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Exclusive Interview with Lars Beck, CEO of Scholar Academies

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I had the distinct pleasure of meeting recently with Lars Beck, the chief executive officer of Scholar Academies. You may have already heard of this network of schools. Scholar Academies currently operates six sites: three charters in Philadelphia; one in Trenton, New Jersey; one charter school, D.C. Scholars, in Washington, D.C.; and under a partnership with DCPS it manages Stanton Elementary. The United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Stanton last February and summarized the work Scholars was doing at the school as simply “remarkable.”

Mr. Beck’s organization has a strong history of successful school turnaround efforts. The group’s 15 year-old Young Scholars, one of the Philadelphia charters, is the highest performing high-poverty charter school in Pennsylvania. I asked him how he became involved in this line of work.

“I came from the business world,” Mr. Beck answered. “My job was marketing and management for a firm in Canada. My mom for years ran a private faith-based school in Philadelphia for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds characterized by exceedingly strong academic results. I wanted to do more with my life and the inequities between people of various races and income levels continuously gnawed at me.”

Mr. Beck came to Young Scholars a decade ago at a time when the school was not serving its students well. The founder had become ill and was spending less and less time on the campus. Mr. Beck became the temporary CEO and began the tremendously difficult work of transforming its academic performance. I asked him for the secret to his success.

“Of course there is no secret,” Mr. Beck immediately replied. “We raised the level of our expectations for what was taught in the classroom and for the culture of the school. We formed a relationship with Boston’s Excel Academy Public Charter School, which is now one of the highest performing middle schools in Massachusetts. Excel had already gone through its own turnaround. The magic sauce, if there was one, was to set extremely high expectations with the goal of all kids going to college. We then backward mapped from there what we would have to do to prepare our scholars for entering the world of higher education.”

Mr. Beck had much more to say about the reasons behind his schools’ successes. “Some people in the education reform movement shy away from the term ‘no excuses school’ but that is exactly how we can be described. We teach kids who live in poverty, but poverty does not change what is possible for a child. This is why it is so important that we engage parents. In many economically disadvantaged communities the belief schools have in what their students can achieve has dropped. We go ahead and together with families lay the foundation for a turnaround in expectations.”

It has been six years since Mr. Beck began planning to replicate his model at Young Scholars. With financial assistance from various philanthropic institutions including the Flamboyan Foundation, a private family-run philanthropic group that supports family engagement as a means to improve educational outcomes for Pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade students in the District, Scholar Academies has now been operating for four years as a network. Its goal is nothing less than the transformation of low performing schools. Mr. Beck commented that “Mr. Duncan quite some time ago put out the call for school leaders to do this difficult task and Scholar Academies proudly responded to the need.”

The results achieved so far by Scholar Academies serving students in grades Preschool through 8th grade network-wide have been nothing less than astonishing. In Philadelphia the original charter has students demonstrating math and reading proficiency rates of 80 and 68 percent, respectively, 33 and 25 points higher than the district average. For eighth grade, the proficiency rates for both subjects are over 80 percent.

The organization is beginning to see significant improvement here locally at the 570 student DC Scholars Stanton Elementary. Mr. Beck explained that when they came to this facility it was extremely low-performing, had a very poor school culture and was often plagued by violence. The standardized test scores were perfectly aligned with the disorder taking place in the hallways. Both math and reading proficiency rates were at nine percent. On the 2013 DC CAS the math proficiency rates have climbed to 42.4 percent. In reading, the percent proficient is now 19.9 percent. Scholar Academies began operating Stanton in August 2010, two months after being selected to take over the school.

While of course Mr. Beck is not content with where Stanton is academically under his organization’s charge, he is satisfied with the progress. “It looks and feels the way a high performing school should,” the CEO explained. “Teaching and learning is occurring appropriately on a daily basis.” The turnaround at Stanton followed the same process Scholar Academies has utilized at other institutions. The staff is reconstituted, expectations are raised dramatically, families are actively engaged by the school’s team members, and there is significant professional development for the teaching staff. Social workers take part in increasing the probability that students will be at Stanton every day ready to learn. It is, according to Mr. Beck, the application of the whole school model which is focused on the whole child.

Scholar Academies believes that character education is as important as the academic education. In order to ensure progress is made in both areas simultaneously the staff visits students’ homes before the start of the school year. “We seek to understand the hopes and dreams of parents for their children, Mr. Beck asserted. “We then use these goals as a framework for communication to parents throughout the term.”

In Washington, D.C. Mr. Beck’s presence is also at DC Scholars Public Charter School, the facility whose board chair is Mieka Wick, the executive director of the CityBridge Foundation. The charter opened last year serving grades Pre-School through 3rd. This term a 4th grade was added with plans to add an additional grade each year until 8th grade is reached. 310 students now attend DC Scholars with a planned enrollment increase up to 550 pupils when serving all grades. When the initial Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework results are reported next year for the school, Mr. Beck is confident that it will be ranked as Tier 1. Currently, approximately 96 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch.

The future looks exceedingly bright for Scholar Academies. The charter management organization, comprised of a 32 member home office, was recently selected by the Tennessee Achievement School District to eventually open 12 schools serving 6,000 children. The ASD, headed by Yes Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic, is working to take the lowest five percent of academically performing facilities and turn them into the top 25 percent. The first Scholar Academies School is anticipated to open in the fall of 2015.

All of these educational endeavors regarding improving the lives of the less fortunate are consistent with the life-long efforts of Mr. Beck’s mother. “Our drive is to transform low performing schools,” Mr. Beck commented towards the end of our discussion. “We believe in what is possible for students and then we try and let them realize their hopes and dreams.”

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