Seven Years on the State Board of Education: Yvonne Chan Looks Back

May 23, 2012

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It has been an exciting learning experience. Most of the time, it's uphill and as a grassroots person, it was interesting having the opportunity to do top down and try to stay grounded. It has allowed me to grow as a charter leader. It gave me a lot of ammunition to carry on, so watch out!

Dr. Yvonne Chan
Principal, Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima
Former member of the State Board of Education

Proposition 39, charter renewal and revocation regulations, the high school exit exam, statewide benefit charters and the state's response to failing districts and schools in the wake of No Child Left Behind - these are just a few of the issues the California State Board of Education (SBE) took on during Dr. Yvonne Chan's seven-year tenure on the board.

"She was an incredible asset to the SBE, not only as a charter school leader, but as a special education advocate and overall education expert," said Colin Miller, Vice President, Policy for the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). "Her passion and commitment were evident in all the issues before the board."

Dr. Chan was already a veteran educator and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) when, in 1993, with the support of teachers and parents, Vaughn Learning Center in Pacoima became the first traditional school in the state to convert to a charter school. Vaughn has since grown from 1,000 students to five campuses under one K-12 charter, serving 3,000 students in the neighborhood and revitalizing the community. Vaughn has been honored as a California Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon School.

"She sat on that board for as long as she did because she was really good at building consensus across different parties and factions within the education community. She was very good at listening and getting everyone's perspective and coming up with a solution," said Gary Borden, Senior Vice President, Statewide Advocacy for CCSA.

There is a student delegate to the SBE each year and Dr. Chan would always take that student under her wing, make sure they understood the issues and got the most out of the experience possible.

"That is emblematic of who she is," said Borden.

We recently interviewed Dr. Chan about her service on the SBE.

How did you get involved in the charter school movement?
Vaughn Learning Center became the first conversion charter in California in July 1993, which was significant for many reasons. We were the first in the nation to convert a failing school into a successful independent charter. We took on the second largest district in the nation - Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). As a conversion, we had to be blessed by nine unions. And we had 100% high-poverty, minority students and we didn't have any philanthropic support or wealthy board members.

That is, to me, an historic event that gives hope to all grassroots independent charter schools that it can be done over time. It took us 20 years.

I don't want to say this was my idea. I had been the principal of this failing school for three years, a veteran school administrator in LAUSD. At that time, 60% of teachers were on emergency credentials and students in the community were being bused out to access special education services. The parents and the teachers organized the conversion. They wanted to get out.

I was the prodigy of superintendent and senior staff of the district and had the option of going to another LAUSD school. At that time, no one was willing to take on the Charter School Act or try converting. No one was doing it, so that prompted me to say, someone has to attempt this.

I'm a first-generation American. I came here at age 17 from China, with $100 in my pocket and poor English and I was able to complete a doctorate at UCLA. I believe the American dream is still alive and that we could find a way to do it.

Also, I felt insulted by the system - the state, the unions, the district, the county office of education - that had a collective belief that we could not do it. I believed we could do no worse.

Academically, we know what we needed to do. Financially, we penciled out that we could do no worse.

Everybody told us not to go, but that gave us even more incentive. It was that unity and collective effort, the grassroots level charter. By rowing the boat together in the collective direction over time, it was a shorter route to a better education.

The whole scenario of David and Goliath played out, Vaughn vs. LAUSD. Instead of waiting for Superman, we became Superman ourselves. No one else came to our rescue. We opened school July 1 and never looked back.

What was it like serving on the California State Board of Education?
I'm very busy, but I understand the value of putting time into policy and advocacy. I'm very supportive of CCSA's advocacy work. I knew we needed to widen the circle of responsibility to help my community, my kids.

To make a change, you have to get like-minded people together, make an initiative and be a champion of the movement. I'm very independent in my thinking and decisions. Sometimes I played quarterback, but I seldom played defense. I hate playing defense. No one has called me and said you shouldn't have done that or slapped my hand.

I believed the money should travel with the kids so I advocated for that. The idea that I represent all kids has always been foremost. I pushed through alternative assessment for special education students and the CAHSEE exemption and pushed for the alternative charter-only SELPA.

I was the only one on the board who was still in the trenches, still a practitioner. I felt that I was respected because I have an open mind. I never let anyone push me in the corner and tell me I have to do this or that. I don't do quid pro quo. I can speak the truth as I know it. I provided the board with a reality check.

What are you most proud of from your time on the SBE?
In terms of charter schools, Proposition 39 and piloting the charter-only SELPA that could provide the flexibility and accountability for students with disabilities. Overall, I was the voice for your high-poverty, highly-challenged, low-performing schools that are going through transformation. I was the one to give the voice of reality that change takes time. You can't tell these dedicated staff and teachers, I give you one year and you must perform. Whether it's assessment, accountability, or drop-out prevention - I was the voice for those underdogs in providing that protective shield of time.

Tell us more about your work in special education.
I wanted to see more effective delivery and to make sure the charters would have a part in coming up with innovative solutions to a persistent problem. Through a pilot, we formed a SELPA with more accountability, but also more autonomy in serving the kids.

I'm passionate about it because of my institutional background in this area. First of all, I was an LAUSD principal, then we converted so I'm one of the few with before and after data and who knows the challenges. It was the same school, same kids, same neighborhood. I had also been a program coordinator in the special education division of LAUSD, responsible for 126 schools in the San Fernando Valley and was involved in the district's special education master plan.

I knew what wasn't working. At Vaughn, we had no program for students with significant disabilities, no staff, no housing, no time. Every student that was identified was sent to another school or into a private placement.

One reason we converted at Vaughn was that parents with students with disabilities wanted them to come back to the school. We took responsibility for them.

The traditional system had its opportunity and it didn't work. I can advocate for an alternative system because we were a conversion school, serving the same kids in the neighborhood before and after. When we converted, our special education students made up 10-12% of the school; that is now down to 6-7% because many can now exit special education by second or third grade. That gave me the leverage to help the entire charter school movement to push back and to speak up about alternatives. I also was able to make sure that my colleagues in the charter world would deliver.

What's next for California's charter school movement?
The charter school movement 3.0 is around the accountability and evaluation of high-performing charter schools. CCSA coming out with a matrix, LAUSD's work on this and the SBE regulations on revocation and renewal all aim at: How exactly you measure effective, high-performing charters? Should it be strictly academic or other factors? That's what we need to figure out. Charter schools could be the guinea pigs or the next phase of assessing the effectiveness of all schools. How can we do it really consistently, in a way that's research-based and with replicable data, as well as qualitative data? Can we come together as the charter world?

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