Article published in the Los Angeles Times newspaper
September 05, 2001 | STEVE LOPEZ
It was as simple as this:
Raise $237,000 in six months, and they could start their own school. Just one problem:
Johnathan Williams and Kevin Sved were all of 25, and didn’t have two nickels between them. A big night out was a trip to Jack in the Box. Where in the world were they supposed to get their hands on upward of 200 grand?
Los Angeles Unified School District officials literally laughed at them. They were starry-eyed dreamers, a couple of wet-behind-the-ears public school teachers with crazy fantasies about creating a model school in South-Central Los Angeles
But there is no greater force of nature than unbridled naivete.
Make It Happen! screamed the brochure Williams and Sved began passing out on the street and dropping on doorsteps. Please get involved today.
If they drove past a restaurant, a bank, a cement company, they went inside to pitch the Accelerated School. It would be a place where every child would be treated as gifted, where parents would be contractually obligated to get involved, and where teachers’ pay would be tied to students’ performance.
Most people nodded politely and offered best wishes. But write them a check? Were these guys serious?
Williams and Sved were teaching at 99th Street School at the time. This whole adventure started with them meeting on a basketball court after school and yakking about how they’d do it if they ran their own shop.
Then came the advent of charter public schools, which can set their own mission and break free of district bureaucracy and control. Unfortunately, nine of 10 slots in Los Angeles were already filled, and there was stiff competition for the last one.
“We were sure celebrities would love it. If we got $20,000 each from 10 movie studios, we were in,” says Williams.
They didn’t get enough to buy a bag of popcorn.
“I was up at 6 in the morning, calling companies on the East Coast before school,” says Sved, who struck out day after day with grant requests. He knew he’d hit rock bottom when he pitched the deal to the cashier at the Jack in the Box drive-through window.
Christmas came and went, and there was nothing in their stocking. January, February, March, April. One month to go, and the pot was empty.
Didn’t anyone understand they were going to transform public education in South-Central L.A.? Couldn’t anyone see they had a master plan to overcome poverty, language barriers, and history itself, succeeding like no one else had?
“We did get some tickets from the Lakers, or was it the Kings?” Williams says.
“I think it was actually a group discount,” says Sved. “Not free tickets.”
Meanwhile, in the San Francisco office of the Wells Fargo Foundation, grant-maker Tim Hanlon held the dynamic duo’s desperate plea in his hands.
“They submitted one of the worst grant requests I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” says Hanlon. “It was incomplete and naive. But as bad as it was, there was a kernel of passion.”
Hanlon and his partner agreed to fly down and discuss the application. But it was so amateurish, they weren’t even willing to leave the vicinity of the airport. Besides, the average Wells Fargo grant is $7,500. These poor fools wanted $200,000.
The Proud Bird restaurant was the meeting place. Williams and Sved, knowing they were in over their heads, had decided to order wine so as to come off as sophisticates. They’d heard of Sutter Home, and this white zinfandel stuff sounded classy.
As the meeting proceeded, it became shockingly evident to Hanlon that Williams and Sved had no other money, no school building, no teachers and no students.
“They had nothing,” says Hanlon, and school was supposed to start that fall. “But you cannot sit down with John and Kevin and not get revved up. They didn’t know how to operate a plant or raise money, but they knew what kids needed.”
Hanlon and partner flew home and commiserated. Then, on a hunch and a prayer, Wells Fargo wrote a check for $200,000-plus.
“We were funding some pie-in-the-sky idea,” Hanlon says. “But if grant-makers just fund the tried and true, we’re not doing our job.”
Williams and Sved didn’t have time to be shocked. School started in four months, and it would help if they had a building. Frantic, they scoured the neighborhood for available property. They knocked on doors, too, begging parents to trust them with their children. When the 1994 year began, The Accelerated School consisted of 52 K-4 students in a multipurpose room at St. Stephen’s German-Hungarian Church, 37th and Woodlawn. And today?
Today is the first day of the eighth year of the Accelerated School, which sits at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Main. Now there are 270 K-8 students, a waiting list of 1,200 more, and plans to expand to K-12. Performance, based on the Stanford Achievement Test, has improved every year, last year reaching the 52nd percentile nationally. Surrounding neighborhood schools are at the 19th percentile, and the district is at the 33rd.
“If you’re not getting it in class, there’s always someone to help you,” Joe Mendoza, 13, said in his South-Central living room as he prepared for the first day of classes. Joe, one of a handful of students who’ve been at the school since kindergarten, was asked what his favorite project was last year. “I did a report on Egyptian algebra,” said the aspiring engineer.
The idea, say Williams and Sved, is to keep expectations high for every student, and to provide extra help, but no breaks, to those who need it. “It’s just amazing,” says Wells Fargo’s Hanlon. “John and Kevin are running a laboratory to show what works and find out what doesn’t work. I’ve said this a thousand times: That one grant–that’s the best thing I ever got to touch.”
This column is the first in what will be an occasional series on teachers, students and parents at the Accelerated School and others in L.A. Unified.
For all the disadvantages the Accelerated School began with, it now enjoys undeniable advantages over other public schools. But Sved and Williams think the success can be replicated across Los Angeles and across the country.
All of 34 now, the principal/superintendent/founders are still dreamers. But one is a little more reluctant to call them naive.