Sometimes when you’re talking to someone on the phone you can just hear the excitement and passion in their voice. That was the case with every person I talked with about The Accelerated Schools, a charter school in South Central Los Angeles that started 20 years ago by two teachers who dreamed big.
Those teachers, Johnathan Williams and Kevin Sved, had heard about the accelerated school philosophy: if you teach students at the highest level possible, and get the community involved, students will excel. They wanted to put the philosophy in action – in a neighborhood where safety and security were often more of a concern than education.
Because they wanted to use the accelerated school model for the new school, they named it The Accelerated School.
Students at The Accelerated School
As part of their charter approval, they needed to raise $200,000 to get the school off the ground. They submitted a grant proposal to Wells Fargo. Tim Hanlon in Wells Fargo Community Development received the proposal, and could sense the drive and enthusiasm of these two teachers. But the proposal needed work, so he met with them in person to refine the request.
Wells Fargo awarded them an initial grant. Johnathan said the grant money from Wells Fargo allowed the school to open its doors. After that initial grant, Wells Fargo’s support of the school has continued, not just with grant money but volunteers—team members serve on the board and volunteer at the school.
Model of success
The school started with 50 students in grades kindergarten through fourth, and has grown to an enrollment of 1,500 in a preschool, grades K–8, and the Wallis Annenberg High School.
Wells Fargo’s John Ward (right) with The Accelerate Schools co-founder and CEO Johnathan Williams.
What’s impressive is that the average high school graduation rate is more than 90 percent, and 100 percent of the most recent graduating class were accepted to college. Today it’s among U.S. News & World Report’s top 500 schools in the U.S.
Part of the successful growth is community and parental involvement. Parents contribute at least three hours to the school every month, ranging from having a seat on the board to helping in the office to assisting in the classroom. Johnathan said they we want students to see parents involved so they understand the importance of education.
Wells Fargo team member John Ward is a member of the school’s board, and was originally drawn to the school because he’s passionate about education. He said that a child’s potential is limitless with good education and the proper environment, and that The Accelerated School has fostered an environment where kids can be relaxed and engaged. It’s an “anchor” in the community.
From basement to new building
When the school opened in 1994, 50 students were enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade, and the school was in the basement of a church. For three years, the teachers had to pack up everything at the end of each day.
Meanwhile, Leonard Rabinowitz, one of the founders of clothing designer Carole Little, was looking to donate a 185,000 square foot manufacturing facility in South Central. During the 1992 riots, the building was a target of rioters. Members of the community kept rioters from doing additional damage. He said he was overwhelmed at the support from the community, and wanted to give back.
His idea was to donate the facility to the school system, which could use the building and area for a school and playground. But there wasn’t a mechanism in place to donate it. It took a few years, but he finally found a way to donate the facility, valued at $7 million, to the school. Rabinowitz now sits on the school’s board.
The next challenge was converting a manufacturing facility into an educational facility. Eric Johnson, president of the board of trustees, said they worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to apply for bonds – a “true public-private partnership.”
Since the school opened, the neighborhood has been shifting to more Spanish-speaking residents, so the school has adapted. Johnathan said they teach Spanish grammar to build on current language skills and teach them English.
To assist with that, the school is looking to expand its current dual-language ACES program by building a new campus. Fifty percent of the curriculum is taught in English and 50 percent in Spanish. The new campus will allow for 450 students.
As The Accelerated Schools continue to grow, Wells Fargo’s involvement also continues.
Johnathan said, “Wells Fargo played a huge role in investing in us and allowing others to see the potential.”
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