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Founder of charter school, Ramona de Rosales has been organizing and/or teaching Latino kids for 40 years

Kevin Featherly//July 7, 2010

Founder of charter school, Ramona de Rosales has been organizing and/or teaching Latino kids for 40 years

Kevin Featherly//July 7, 2010

Ramona de Rosales, 58, founder and still head of the Academia Cesar Chavez charter school in St. Paul, says she’s working on finding balance. “I used to work like 70 hours a week to get the school going … Then I kind of burnt out. My goal is to try to take a summer break this summer.” (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Behind a secretary’s desk not far from Ramona A. de Rosales’ elementary school office, a piece of paper is tacked up on the wall. On it is a large black circle emblazoned with bold white letters: “Bang head here.”

It’s a message de Rosales can empathize with.

At 58, she is executive director of Academia Cesar Chavez, an Eastside St. Paul charter school catering to Latino students that she founded in 2001.

It’s a sensitive time for Minnesota’s charter schools.

A 2009 state law designed to increase accountability puts increased pressure on their authorizing agencies to hold charter schools to task financially and academically.

Because of the legislation, the state’s rules are tighter on what types of institutions can authorize charter schools.

“We’re going to hold the authorizers accountable and the authorizers are going to hold the school accountable,” says state Department of Education communications director Bill Walsh.

Only six authorizers have been granted permission to continue—and Cesar Chavez’s sponsoring agency, the University of St. Thomas, is not among them. Several other charter school authorizers—including the St. Paul public school district—now question whether the extra burden means they should stop supporting charter schools all together.

Recent publicity has not aided the cause. A much-touted 2009 Stanford University study concluded that nationally, in the aggregate, students in charter schools fare worse than students in traditional public schools.

That study echoed a 2008 report by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, which indicated that half of the state’s charter schools—including Academia Cesar Chavez—were not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress criteria set out in the No Child Left Behind rules established under President George W. Bush.

De Rosales knows the numbers, but says they don’t tell the whole story. Her charter school, she says, fills a vital role in the Eastside Latino community that traditional public schools fail to address. The scores that non-English-speaking kids get on tests developed for English-speaking kids are not the best indicators, she says.

“These Latino students were being lost through the whole system, they were being ignored,” she says. “So we are trying to meet the needs of [English language learners] in the Latino population. … We’re going to get there, give us some time. The public schools have had 150 years to do it, and they haven’t done it. Why do you give a little charter school less than a decade?”

“I’m sympathetic to that argument,” Walsh says.

Perception is a big part of the problem. The Stanford study, by the university’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, indicates that academic gains at 17 percent of charter schools were significantly better than traditional schools while 37 percent were significantly worse. The other 46 percent showed no major difference.

The report’s authors considered those results sobering.

Viewed from another angle, de Rosales says, the same study shows that 63 percent of charter schools nationally were faring better or equally as well as their public school counterparts.

Even the Legislative Auditor’s report included a caveat that, after accounting for relevant demographic and student mobility rates, the differences in student performance between charter schools and public schools is minimal.

Certainly, that case can be made for Academia Cesar Chavez, particularly on the financial front—one of the main concerns for legislators who passed the 2009 law tightening the belt on publicly funded charter schools.

A tough statewide audit of charter schools by the liberal Minnesota 2020 think tank for the 2008-09 academic year shows that 75 percent of charter schools had at least one financial irregularity. A number of charter schools had many such irregularities.

However, De Rosales’ school had none, and has never had a single infraction in the three years the think tank has conducted its audits.

De Rosales says that’s no accident. When developing the model for her school, she intentionally recruited people to the school’s board of directors who had financial expertise in academic settings.

Charles J. Keffer, former provost of the University of St. Thomas, was brought in to chair the board. Louis Mendoza, associate vice provost for the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equity and Diversity, is the board’s secretary. All board members—even the most experienced ones—take extensive financial management training, she says.

“The business end was most important for me,” de Rosales says. “I knew that the academic end takes a little longer to come along. But I figured that if you don’t develop a solid business end—because it is like a business—then you don’t have anything solid.”

College material

De Rosales was born in Colorado, the daughter of migrant workers who moved to Minneapolis when she was in third grade. At Minneapolis’ South High School in 1967, she caught the community organizing bug.

“I saw that the African-American students were starting to organize and I really liked what they were doing,” she says. “I thought, ‘God, I wish there was something like that for Latinos.’”

