Charting Success

Richard Farias explains how his school starts with 40 percent English Language Learners and ends up with 95 percent college entrants

Last month, the Center for American Progress held a presentation of its new report, Meeting the Needs of Latinos and English Language Learners, (see page 11) which featured key panelists from charter schools that have been succeeding with English Language Learners (ELLs). Language Magazine has edited a compilation of the insights offered by one of the panelists, Richard Farias, superintendent of the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success in Houston, Texas, which was one of the first 20 charters in Texas. The school has grown from 100 students in 1996 to approximately 950 and boasts not only a zero dropout rate but college enrollment for 95 percent of its pupils.

“Charter schools are part of education reform movement in this country. What’s been out there before and continues to be out there is failing many of our students. That’s why there is a need for charter schools. That’s why there was a need for me start a charter school in Houston.
I worked with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department for 18 years and worked with very highly delinquent youth, broken families and situations that just were pretty deplorable for kids. And that’s one of the reasons why I made home visits a part of our regular schedule was so that my teachers would fully understand what’s going on with these children in the classroom. We tend to think that kids come to school and they leave everything behind. That is just not the case. They bring everything right into the classroom. They do not learn in a vacuum. And so teachers are more aware of where these children come from, the more understanding they have of the kinds of conditions these children endure, the better they can work with them.
That was the reason that I started the charter school in Houston. Through working for Harris County Department of Juvenile Justice, I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of the schools in Houston and realized so many of the things that we were doing really were causing kids to fail. And so, what I’ve put in place at our school is totally the opposite of what was happening in the regular public schools. My school was specifically designed to address the needs of low-income children at risk. And our success has been because we’ve stayed focused on our mission, making sure that each and every child was touched in a positive way through our school program.
In Houston, the Latino population in the Houston School District is 60 percent. So wherever you go in Houston you’re going to have a high percentage of Latinos. In the East End, which is where we’re at, the Latino population is like 97 percent. And the population in my school is 99 percent Latino because I’m in a Latino neighborhood. The boundaries of our school are within 13 zip codes, with the Raul Yzaguirre School being that center of the 13. So that whole area is 150,000 people of which 97 percent of them are Latino.
As an open enrollment charter school, we get all kinds of kids, kids that are bilingual, kids that are monolingual in English and/or Spanish, obviously primarily Latino. We get kids that are in trouble. We get all kinds of kids. We are capped in terms of the numbers that we can take in. Now, 950 kids is the most I can take. I’ve had a waiting list of more than 400 for the last five years. That doesn’t change. I added 300 places this past year and a half and I still have a waiting list of 400. Families want to put their children in a smaller, safer, more secure setting. Our academic success makes it even much more enticing. But the bottom line is that families want their children safe. And that’s one of the most important things, obviously besides academics, that we must do for these children and these families.
Having been in the charter school movement since 1996, I’ve seen a tremendous change for the better. In Houston alone, principals were being told by their superintendents not to engage in any way with charter schools. That has completely changed now. Even the school districts are starting their own campus charter schools now. We’re still not where we need to be, but a lot of good things are happening now in terms of working with each other.

We started with 100 7/8th graders, so we opened up quite small. And it only took us 30 days to get the word out and we were able to fill our classes right away. And by the second year, we grew to 200, and 400 by the third year, and 650 by the fourth year. And now we’re at 950. So, there has been tremendous community support. The community families, in particular, realized that their children can be successful and all they really need is somebody to go there and show them the way. And that’s what our teachers are able to do.
I think what makes a tremendous difference is the fact that we have a very strong parent component. We require our parents to come in and be part of the school. They’re empowered to come in at any time, make their recommendations, and talk to the teachers. I maintain an open door policy when I’m there. Anybody can come in and talk with me about whatever might be the problem. But what’s really important as well is to understand that the Raul Yzaguirre is a community school if ever there was one. This school is owned by the community. They understand that it’s their school. And any problems that we might have, they’re part of the solution. They cannot just be part of the problem. So, while we incorporate the needs of the families, they have to perform a minimum of 36 hours of service to the school or a school-related activity, including the many parents without a high school diploma.
We have many parents with little education so we have built into our school program evening classes where they are able to take adult basic ed, GD, computer literacy, ESL, and citizenship courses. And so all those classes bring them. The parents are learning. The main reason we wanted to do that was so that the parents could actually work with their children at home doing their homework — that’s why it’s such a critical piece of what we’re doing.

I know a lot of charter schools are doing it — but the afterschool program is so critical, not only for the good of the child, but for the good of the community because it’s from 3:30 to six o’clock that most kids get into trouble. If they’re still at school, it’s much harder for them to get into trouble. And if you have a good program, not only a tutorial and a mentorship program, but all the kinds of activities that allow for cultural competence growth for them and for the teachers that get involved, it’s really a win-win situation. It’s a very positive thing and a very important piece I think of what not only charter schools should be doing, but all schools across the country should be doing.

