Academia Avance has a remarkable history, marked by remarkable achievements. In its sixteen years of educating young minds, Academia Avance has had its charter renewed three times. The school lived through the perils and funding gaps of the Great Recession, has endured through many hardships and has now proven it can succeed even during a pandemic.
Most remarkably, over 74% of graduates at Academia Avance are admitted into universities.
At the heart of this remarkable school, is a remarkable leader: Ricardo Mireles.
Ricardo jokes that his path to education happened through osmosis — both of Ricardo’s parents were educators.
After many years of working at the Los Angeles Unified School District, Ricardo began to look into alternative approaches to education in order to better meet the needs of his community. But there was a moment – an “on the road to Damascus” moment – where Ricardo’s path crystallized.
On The Road To Los Angeles
In April of 2004 Ricardo was driving back from his first Charter Conference. Having heard charter leaders speak, he felt energized, inspired, and ready for action. The message he heard echoed throughout the conference was that charter schools are not just an education movement – they’re a community-organizing movement, a community-improvement movement. That a school has an impact, not just on the students and families but on the whole community.
Ricardo thought of calling his high-school classmate Guillermo Gutierrez – now the President of that school – to pitch the idea of starting a charter school together. As fate would have it, it was Guillermo who called him that night, as Ricardo was driving down from Sacramento. That night, on that phone call, a school was born. Soon they put together a package, they found support in their community, a board came together, and they soon filed with the L.A. Unified School District.
The Three-Legged Stool
Ricardo attributes the remarkable success of Academia Avance to a philosophy he describes as the three-legged stool. The metaphor is that a three-legged stool falls without all three legs being solidly in place. For Academia Avance, the three legs are the students, the parents, and then the teachers and staff. The relationships between parents, students and educators are what makes a school thrive.
Nearly three quarters of the students at Academia Avance go onto higher education. Ricardo gets passionate when asked about this. He says it jars him to hear someone say ‘college isn’t for everybody.’ In Ricardo’s view, every kid deserves the opportunity to advance themselves at their own direction. In high school, adults are telling kids what to do. But in college, it’s the students who are choosing a career, picking their courses, and making decisions. Every kid deserves that opportunity. With over 3000 colleges and universities in this country, and all of them so different, there’s a school that is the right fit for any student. It’s our task as educators, says Ricardo, to help students find the college that’s right for them – the one where they’re going to succeed.
According to Ricardo, it is that dedication to help each student find their perfect fit, that makes all the difference.
“We’re fortunate that we’re in the best state of this country. We have the best universities. We have the Cal State system, we have the UC system, we have excellent private schools, and we’re able to then provide those different options for our kids to discover and find the one that fits them. And you know what? Everyone can find a school that is their perfect match.”
The state of California recently published their college-going rates per school, and Academia Avance placed at the top 10% of schools within the L.A. Unified District – that’s almost 200 public high schools.
Nothing brings Ricardo more joy than watching his alumni come back and celebrate their success with the teachers. These alumni often volunteer to go talk to the Seniors – to motivate them with proof of what’s possible.
The school’s history is now extensive enough that alumni are now reaching graduate levels, and are coming back with advanced degrees in education – eager to work as counselors and teachers.
An example of this is an alumna who got her undergraduate degree at Mount Saint Mary’s and is now pursuing a degree in Social Work at USC. She’s returned to Academia Avance to work as a counselor, and her experience in the school, combined with her life experience as a Latina from Highland Park, allows her to build strong connections with the students. The kids immediately trust her, they relate to her, they see themselves in her.
Another example Ricardo eagerly shares is a student who struggled in his academics at Academia Avance, and then got accepted at San Jose State and found that a challenge as well, especially in his first year. He did graduate, and he now shares his story in his work as a workplace education experience counselor, securing internships for the students. This young man can tell the students, “look, you can do this.”
A Charter Renewed Many Times
Academia Avance started in 2005. The school’s charter has been renewed three times.
The school started as a very small, niche, community-based, Latinx-focused effort. The process got harder in subsequent years – the charter renewal took three years, and only got approved on appeal through the county. That led to the biggest growth spurt for the school, with enrollment reaching nearly 500 students.
