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Building Synergy between Charter and District Public Schools

LA charter uses recess rules and "Scholar Lessons" to bridge the gap

Hundreds of public charter schools across the country are co-located in school buildings with district schools. That’s normal.

What’s not normal is what’s happening at Synergy Academy in Los Angeles: students from co-located charter and district schools are playing together at recess, and teachers have joined up for shared professional development.

“We were specifically designed with the intent of not just serving the kids who come to our school,” said Meg Palisoc, the co-founder and CEO of Synergy Academy. “We always believed what we could do in a charter school could be replicated and transferred to a traditional district school … We really wanted to share.”

Meg and her husband Randy both left their first careers in education to become elementary school teachers in LA Unified School District (LAUSD). They weren’t people who naturally accepted the status quo. In 2001, Randy read an article in Time Magazine featuring the Accelerated School in South Central Los Angeles and learned about charter schools. The couple read up on charters and decided to create their own. They wanted their school to play by the same rules (same length school day and year, same curriculum); but they wanted it to have completely different results — and they were determined to share what they learned with LAUSD to help all kids.

In year one, Synergy served students in kindergarten through fifth grade. At the end of the year, the students’ test results made the school No. 1 in the ZIP code. Parents and teachers were proud, but Meg and Randy weren’t satisfied; children in more affluent communities were scoring 200 points higher on standardized exams and only 28% of Synergy students were reading at grade level.

“It’s great to be No. 1, but 28% of kids reading at grade level isn’t great at all,” Meg said.

Meg and Randy had some tough conversations with families, set expectations higher, and kept working. In 2013, Synergy was named the No. 1 charter elementary school in the state of California and the best urban elementary school in the United States. Synergy has expanded over time and is now a small network that also includes a middle and high school. In 2015, the high school, Synergy Quantum Academy, was named a Best High School by U.S. News & World Report and was featured in the Los Angeles Times as a “model school.” The Walton Family Foundation has supported Synergy with $1 million in grants since 2008.

Meg says there are three main reasons for Synergy’s success: First, the school empowers parents with data — helping them to understand how their children are doing and how they can help. Second, the school is intentional with time and culture. It has developed a set of 21 “Scholar Lessons” based on Randy’s oft repeated lessons to students (such as “Do the right thing even when no one is looking,” “Eye contact equals brain contact,” and “Do it right or do it again”), which have become a way of life. Third, the school is leveraging technology to maximize student learning.

As Synergy has grown, it has been working to accomplish what it was created to do: share.

It shares with its neighbors. All three of the Synergy schools share space with district schools. Synergy’s elementary school has shared the recess practice Randy developed — “Organized Play” — with its neighbor school, Quincy Jones, and all of the children use the method to play together at recess. There was also a recent joint book club with teachers from both the charter and the district school. At the middle school level, there’s a joint professional development between the three schools that share space on how to increase cooperative learning.

It also shares more broadly with educators in Los Angeles. Synergy has started hosting “Let’s Trade Secrets” workshops to share best practices and answer tough questions collaboratively with fellow educators. A session on Organized Play drew educators from LAUSD schools, charter schools, and private schools. The district superintendent of LAUSD, and educators from charters and district schools will come together at an upcoming session to discuss how to help long-term English Language Learners who are still struggling with English.

Finally, it is working to share beyond LA. Meg says the next wave of sharing means going bigger. She is aiming to create a series of videos that capture and share the methods and practices that have worked at Synergy so that more students can benefit.

“As former district teachers, we never saw it as ‘us vs. them,’” Meg said. “Charters are an opportunity for us as teachers to be able to have a school that is empowering for teachers, kids, and families — and to get results and share.”