News + Ideas

Aspire Public Schools

The Problem:

Students from low-income communities often lack high-quality school options, leading to a growing achievement gap and soaring dropout rates.

The Innovation:

In 1999, Don Shalvey, a longtime educator and former school district leader, set out to create a system of schools that offered students from low-income communities the opportunities an excellent education brings. This innovative system of schools focused on a rigorous school culture, a “College for Certain” philosophy, high standards for all students, autonomy in staffing choices, and the use of student and teacher data to inform decision-making. Aspire Public Schools has since grown into a network of 30 schools serving 10,000 low-income students across California, setting a model for other charter management organizations to follow – and plans to keep growing in order to provide more high-quality public school options.


In 2010, 100% of Aspire graduates were accepted to college. A record 17 Aspire schools surpassed the target score of 800 on California’s 2010 Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s measure of a high-performing public school. Aspire’s overall API score of 824 made it the highest-performing school system in California serving a majority of high-poverty students.

How NewSchools helped:

As Aspire’s first institutional donor, NewSchools put up early capital to help the organization get off the ground when no one else would. “Aspire was an idea and now it’s 10,000 students strong and 30 schools across California,” says Aspire CEO James Willcox. “All because of an idea, coupled with the support and expertise of a bunch of people who knew how to start organizations and had some critical money and a network around them.”