The goal for Academia Avance has remained consistent: to lead their students to higher education.. This became their biggest focal point during the second charter.
Interestingly, it was the school’s growth that became its strongest defense against the hard economic times of the Great Recession – with state deferrals and other financial pressures impinging upon the school, Academia Avance continued to thrive. The partnership with Charter School Capital was instrumental to the school’s survival through those difficult years.
The third charter came through an appeal to the state. In 2015, the school faced declining enrollment as a result of gentrification – which forced many Latinx families to relocate.
Currently, the school faces the pressures of the pandemic, the pivot to a virtual environment, and the necessity to act as an island of safety and comfort for the community.
The Role of Relationships
The long term relationship Academia Avance has built with Charter School Capital has allowed the school to weather some of the toughest storms and continue to thrive. Ricardo praises Charter School Capital for looking beyond the immediate fiscal issues to see what’s really happening with the school, visiting with parents and making efforts to fully understand their issues.
Another aspect of the support Charter School Capital provides, Ricardo remarks, is the innovation. With the help of a technology partner, CSC has recently brought major improvements to air quality in the school – a critical issue during a pandemic caused by an airborne virus. Ricardo again speaks about trust – having good air quality improves the trust parents and staff have in the school.
The Importance of Trust
A moment that Ricardo still remembers from the Great Recession is a Thanksgiving memory. November is an especially hard time in the fiscal cycle of a school, Ricardo explains. Funds come in during July and August, but funds run lean by November. This particular Thanksgiving, Ricardo had to gather all the staff and have a very somber discussion – because the school did not have the funds to meet payroll for November.
The importance of building trust, and having honest and transparent communication, really hit home – while obviously no one was happy about the news, the teachers and staff were understanding and supportive as they received it. As the meeting ended and people were heading for the parking lot, one of the operating officers for the school was able to log in and see that new funding had arrived into the school’s account – a receivables sale from Charter School Capital. And they ran outside to tell the staff that payroll would be covered – and the teachers and staff were able to have a happy Thanksgiving.
“Avance Is Like Family”
The secret sauce, says Ricardo, is always trust. He hears teachers and parents say over and over, “Avance is like family.”
The community has trust in the school. In Ricardo’s view, you can’t just hold trust – you can’t put it in a bank. You have to use it to make things better. There is an accountability that comes with trust. One of the ways this has translated into action has been in fighting stigma. For those who have gone through COVID-19 and recovered, to be able to talk about it. For those infected, to know that they’re not going to be shunned. Mothers who felt they couldn’t tell anyone about their struggles, have a safe space to speak. Removing that sense of shame or secrecy has led to better morale, has increased engagement in medical testing, and has led to a deeper sense of community.
“This Isn’t About Reopening”
In regards to operating a school in the face of COVID-19, Ricardo makes an important distinction about phrasing. “This isn’t about reopening,” he says. “Our school has been open all summer. We’ve been providing food all summer, and working with staff all summer. This is about re-starting, and providing the resources for restarting.”
When it comes to re-starting classes, Ricardo references Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What mattered the most, to him, was working with the families and ensuring everyone had access to medical testing. He worked with a local clinic to ensure his staff was tested, and he continues to make that a priority in his communications with the students’ families.
The agility of communication is an important factor as well. Academia Avance is continuously gaining new information about the health crisis, and the speed to which this can be disseminated to the students and their families is an essential part of keeping everyone safe.
Thriving Through Crisis
Reminiscing about the fiscal crisis his school faced during the Great Recession, Ricardo is quick to emphasize that while the crisis, nationwide, played out in 2008-2009, it hit schools hardest in the subsequent years.
We haven’t even gotten to that stage yet, this time. According to Ricardo, the real financial impact of the pandemic will be felt in the years to come. He wants charter leaders to understand, this is not like a storm. This is not about hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass over. He earnestly believes this pandemic is forcing every school to adapt and change. In order to succeed in the new normal, school leaders need to adapt and prepare for the fiscal challenges yet to come.