the resiliency to understand the importance of getting an education so that they can take themselves out of the environment that they are in, they are to be highly commended.
So they are not only resilient, but they are also very intelligent. A lot of us feel that you are born smart or wow this person is really smart or has high IQ, etc, etc… but theory tells us otherwise. You are not born smart. You can become smart.
So it is our job as educators to build a confidence within that group that is so at risk, a promise to let them know that they have the potential, they have the brains, they have the moxy, they have the smarts, they are very resilient and they can do just as well. It is not the start that we get, but it’s how we are going to finish, is the term that is often used.
It is the same thing with this group, they are the best, in my opinion, to work with because they are the ones that are sometimes the most hungry, the most humble, and sometimes the most appreciative of the fact that you have gone out of your way to help them, where they think everything else was lost. So, I enjoy my job tremendously.
TB: I love that. If you would, please tell us about your experience working with charter school Capital?
ML: Charter School Capital is a lifesaver! That’s just the bottom line. I started with Charter School Capital when we were still managed by the education provider, New Corp and we were looking for financing. I was tasked with trying to obtain this financing and I came across Charter School Capital from Florida Charter Support Unit, which is an organization meant to help schools finance and facilities and so forth.
When we first started talking to Charter School Capital, we were about to split away from our education provider and Charter Schools Capital felt, well, jeez, I’m concerned about your enrollment and therefore we always felt we would miss a great opportunity to get Charter School Capital on our side. And of course our education management company basically pushed the fact that since they were separated from us that we didn’t have to manage your school, which is true and we are highly questionable right now, we don’t know if we will even survive, being still with Job Corps, since they were the one that was very instrumental in putting the deal together.
Well, we survived Job Corp we able to convince them that nothing has changed. The board of directors remained the same, the curriculum has changed but is even better. The staff remains the same, the leadership is there and job corp gave us the opportunity to continue.
We continued seeking financing and we had many presentations from companies nationwide that came. And then, we said, you know what, we always wished we had Charter School Capital so we went back to Charter School Capital. That second time was the lucky time around and Charter School Capital accepted the proposal. They provided the financing and became more or less like a big brother, a big dad to us, because no one could have imagined the sort of clawback that we were going to receive from the district. No once could imagine Job Corp being envious of the fact that we are so close now we might be a threat to them, asking us to leave.
So, Charter School Capital, like any big brother would held our hands, basically showed us the way, so that I can sit here today and share that story with you. So I am very, not only thankful, grateful to Charter School Capital. Thank you, Tricia.
TB: Thanks, Michael.
JJ: Michael, thank you so much. Trish, thank you so much. And, there is a really wonderful panel that they just came from that will be on Facebook and we’ll post the link there as well, so you should go check out their recent presentation. It was standing room only. It was great.
ML: Thank you.
TB: Thank you.
Since the company’s inception in 2006, Charter School Capital has been committed to the success of charter schools. We help schools access, leverage, and sustain the resources charter schools need to thrive, allowing them to focus on what matters most – educating students. Our depth of experience working with charter school leaders and our knowledge of how to address charter school financial and operational needs have allowed us to provide over $1.8 billion in support of 600 charter schools that have educated over 1,027,000 students across the country. For more information on how we can support your charter school, contact us. We’d love to work with you!Learn More