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Green Dot Public Schools CA leader and past high school principal Cristina de Jesus shares the Green Dot Public School approach to overcoming the challenges of distance learning on EdSource’s Schools on the Frontline podcast, hosted by Carl Cohn. 

We serve over 11,500 students, offering high-quality, socio-emotional-supported education in the most vulnerable areas in Los Angeles. School leader de Jesus explains her upbringing and motivation around providing high quality education; explores the duties expected of her as a CEO of a Charter School; How Green Dot tackled distance learning since March; and how de Jesus has grown as a leader by spearheading this organization and charter policy across the state. 

Listen to the full podcast on Ed Source website or read the transcript below. 

 

Carl Cohn: How would you describe the current demographics of Green Dot students and their families? 

Cristina de Jesus: We serve a 94% socio-economically disadvantaged student population, 14% student with disabilities, 17% English Language Learners, and 98% students of color. So really focusing purposefully on communities that have been systemically excluded from high quality options. We have 19 middle and high schools because that’s where the need was when we were founded 20 years ago. This was around when the phrase ‘drop out factories’ was coined, and so we intentionally focused one of the hardest areas which was high school. Our mission has always been to transform public education so all students graduate prepared for college, leadership, and life. And lastly, we really try to focus on supports for teachers and educators and treating teachers like professionals. We like to say that our goal is that teachers feel successful, appreciated, and empowered, and so every day we work to make sure those three things are true. 

Tell us about your early life and career before Green Dot. 

I was the oldest of four children. I grew up in a mixed raced home. My father was born and raised in the Philippines and his whole life dreamed of coming to the United States. My mother is of Irish descent and they instinctively knew that for me and for my four siblings the education we would receive in the schools in our neighborhood were not what they hoped for. They knew how to navigate the system and well before charters existed they got what was called an inner-district transfer that allowed us to go to schools in a wealthy neighborhood in San Diego. That choice to find us a better school option completely changed the trajectory of my life and it changed the way I dreamed about what was possible, it gave me access to an environment where everyone was expected to do and be their best every day no excuses, and gave me access to a peer group who lived in a world that I wasn’t familiar with - a would of resource and abundance. And it was a world that taught you from a very young age that you should walk into every room confidently and never doubt whether you belonged. The minute I felt that and saw that I wanted more of it for me and for others. that for me and for others. 

My parents were the first to teach me that parents have the right to choose education options for children and that you don’t have to settle for the school down the street if you don’t think it’s going to be good enough for your children. I began my quest to create those same opportunities for other people’s children. I began my career in Santa Monica among some of the best teachers in the country, I started as an educator 25 years ago as a 6th grade English and History teacher in Santa Monica and Malibu School District at Lincoln Middle School. I was part of an environment where everyone was expected to do and be their best every day but this time I was the teacher. 

I was surrounded by colleagues who really taught me what it meant to be a strong educator and a strong teacher and teach with passion and empathy. I learned from the best and I wanted to take what I learned in Santa Monica to communities where families were looking and desperate for higher quality options and where parents - just like my own - were looking for something better. So 7 years after teaching, I made my way to Green Dot and haven’t left since. I’m going into my 19th year at Green Dot, my 7th year as the CEO of Green Dot CA, I started as the founding principal of the 2nd school at Green Dot and we now have 19 middle and high schools across Los Angeles. 

What does a President and CEO actually do?  

Honestly I have the same responsibilities as any superintendent across the country. In fact, Green Dot CA’s size is in the top 7% in terms of size of district across the country. We have 11,000 students and most districts are fairly small, so that situates us right towards the top in terms of size. On top of the traditional responsibilities of a Superintendent, I think I take on several responsibilities that are fairley unique to charters.  

For one -- I know this is a controversial statement in some ways -- I do believe and have experienced charters as the most accountable entity in the public education system. Charters are the only schools in the public education system that have to prove every 5 years that they have earned the privilege of serving the students they serve. If they can’t prove it, they close and that is not true of any other traditional public school.  

I am accountable to my 12 member board which includes the 2 Presidents of our 2 Unions. We’ve done that on purpose to really ensure there is transparency and communication and that our teachers and classified workers have a seat at the decision making table.  