At our school, about 40 percent of the kids that come in at the primary level are English language learners. And once we get to the higher grades, then those numbers decrease because we’re growing our students. And by the way, that’s one of the best models, I think, that any charter school could have is to have a full pre-K to grade 12 enrollment because you grow your students. You’re able to maintain control. You’re able to keep up with their progress and you’re able to give them the additional assistance they need when they need it. And it’s a win-win for everybody, especially for the family. Many of our families have two or three different kids in school. If they can have them all at one campus, it’s so much easier for the family as well. There are a lot of good reasons why you want to have a pre-K to grade 12 so long as you maintain the necessary autonomy between the primary, the junior, and the high school, which we’re able to do because even though we have one campus, we actually have three different buildings and each campus — each academy — has its own principal and set of teachers. As long as autonomy is maintained, it’s a very positive thing. There was a lot of concern in the beginning that the older kids would take advantage of the younger kids. In 15 years, that has never been the case.

I think that creativity and innovation are the hallmarks of charter schools. To do anything to dampen that spirit would be ruining the charter school movement because that’s what charter schools are all about. It is so clear after all these years, 100 years, the public school system has been failing so many of our kids, and for the first time, we, as a community, can actually do something besides cry about it. That’s just such an important part of charter schools. We need to keep it up there.

Summer School
We believe that summer school’s very important, so we actually have a summer school program for everyone. It’s not a required piece, except for those kids that do have to go to summer school, but we have enrichment activities throughout the summer so that kids continue to get involved, motivated and keep out of trouble. And we’re able to keep it open just like as it was a regular school day.
We have the parents involved during the summer as well. So we have a lot of cultural activities that bring the parents in as well.

I am proud to say that it was the Teachers’ Union president for Houston Federation of Teachers that actually helped me start my charter school, in spite of the fact that the union at that time was not too crazy about charter schools. But that has changed and she has actually served on my board. She did bring her representative and initially a lot of my teachers signed up for the union, which was okay. However, now that we’ve grown and we have 60 or 70 teachers, we’ve found that only five or six that are still enrolled because they don’t see the need for it because of another factor — while we demand a lot of our teachers, we also do everything we can for our teachers. You have to balance that and you have to keep them happy. As long as teachers are happy, they don’t feel like they need to be paying union dues.

We have had a less than two percent dropout rate for the last eight years that we’ve had a high school component. And this past year, we had a zero percent dropout rate. More importantly, 95 percent of our graduates go on to college.
I can’t tell you how many are actually getting their degree­­­­s yet because we don’t have the capacity to track them, but we do know that they are enrolling in college and many of them are coming back to us. Some of them are working for us now.
And it’s really, I think, a beauty when you realize that these kids are actually being successful and moving on.
I think every state really has to measure the success of its charter schools. Texas has been very active about shutting down charter schools that are not producing. And I don’t know what’s going on in other states, but if there are charter schools that are not doing any better than regular public schools are, then we need to do something with them. But the reality is that charter schools are still in their infancy as well. The school districts are more than 100 years old and they’re still failing a lot of our kids. So let’s give this charter movement a chance to grow up. In the meantime, we cannot sacrifice kids for that, but I think it’s worth our community coming together to help these charter schools because they really are very promising for the future.

Certainly in Texas, but also across the country, charter schools are underfunded compared to the regular school districts. What we do is we go after a lot of outside funding from foundations, from corporations. We have our own fundraisers. I have a person devoted to resource development so that we can bring in additional funds. And typically we’re bringing close to a million dollars extra to help support what we’re trying to do. With the holistic approach that we have — with all kinds of different activities that we haven’t even talked about today — that becomes a real key piece of the puzzle.
If there’s anything that the federal government should be doing it’s allocating funding for facilities because that’s what’s stopping the movement from growing faster than it has so far.
It’s hard to exactly define how much we get per student because of the state funds and the federal funds, especially since the number of kids you have that are low-income significantly affects how much you get from the federal government, but it’s somewhere between $8,500 and $9,500 per child. Most schools are spending more like $12,000. We’ve got 950 kids. That really brings the numbers down for us. And so we struggle. However, what we’re having to do now is to take some of that core money and use it for facilities instead of services for the students. And that really hurts as well. We just got a brand new facility and we’re still building. But we obtained financing for it. And it’s paid through the reimbursement that we get from the state.

It’s really beyond the money and the facilities when it comes to charter schools. And really when it comes to public education, it should be about the kids and sometimes the kids get lost in the shuffle because we have all these other issues going on. What’s really important to me is that I hire the best possible teachers for my kids, teachers that have the passion and the determination to make sure that each of our children will succeed in the classroom and ultimately become productive citizens of this country.
I don’t see enough of that in the regular public schools. And so I really think we need to get back to basics about making sure that we’re taking care of the needs of the child academically and not forget that they do not learn in a vacuum, so that we must also address the needs of the family that they come from and the community that they live in. When you’re working with a whole community like we’re able to do in Houston, it really does make the whole community prosper. So it’s not just about the child. It’s not even just about the child and the family, which is so, so important, but it’s got to be about the whole community coming together and caring what happens to each and every child.

Richard Farias is president and CEO of Tejano Center for Community Concerns, and superintendent of Raul Yzaguirre School for Success. He was formerly executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. He also served as a juvenile probation officer and supervisor. Prior to this time he was in the USAF, including one year in Vietnam. He served as National Chair of the NCLR Affiliate Council and the first chairman of the Texas NCLR Affiliate Network for a total of seven years. Richard attended the JFK School of Government, Harvard University, Sam Houston State University. Farias is also the recipient of the National Urban Coalition’s John A. Bowser Award, the Willie Velasquez Award, NCLR’s Affiliate Advocacy and Regional Affiliate Awards.