Turning College from an Aspiration into a Reality: Aspire’s Approach

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education launched a new program under the Charter Schools Program (CSP), called the Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools program. This competition provides money to help successful public charter schools serve more students. The Department has now invested over $260 million in charter management organization (CMO) grantees working to launch over 500 schools—of which about 250 have already opened—across 20 states. Just this week, we announced the newest cohort of these CMO grants—so it seemed like the right time to explore how a current CMO grantee is helping students succeed. Aspire Public Schools is a two-time grantee under the CMO competition—with demonstrated success in getting students into college.

While Aspire began in California, the initial CMO funding from CSP allowed the organization to start new schools in Tennessee, part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. It also helped them launch and expand high-performing schools in California. Several of these new schools were secondary schools, which gave many of Aspire’s elementary and middle school students a full K–12 pathway. Aspire now serves over 15,000 students across the entire K–12 continuum.

According to Aspire’s Chief Financial Officer Delphine Sherman, these grant funds enabled the organization to give principals and teachers the planning and training time they need before opening a new school. CSP funds also supported intervention specialists and other key staff to meet the needs of individual school communities. For example, at a brand-new school in Richmond, California, the school team hired a community liaison to assist with starting the new school, which was especially important since this was Aspire’s first school in the city of Richmond.

“We knew we really needed a community liaison at this new school—someone to help us get to know the community, and help them get to know us. Partnering with families and communities is such an important part of our model,” Sherman said.

The CSP grant also helped Aspire invest in and grow the organization’s talent pipeline by supporting its innovative teacher residency program. Under that program, new teachers spend one year co-teaching with a mentor teacher and take on increasing responsibilities in the classroom as the year progresses. After completing their apprentice year, the residents go on to teach on their own, but continue to receive intense coaching for three additional years.

About a quarter of Aspire teachers come into the profession through this pathway. They have high retention rates and strong evaluations that indicate their effectiveness in helping high-need students learn. Encouragingly, well over half of the most recent class of teacher residents are people of color who reflect the communities they serve—a goal set by Aspire leaders.

“High-quality teachers are the highest-impact lever to help students succeed. Because of the support from the Charter Schools Program, we’ve been able to recruit, train, and retain high-quality teachers for our students,” said Nate Monley, senior director of the residency program.

With their 2014 CMO grant, Aspire hopes to replicate its current success. Aspire students currently have a four-year high school graduation rate of more than 90 percent, as compared to 81 percent for the nation. But they know that high school graduation is not enough. “College for Certain” is Aspire’s motto, and the organization is working hard to meet that goal. Aspire teachers typically start talking with students and their families about college as early as kindergarten—consistent with recent research about the value of setting the expectation that students will go to college. Importantly, this commitment is also reflected in Aspire’s curriculum: Aspire students must pass five college-level courses to earn their high-school diplomas.

The result of this hard work: every graduating senior at Aspire has been admitted to a four-year college or university for the past six consecutive years. And the teachers, communities, parents, administrators, and students who made it happen now know that college can be more than an aspiration for all students—it can be a reality.