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02.28.18The University Prep Turnaround, Part 3: Olga Rico-Gutierrez on Family and Community

“Our campus did not open in a vacuum…”


This is the third in a series of posts written by David Singer and his staff at University Prep – Steele Street in which they describe their lessons in taking over and turning around a previously failing school.  I describe a bit more about the series here. And you can read the two previous posts here and here.  

Today, Olga Rico-Gutierrez who was a founding staff member of the original school–Pioneer Charter School, writes about family and community relationships. Olga has led the operations team at University Prep- Steele Street since the school’s inception and during the transition from Pioneer Charter School to University Prep – Steele Street, remained at the school. “No individual has been a more consistent and committed presence in the building over the last two decades,” observes Singer. Olga is currently the Dean of Operations for the campus. She discusses how the school focused on honesty and empathy in ensuring their successful inclusion in the school’s community.


Our campus did not open in a vacuum – when University Prep arrived at 3230 East 38th Avenue there was already a strong school community in place.  This community had been growing and cementing itself for nearly twenty years as Pioneer Charter School.  Pioneer alumni brought their own children to school.  There was some understandable hesitation to accept the closing of Pioneer and the opening of a new school where so many felt at home.  It was time for some honest conversations.

Before any data was shared with our parents, we had to demonstrate to them that our concern and our urgent desire for change was coming from a place of love for their children. It was not enough to say that we wanted a better education, a better life, and a better future for their children; we had to show them this was true.  Therefore, we began by meeting them and their families via home visits, cafecitos, and posadas – all before U Prep had an official home at Steele Street.  We held family forums and listened to their concerns, their wants, and their needs, before even beginning to tell them why and how University Prep was expanding its reach.

Then, we dove into data and results.  In full transparency and honesty, we shared, with empathy, that their children were not being served as they should have been and in turn, they were years behind academically.  However, that did not have to be true for the remainder of their academic lives.  They could and would achieve.  It would not be easy, but together, we would change the expectations, we would provide the necessary supports, and the results would transform.  The conversations that took place between our leaders and educators and our families at our first parent-teacher conferences as U Prep were difficult to say the least.  Imagine telling the parents of your third graders that we had had to begin remediation efforts – teaching math and reading at a first-grade level, or that their sons and daughters were still reading at kindergarten levels.  Many were embarrassed when they should not have been.  It was not their fault.

Over time, as the hard work started to bear fruit and we began to see tremendous amounts of growth, we celebrated right along with them.  We made sure that all of our families were invited to our weekly Community Circles (a chance for the whole school community to gather) and special calls were made to parents of scholars receiving awards.  Every small win was deliberately shared with children, with families, and amongst the team. Every small win was recognized as a proof point to what’s possible for each and every child we serve. Every small win was honored and illuminated!

As we celebrated the growth of our children and the incredible efforts of our team and families we also started to recognize that in some cases, children would need more time – the word “retention” started to cross our minds as we discussed what was best for our scholars.  For some of our scholars, as much as they were pouring their heart and soul into learning, one academic year wasn’t enough time to make up for years of undereducation.  Some scholars needed more time.  At first, we were firm in our stance that some scholars would need to remain in the same grade level the following school year.  Some parents had no qualms and agreed to the retention. They understood, alongside of us, that more time wasn’t a label, it didn’t have to be perceived as a negative experience. Whether a child is 21 or 22 when they earn their college degree is of little consequence. As such, taking one more year to reach that peak in a supportive and loving environment is a highly beneficial opportunity.  Other families, however, did not think that retention was in their child’s best interest and some chose to enroll their children at other schools.

After countless discussions with families and honest reflection on where we were and where we wanted to go with our scholars, we recognized the need for compromise.  A few scholars who had initially been recommended for retention were advanced to the following grade level. Along with that agreement came a commitment, by both families and the school, that children would continue to receive a number of interventions the following academic year, which could include intentional instructional blocks with other grade levels. We further committed to close progress monitoring and communication in the new year to ensure effective “catch up” was taking place.  If growth and achievement goals were not met for a second year in a row, retention would be a necessary option for the scholar to continue on their climb up the mountain “to and through” college.

We, as a whole community, wanted more for our children. In order to get there we had to stop doing what had been done before; we had to stop settling for “good enough” and push for what we have graciously stolen from a partner organization who shares our relentless love and commitment for children and families – “good, better, best – never let it rest”. The Pioneer Charter School community, with its nearly twenty years of history, was always filled with brilliant, capable, talented, and inspiring children and families. Our work did nothing to change that. Our work simply ensured (and continues to ensure) that the true capacity of our incredible children and families is revealed to our city, our state, our nation, and to ourselves.

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