In addition to that, our schools are accountable to the boards of 5 different authorizers across the city. All of those 5 authorizers have their own oversight requirements including an oversight visit each year that includes a review of our educational program, our operations, and our financials. 

Charter authorizers have the ultimate power over charter schools. They can approve or deny our new schools, they can renew or deny schools that are up for renewals and they can revoke existing charters. So that extra layer of accountability does require additional work.

We put a lot of effort into grassroots student recruitment each year to ensure every family in a community has access to the information so that we can honestly say that we have provided every opportunity to every family to enroll in our schools. Our schools are free and open to all -- that’s also something else we have to help people understand because there are lots of myths out there about charters. 

In an environment that is honestly quite hostile towards charter at times, I spend a lot of my time on advocacy to try to help change the narrative but also to try to influence policy that will be better for our mission. 

Tell us briefly about the shutdown of in person learning back down in March and the switch to distance learning. Do you think that charters were better prepared for distance learning than perhaps traditional public schools? 

I think there’s a lot of districts that have done really good work during the shutdown period. March 13 was the day we closed our school buildings - I will remember it forever - and just like everybody else we had to completely reinvent the way teaching and learning comes to life in our organization. For us, it was important from the get go to ensure whatever model we built really focused on every child. So not having access to a computer was not going to be a reason for a student not to engage. 

We used four guiding principles to get us through the Spring and now through the fall since we’ve already started for the fall:

  • Equity and access
  • Connection and wellbeing 
  • Transparency and communication
  • Sustainability 

We’re really trying to manage the budget with all of the different information we’re getting about funding. In the spring we learned a lot of lessons and there were 3 key pieces to our approach that have really helped us to be successful:

  • We took the time to show teachers what virtual learning looks like. To expect teachers to transition very quickly was not going to work. We actually spent a week doing PD with teachers virtually to help them navigate systems and understand best practices around virtual learning
  • We built a whole system aligned around supporting teachers through the Spring and now through the Fall
  • Ensuring we had tight coordination and collaboration across all schools in the organization -- so every school is on the same bell schedule so it’s easy for parents to know whether your student is a 6th or 12th grader this is the schedule and here are the subjects they will be taking and it was easy for teachers to navigate as well. 

In the Spring 72% of our students required a device. We bought enough devices for every single student who needed one so they could connect to distance learning. Over 1300 of our students needed internet hotspots so we provided those internet hotspots so they could connect to the internet. We were able to partner in the spring with UCLA -- a team of researchers helped us study our data and learn from best practices. Each week we were administering surveys to teachers and in the Spring that 98% of teachers agreed that they felt connected and a sense of community through our weekly PD and all the efforts their administrators made. Over 90% of families agreed aligned to our mission and they felt that their school demonstrated a deep sense of care for their children during the Spring. We’re proud of those numbers and we were also able to engage 96% of our students through distance learning. 

We carried that through the summer: instead of having summer melt, we did the Green Dot summer climb. We offered several different summer programs online. Students were allowed to keep their Chromebooks over the summer so we had summer school for students who needed to recoup credits, we had summer bridge to transition incoming 6th and 9th graders to their new middle or high schools, and our expanded learning team and our curriculum teams created a separate website for daily summer enrichment M-F so even if a student wasn’t engaged in one of our formal summer programs they were able to stay engaged through that summer enrichment programs.  

School started a week and a half ago, not last Wednesday but the Wednesday before. So far, we have had 91% of our students accessing assignments on Google Classroom and 86% attendance. We’re striving for 95% which is our typical percentage. So it’s a strong start in this first week. We have the 240 minimum minutes that are required by the state are all live instruction for us. So students have 240 minutes minimum of live instruction with a teacher engaging with voice and camera on -- teaching lessons live. 

Are teachers delivering lessons from their schools or their homes? Do they have a choice? 

They have a choice. We wanted to be mindful-- we have quite a few teachers who are parents and would not have options for childcare if we asked them to come and teach in our school buildings. Our school buildings are open for teachers who would like to teach in their classrooms but they can also teach from home. The background that you see here -- the Green Dot background in Zoom -- we’ve created for all our teachers so there is an option of privacy. Same for our students, we’ve created one of these Zoom backgrounds for each of our schools with their logos so that everyone can engage fully and not be distracted.  