She didn’t wish long. At 18, she began hanging around at the University of Minnesota. She didn’t attempt to enroll, having been advised in high school that she wasn’t “college material.”

Instead, she says, she was just making organizing connections and caught the attention of Bev Stewart, an outreach worker and instructor at the school’s General College.

“She was extremely well spoken and very bright,” Stewart recalls. “She had a definite plan for how she wanted to organize Latinos. She would go out to the fields and talk to the parents about recruiting people to go to the University of Minnesota and attend the General College.”

Eventually, Stewart convinced de Rosales that her high school advisor had been wrong. “The discussion that we had was that she should probably be in college herself if she was going to be encouraging all these other people to be in college,” Stewart recalls.

De Rosales enrolled and within a few years successfully championed the launch of a Chicano Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. She also took training as a community organizer personally from Chavez, as well as from the more radical activists Corky Gonzales and Saul Alinksy.

“I grew up in a beautiful time,” she says. “I learned a lot. Getting things started in our community was a wonderful time.”

Around that time, she met Francisco Rosales, who was organizing a big conference in Chicago for Chavez. They got married at St. Paul’s Neighborhood House when she was 20.

When she became a mother, her career as a community organizer was put on indefinite hold, though she continued to be active in her church and neighborhood. In the late 1980s, she was recruited to help launch an afterschool project at the University of St. Thomas called the Hispanic Precollege Program.

And then de Rosales became the program’s director and worked there for 14 years.

She says that the program exposed a flaw in the public school system with respect to Latino students. “What happened is that the kids weren’t going to the St. Paul public schools during the day, but they would be coming to our after-school program,” she says.

And the public schools weren’t meeting Latino kids’ needs in the same way as a program tailored for them did, de Rosales says.

At about the same time, the national charter school movement—which began in St. Paul in 1991—began to take shape. Parents and other community activists began pressuring de Rosales to launch a school of her own; she resisted. But she was also getting involved in the National Council of La Raza, which was training members on how to launch charter schools that cater to Latino kids.

Finally, de Rosales gave in. With St. Thomas as sponsor, she launched Academia Cesar Chavez in 2001. Today the school, located in space leased out from Blessed Sacrament Church, has 318 students.

Slow but steady

It’s tough sledding teaching primarily kids who start school not speaking English very well. The school is 88 percent Hispanic, 10 percent white and 2 percent African-American—and many of the Hispanic kids come from families new to this country.

But Academia Cesar Chavez does make progress, according to internal test-score numbers.

For example: First grade reading. While no data are available for 2007-2008 school year, for 2008-2009 the class finished the year at 17.53 percentage points below the state-defined proficiency for that grade level—which is not very good.

The next year’s first graders started out the year not much better, winding up the first half of the school year at 14.6 points below grade level. But by the end of the school year, the same class of first graders was only 2.1 points below grade level—a significant improvement.

To compare apples to apples, look at the 2008-2009 first-graders and the 2009-2010 second-graders—classes that presumably would include largely the same group of kids.

There, too, improvement over the course of this school year is evident, though not as dramatic: The kids’ scores were 17.53 below proficiency for 2008-2009 and then 16.37 points below proficiency for the first half of 2009-2010.

But for the second half of 2009-2010, the kids raised their scores to 9.5 points below proficiency for the second half of 2009-2010.

Those kinds of numbers keep de Rosales energized.

“We just have to keep doing a good job with what we are doing, because we know that we are doing something is important for this community,” she says. “And we know that it is something that the community wants of us.”

The de Rosales file

Name: Ramona Arreguin de Rosales

Age: 58

Born: In Colorado, to migrant-worker parents; moved to Minneapolis in third grade;

Job: Executive director, Academia Cesar Chavez charter school in St. Paul;

Education: B.A., sociology, University of Minnesota; M.A., educational leadership and administration, University of St. Thomas;

Family: Lives on St. Paul’s West Side with husband of 39 years, Francisco Rosales; three children, Tizoc, 37; Angelita, 35; Joauquin, 32—all living in Twin Cities; seven grandchildren;

Notable accomplishments: Helped launch academic departments at two universities (the U of M’s Chicano Studies Department; St. Thomas’ Hispanic Precollege Project); has set up three nonprofits, including Academia Cesar Chavez;

Hobbies: Spending time with grandchildren and husband; traveling to Mexico; reading.

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