Alice Miller: Reflections on 20 Years in the Movement from One of the First Charter School Parents

March 22, 2013

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It's the charter school equivalent of boy meets girl - caring parent meets passionate educator and a charter school is born. In 1992, parent Alice Miller connected with Don Shalvey, superintendent of San Carlos School District in the Bay Area, and the two joined with other parents, educators and community leaders to found California's first charter school - the San Carlos Charter Learning Center.

Alice Miller is now CCSA's resident expert on everything related to charter schools as our Director of Knowledge Management, providing info and counsel to hundreds of charter schools every year via our Help Desk. She recently shared some reflections on her 20 years in the charter school movement.

In 1992, Alice Miller's youngest son was a student in the San Carlos School District when she heard a proposal from then superintendent Don Shalvey to create something no one had ever heard of - a charter school. He had been reaching out to community leaders and parents around the plan. Remembers Alice:

Don Shalvey has to have all of the credit for capitalizing on the potential of charter schools. Our vision was that this school is going to be the little red engine that could, pulling all the other schools in the district along. It was exciting to me, but it was also a big risk.

It was a tough sell to parents for a simple reason - San Carlos already had excellent public schools - a reason many people had moved to the neighborhood in the first place, including Alice.

You're asking parents - there isn't anything more important than their children and their education - they already have world-class education and you're asking them to take a leap of faith and support this brand new movement.

For the Bay Area families who had the means to make a choice - there seemed to be two options. They could move into a more affordable community with weak public schools and send their children to private school or they could move to a more expensive community with great public schools. Alice Miller was strongly committed to sending her children to public schools.

Every child in California has an inalienable right to a great public education and we can't settle for anything less than great schools. It's an equalizing opportunity - I have the luxury of deciding whether to send my child to a private school or to insist that he attend a public and insist that school have the same performance and ability to provide services to kids. I am so supportive of public education. I wanted my kids integrated into public education and to be able to connect to all types of people and experiences.

Alice was convinced in the potential of the new charter school for her son. Ultimately, 67 parents took that leap of faith to enroll their children in the new San Carlos Charter Learning Center, which is still thriving 20 years later. The original petition was just a dozen pages.

I'm so proud of everyone who has ever been involved with San Carlos Charter Learning Center. The key success is due to staff - we had and still have world-class teachers. It wasn't just recreating what already existed, but the whole point was to try something new and take the flexibility and run with it. That fire in the belly was the reason any of us would do this stuff and why some of us still work there 20 years later.

Alice would go on to work at the first organization to provide support to charter schools - CANEC - and would see many changes in the movement as it grew from a handful of schools to more than 1,000. The first schools were all "mom and pop" operations, many of them very small. Don Shalvey would go on to lead one of the biggest charter school networks - Aspire. There were other big changes like AB 8544 which lifted the cap on charter schools and made other changes like requiring credentialed teachers. Looking back on two decades, Alice said the biggest surprise and frustration was the amount of push-back and antagonism from the educational establishment.

We were idealists. A lot of us were also anti-war activists - we thought that if we could stop a war, we could create an education revolution too! We thought that if we came up with these great innovative ideas that works for kids and we can prove our kids benefit from this, the whole education community would say, this is terrific and we're going to jump on board and do what's best for kids. We thought that this would take the world like fire.

We knew that our mission was to create better schools and it was always predicated on the assumption that if you don't succeed, then you don't exist. So many of us were frustrated because traditional schools can exist forever with no accountability, continuing to fail their kids. That's been one important outcome of the movement - the idea that failing schools should not continue to just go on and on.

I'm most proud that 20 years later, not only are there are so many of us, but that we've actually made significant changes in the traditional education sector - ideas like small schools, project-based learning, individualized learning plans- these are concepts that are now very widely accepted.

It was the biggest risk of my life - my own child. I was willing to embrace that because I believe that he would have better opportunities and I felt a personal connection. That's the reason that charter schools continue to be so appealing to parents.

I still want the same thing I wanted 20 years ago - make quality education available to every student in the state. It should be their educational right, not dependent on how much money their parents have. I'd like to see the charter movement across the country be the go-to movement.

I'd like to see people taking risks in putting themselves out there and trying new ideas. I want to see accountability that actually means something where you don't just embrace change for changes' sake, but you can prove that your methods work and I want to see the rest of the world embrace that. I want the whole education community to come together behind things that work for kids.

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