 

Cristina you’ve played a state leadership role whenever the issue of changing the existing charter school law comes up. You and I served on a task force with Superintendent TARLICKSON and this past year you were on a task force convened by Superintendent Tony Thurmond at the request of Governor Newsom. That work resulted in AB 1505, signed into law by Governor Newsom and now being implemented in districts across the state. Tell our listeners what those basic changes and how do you see implementation going in LA Unified - a school district that has more charter schools than any other school district in the nation. 

 

I think we were on two task forces together if I’m not mistaken! This last task force I was really honored to work alongside a group of individuals - I think there were 11 of us total across the state - and everyone came with a willingness to listen and to collaborate and really have their minds change about what’s happening in other people’s worlds in the education space. People spent at least one day a week for over four months hopping on planes, coming to Sacramento, convening, and having really tough conversations. It wasn’t always easy, but I fundamentally believe that everyone at that table had the best interest of children at heart. 

It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of that. 

AB 1505 for me I think solidifies that charter schools do have a place in the public education system in CA. It also ensures that charters continue to be held accountable and it also provides a path for new schools to open and for existing schools to be renewed or denied. The good news is that it’s creating a sense of consistency across the state. It used to be up to individual authorizers to develop their own renewal criteria, and AB 1505 is creating a good deal of consistency and I hope will serve to squash the ‘us vs. them’ dynamics that are out there about charters vs. traditional public schools. 

My understanding is that there is still some further guidance that will come from the state to clarify some of the pieces in the legislation that are still a little bit nebulous but for the most part it’s creating a strong foundation for consistency. 

Related to LAUSD, we have a longstanding history of partnering with LAUSD. I anticipate that our shared commitment to provide historically underserved families with access to high quality schools will remain the focus of any future policy changes relating to AB 1505 or anything else. 

I will applaud the LAUSD’s addition of the core student growth percentiles to the criteria for renewal in addition to the academic outcomes on the CA dashboard. I believe that a student growth measure is extremely important when it comes to measuring the academic value a school adds to the students furthest away from opportunity. Without that growth, you really lose a whole side of the picture of outcomes at a school so I’m really proud and excited that they’ve added that element at LAUSD. 

I’ll honestly say that I’m a little concerned by some of the pieces that have been added that aren’t focused on student outcomes. Things like outstanding district invoices as a reason to deny a renewal, enrollment trends and demographics also being considered in renewals. I am concerned about those elements however hopeful about the addition of the student core growth percentiles because it really tells me they’re focused on student outcomes ultimately when it comes to renewals of existing schools. 

Finally, Cristina, how has leading under these extraordinary circumstances changed you as a leader?  

I believe I am forever changed as an educator and a person as a result of the last six months. I’ve never felt more humbled, more challenged, or more hopeful in my 25 years of education as I have in the last 5-6 months. I just read an article that was titled Why the Worst Job in Education Right Now is the Superintendent’s because the issues we’re facing are so vast and beyond the scope of anything we’ve ever had to deal with in such a short period of time. 

Perhaps the most distressing of all the challenges is the fact that in the last five months the persistent inequities and injustices that have plagued our country for centuries have been laid bare. The pandemic has exposed for all to witness the digital divide, the resource divide, the opportunity divide, and the reckoning with race that our country is grappling with right now is inextricably tied to the digital, resource, and opportunity divides that exist within the public education system. 

To further emphasize that, there was a study that just came out that struck me that estimates that students living in low-income communities may have lost in excess of 1 year’s worth of academic growth just in the last 5 months. That is life changing. Those are life-changing stats that really give me more of a sense of urgency and bring the mission of my organization into greater focus. I really do believe in this moment, it’s important for all of us to leverage privilege and our power to protect the potential of the students in the public education system. 

If you’re like me and you’re actually going to put in 50 years at this, you’ve got another 25 to go. So what is next for you? 

That’s my hope! I have to steal some of that energy and passion from you Carl. I’ve never been one of those people that have planned 10-15 years ahead in my career, I just put my head down and do the work. I’ve been fortunate to experience the opportunities I have. I’m going to work, grind, and use my passion to push outcomes for students forward and do everything I can to contribute. 

Thank you so much for coming on and visiting with us today much appreciated. 

Of course. I appreciate you, please take care of yourself.