"The achievement gap is too big for just one organization to close"

July 24, 2012

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Synergy Academies is dispelling the myth that charters and districts can't co-exist peacefully. Synergy Charter Academy principal, Jennifer Epps shares her perspective on the charter movement, co-location, and the work still to be done in closing the achievement gap.

Jennifer Epps offers a unique perspective from the charter world. She began as a founding teacher at Synergy Charter Academy nine years ago, and today is the principal of the elementary school. Synergy Charter Academy is co-located with Quincy Jones Elementary School - a traditional Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school - and together they are trying to forge new ways for charters and district schools to work well together. Synergy strives to create and share solutions that eliminate the achievement gap and are living up to their model by sharing best practices in their own backyard.

Synergy Academies was founded by two LAUSD teachers - Meg Palisoc and Randy Palisoc - who were determined to prove that all students were capable of academic success, regardless of their background. Meg and Randy decided to start their own school; Synergy Charter Academy opened in 2004.

What's it like working at a co-location site?

We are not like other co-location sites where the charter school is located in a separate area that is set apart from the traditional school. We have many shared spaces like bathrooms and play areas and we operate on the same bell schedule. Our classrooms are right next door to each other and our students have lunchtime and morning assembly together. The principal at Quincy Jones and I spent a lot of time that first year working on routines and procedures. We constantly work together to share more both academically and procedurally, and we now have a very good working relationship because of this.

What was it like going from being a teacher to leading a school?

The hardest part was transitioning to leading the people that I had been working closely with for the past four years. I went from being their friend and colleague to sort of being their boss.

Another difficult part of transitioning came from shifting the way I thought about implementing change. As a teacher, everyone has ideas about how to change things and make them better, but from a leadership position it's sometimes hard to actually put these ideas into place because there are many different elements to consider. It was a huge shift in perception, but I love it.

How do you handle teacher retention at Synergy?

I think of my teachers as my bosses, and it's my job to make sure they are effective, happy, and not getting burnt out. As a leader, I should be modeling self-care and balanced living. When I'm hiring people I tell them, "I will kick you off this campus at 4:30. If I leave at 4:30 you do too." Now, does that mean that I leave everyday at 4:30? No, but I want them to realize that they can and should have lives. All of that stuff - family, home-life, and relationships - comes before job mission and vision; and it is possible to have a balanced life as long as people are working efficiently. I don't want my teachers reinventing the wheel every year. We have procedures and systems in place and curriculums for them to use, so that they don't have to. If they're efficient, then they can have balance and if they're balanced, then they don't get burnt out.

What do you think that the charter movement has accomplished in California?

I think charter schools have upped the ante - they've shown in many different ways and in many different areas, using all different types of teaching philosophies and curricula, that children can be successful. And maybe not all charter schools are at the level we want them to be at yet, but I think they've made it impossible to overlook the children in our communities. It was easier ten or fifteen years ago to look at South Central and say that kids can't be successful because of all of the external factors. But we've shown that you can't blame these things anymore because of schools like Watts Learning Center and Synergy and Center for Advanced Learning - and at some point you can't ignore that. There are schools in this neighborhood that aren't blaming external factors and are just doing what they need to do for students.

Where do you think the charter movement could do better?

We need to be more diligent about schools that aren't performing as well. I'm not all charter or nothing; I'm not pro-charter and anti-LAUSD. I'm pro good schools. A bad charter that is allowed to remain open isn't good either. I also feel that charters need to be better about collaborating with each other and with non-charter schools. If we shared more, we wouldn't have to work as hard.

Is there anything that you're really passionate about and want to add?

Right from the very beginning, in our original charter Randy said that the achievement gap is too big for one-person or one organization to solve on its own. We all need to work together. It shouldn't be that if you win the lottery and get into this school, you win the best option for your future. If that's the direction we're heading in, then we're all going to be in a lot of trouble. This is where our sense of urgency comes from, because all of the schools need to be good. I don't want my school to be the highest-performing school in all of LA Unified because what good would that do the city of Los Angeles? All our schools need to be high performing.

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