Q&A with Blondean Davis, CEO of Southland Prep Charter

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Blondean Davis, a top deputy under former Schools CEO Paul Vallas, left Chicago Public Schools in 2002 to become superintendent of south suburban Matteson Elementary School District 162. The predominantly black, high-poverty district defied conventional education wisdom with soaring test scores and a national award under Davis.

Recently, Davis helped spearhead the launch of the first charter in south suburban Chicago: Southland College Prep, which will serve graduating 8th-graders from District 162. The charter fought a successful battle against Rich Township High School District 227, a relatively low-performing district that tried to block the school and argued that it would drain resources and students.

Blondean Davis, a top deputy under former Schools CEO Paul Vallas, left Chicago Public Schools in 2002 to become superintendent of south suburban Matteson Elementary School District 162. The predominantly black, high-poverty district defied conventional education wisdom with soaring test scores and a national award under Davis.

Recently, Davis helped spearhead the launch of the first charter in south suburban Chicago: Southland College Prep, which will serve graduating 8th-graders from District 162. The charter fought a successful battle against Rich Township High School District 227, a relatively low-performing district that tried to block the school and argued that it would drain resources and students.

Southland got the final green light from the Illinois State Board of Education last spring and opened in late August with its first class of 125 freshmen. Davis will serve as the charter’s unpaid CEO, reporting directly to ISBE. Southland will offer a longer school day—typical of many charter schools—require every student to take four years of a foreign language, provide tutoring and student activities after school and include daily common planning time for teachers.

Davis talked with Contributing Editor Cassandra West about educating minority children, how Southland got started and the hurdles ahead.

Q: Your district scores far higher than districts with similar demographics. What led you to think something new like Southland was needed?

A: Southland exists really because of my experience in Chicago. I know that there is a feeling that somehow things are not working in Chicago. But I know that there are many schools that worked extremely well in Chicago, and I understood why they worked. So I approached this experiment from the Chicago [perspective], having seen neighborhood schools that worked well, having seen magnet schools and how they worked.
I believe very firmly in Ron Edmonds’ (a leader in the Effective Schools movement) philosophy that we know how to do this. We want to make excuses. If you want to talk about mobility, the low graduation rate, the high dropout rate, what race people are, poverty–who do we have left to educate? Those are valid factors, but those are things that have to be compensated for and can be compensated for in a climate where educators are determined. 

Q: Why did you believe a charter school was the best solution to parents’ dissatisfaction with District 227?

A: I didn’t.  I had to really think about this. I wasn’t always in favor of a charter school education. What we wanted to do was to prevent parents moving to Lincoln Way and into Homewood-Flossmoor [school districts]. We had parents who were paying to go to Marion Catholic, $9,200 a year. Parents were beginning to be more aggressive in their conversations over at 227. They were asking us as an elementary district to do something.

The last thing that we considered was opening a charter school. There were no other options open to us.

Even though this was not our original intent, now that the four elementary schools [from District 162] have come together here in Southland, I think it was a good idea.

Q: What reaction did you get from officials and teachers in your district?

A: July 21, 2009, is when I brought this to my board.  And they said “When are we going to get started?” That was the end of that. They have supported me. Everybody feels that we must do it, that we’re on a mission. 

Q: Were you surprised at the reaction of District 227?

A: Absolutely.  I did not expect wholehearted acceptance.  What I had thought they would say was, “Okay, we don’t want to do this, but let’s embrace this as a partnership.” 

Q: More than twice as many girls as boys are in the freshman class.  Does that concern you, since boys at this point in their education are usually lagging behind girls? 

A: It concerns me, but the charter law is very clear.  We are forced into a public lottery.  And enrollment here was decided by balls coming out of a machine.

Q: So more girls applied?

A: More girls applied, but also we lost [boys] when 227 posted their list of boys that would make the basketball team.  We will have a basketball team, but we need two years.

Q: How would you describe support for the charter?

A: I guess all the parents have been [supportive]. The people who have been reluctant have been some elected officials. We really haven’t received the push-back I thought would come from the public. I’m not saying that everyone is in favor of charter schools, but I’m saying that even people that did not have children say that there should be a choice.     

Q: Tell me about the need for fundraising.

A: Absolutely it is necessary.  The budget is that tight.

Q: Have you started fundraising plans?

A: We’ve organized our [non-profit] foundation already.  We have written these small grants but we really need to bring in some higher level [donations].

Q:  How much money will you need to raise?

A: At the state board I was told “If this is to be functional, Dr. Davis, you need to fund-raise and we see that you need to raise a minimum of $250,000 a year.” I understood that from the beginning. I think more realistic is $500,000.

Q: About a half million a year?

A: Yeah. Every year.

Q: Are you enlisting the community and businesses?

A: Well, we have already gotten donations from the community, but we need big-picture money. The community has raised about $48,000. I appreciate that. It’s a wonderful thing.  But I need foundation [money], grants and so forth. Now we’re going to have to go for larger grants over time because I have to create stability. 

Q: What do you think of how charters have expanded in Chicago? What limits if any should be placed on charter expansion?

A: I’ve lost track, really, of what’s going on in terms of charter schools in Chicago. I don’t think that there should be a limit on any structure that’s going to help children.  But if there is going to be a charter, the strongest charter is one that comes from the educational community and then begins to spread out

 


Related:

 

Catalyst In Brief: Chicago’s Charter Schools

Catalyst In Depth Summer 2010: Renaissance 2010