Schools That Think

April 1, 2000

The Service School
University Public Schools, San Joaquin Campus, Stockton, California
Principal: Mary Welch
Grades: K-5, expanding to K-6 in September 2000
Number of students: 350
Founded: 1999
Mission: To bring the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.

Christina Cross, 43, finally has found the elementary school that she’s been looking for, right here in what used to be a grocery store on a dusty road just off Highway 99 in Stockton, California. Cross thinks that it’s the perfect place for her 8-year-old son, Will Thomson, who’s a third grader there. Never mind the storefront setting. Never mind the there’s not a blade of grass in sight, thanks to the huge parking lot. Here, at University Public Schools, Cross has found a place that offers a challenging curriculum, one based, she says, “on learning how to think.”

What’s more, Cross found it all without leaving the public-school system, thanks to a 1998 California law that increased the number of charter schools that could be created throughout the state’s 8,000-school public-education system, from 100 to 250 and allowed for the creation of an additional 100 schools each year. Fortunately for Cross, her local district agreed to contract with University Public Schools, a nonprofit group of educators and businesspeople, to start the charter elementary school that her son and 349 other children now attend.

“Parents can have a say about what’s important to them,” says Cross about UPS, which leased the old grocery store and opened its freshly renovated doors last September. “If we think that it’s important for our children to learn about different holidays because of the many different cultural backgrounds in our community, we can ask, ‘Can this be included?’ It’s nice to be involved in the education that goes on here.”

Count Cross as one more proponent of school choice. Since the first law authorizing charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991, 37 states have passed similar laws. And the resulting schools have become powerful change agents in the push for education reform. A charter school, as its name implies, operates under a charter — a sort of mission statement that describes the school’s objectives in terms of student achievement. Test scores are just one proof of that achievement; others are records of attendance and individual progress. And in exchange for that achievement, the school receives per-pupil public funding and the freedom to reach its educational goals using curricula and teaching methods of its own choosing. Charter schools have a high incentive to attract and to satisfy both the state and parents: Without students and without proof of their achievement, there is no money and no school.

“This isn’t anti-public schools; it’s pro-public schools,” says Don Shalvey, 55, CEO of UPS. “I see charter schools as a way of demonstrating that public schools can be responsive, can grow, can change. Change creates a vibrancy. It forces you to consider what matters. Working at this school is like coming to work in a flotilla of kayaks, rather than sailing in on an ocean liner. You’re right on the water, where the action happens.”

Shalvey knows firsthand the difference between the small flexible charter school and the large, hard-to-maneuver public-school system. In addition to serving as CEO of UPS, he worked as a public-school superintendent in San Carlos until January 2000, an affluent community near Stanford University. His involvement with charter schools dates back to 1992, when his district became home to the first charter school in California. “We saw it as a necessary element in a high-performing organization,” he says. “You want to be able to attempt thoughtful innovation. That’s what charter schools do in the public-school system.”

But it wasn’t until Shalvey joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings, 39, a leader in the drive to pass the new charter-school legislation in 1998, that he realized that if one charter school could promote change, then a whole system of charter schools could leverage it. With $1 million in startup money from Hastings — a sum matched by the New Schools Venture Fund last fall — the two men officially launched University Public Schools in 1999. The goal: to create a system of 110 elementary, middle, and high schools throughout California over the next 10 to 15 years. From the beginning, says Shalvey, the intent was to develop scalable models and to share all of the lessons learned along the way. Other for-profit charter schools were not as forthcoming. “We felt that none of the existing charter schools in California had as their purpose the intent to create replicable models,” says Shalvey.

With a staff of eight full-time educators, UPS opened one small school in Modesto last year, and this year it plans to open another one in Oakland and two more in San Joaquin County. But its real focus has been on the campus in Stockton, a 350-student showcase for education reform, in particular in demonstrating the idea that education can and should be a service industry.

“Traditional schools operate on an old-fashioned factory model,” says coo Gloria Lee, 29, who left McKinsey & Co., in San Francisco, last year, taking a 40% pay cut to work with UPS. But education is really a service business, where each child is highly individualized. “It’s more like strategy consulting,” says Lee, who has a master’s degree in education and an MBA.

What makes the UPS model so successful? What creates all of the satisfied parent-customers? It’s the teachers. Recruit the best teachers you can possibly find. Treat them as professionals, experts in their fields who don’t have to be told what to do in a classroom. And reward them. Link pay raises to performance — their own and their students’.

“Good teachers are the key to everything,” says Elise Darwish, 34, the organization’s chief education officer. “You can do everything in the world with infrastructure, but if you don’t have good teachers, kids aren’t going to learn.”
At UPS, teachers’ raises in pay are based on merit; they are tied to meeting team goals as well as individual goals and are measured in student achievement. Teachers are encouraged to plan standards-based thematic units together and to share knowledge with one another. They have the freedom to develop their own curriculum, and they are involved in every aspect of school administration, including hiring other teachers.

It’s an unprecedented amount of freedom for teachers who, in traditional public schools, often complain that they’re given neither creative leeway in the classroom nor input into their school’s decision-making process. On the other hand, UPS does not offer tenure: The job security that many public-school teachers take for granted simply doesn’t exist at UPS. Teachers sign one-year contracts.

But tenure aside, teachers have shown an overwhelming interest in joining the faculty. In fact, for each of the 18 positions available at the Stockton school, 20 people applied. Teachers are so eager to work there some of those who were hired willingly make a daily commute of nearly four hours to come to work.

“We’re all willing to take a risk. That’s why we’re here,” says fourth/fifth-grade teacher Gina Solari, 33, who is also lead teacher for the school’s four fourth/fifth-grade teachers. “I believed in that when I came here, that I would be part of something big — a big idea.”

And that’s precisely the idea. “The basic principle at this school is that a rising tide lifts all boats,” says Lee of University Public Schools. “Our hope is that existing public schools will look at us as an example to follow and ask, ‘How can we learn from them, so that we, too, can better serve our children and their families?’ We’re trying to build a system of charter schools that has the ability to empower good people so that they can make a difference.”