Once the flames became ashes and half of the classrooms disappeared at Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School, there was still room for hope. Amidst the charred ruins of the 2014 summer electrical fire, a mosaic tile bearing the school’s name and logo survived intact.
“They found it in the rubble. Symbolically, it speaks to the strength of the spirit of that campus and the staff that puts students first,” said Cristina de Jesus, president and chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Schools California.
The fire caused no injuries but it disrupted everything. The freshmen and sophomores remained on the campus while juniors and seniors moved down the street to co-locate with a Green Dot middle school. Some staff traveled between the two campuses to serve the 630 students. On this typically sunny and 75-degree Los Angeles winter morning, Cristina gave high-fives all around as all students started classes on the same campus after nearly four years. Easily, this was the highlight of her day.
The lifetime educator is entering her fourth year as head of Green Dot’s California operations, serving more than 11,000 students in 20 schools. Born in Los Angeles, home to more charter schools than anywhere in the nation, Green Dot has evolved and matured into a seasoned, homegrown team of leaders building a national presence — having added schools in Memphis, Tennessee, and Tacoma, Washington.
A unionized public charter network, they embrace turning schools around as well as starting new campuses. “Many people don’t realize we are fully unionized. You can have a union that is very collaborative and have a positive relationship,” she said. “We don’t believe unions are the problem.” Instead, Cristina said Green Dot collaborates with teachers, leveraging their expertise to do what’s best for students.
Cristina first started her education career in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District, where she taught English for seven years. “I could see the fruits of my labor, the impact I had on their passion and love for learning. I didn’t know how different life was, 20 minutes away, for students,” she said, measuring distance in time like most people in Southern California. She longed for impact in communities that needed more support. She made her way 10 miles southeast to become the founding principal at Green Dot’s Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School, neighboring South Los Angeles. “At Green Dot, I realized how dire the situation was for children in our cities. Still in this country, ZIP code, more often than not, is determining destiny in America. We can do better.”
While living in San Diego during her father’s naval career, Cristina’s parents were aware of the options other ZIP codes offered. They utilized an inter-district transfer to get her into the neighboring Coronado district, an affluent community near her father’s workplace known for its high-achieving schools.
“My parents were the first to teach me about school choice and the importance of navigating the option system for your child,” Cristina said. “Attending schools in Coronado put me on a path of success. Teachers really knew me. I always felt there were folks looking out for me and my brothers and my sister.”
And Cristina says she understood her responsibility to take full advantage of that opportunity. She earned straight A’s and played varsity sports for her high school — catcher in softball and guard for the basketball team. Thanks to her penchant for putting up big numbers on the court, her basketball coach nicknamed her “Double-Digit de Jesus.”
Now, her responsibility has shifted to advocating and creating the right conditions for double-digit growth in student success despite educating students saddled with the common challenges of limited access, opportunity and support. Beyond the Green Dot campuses — whether running voter registration drives with students and families to boost civic engagement or pushing to increase the minimum wage for Los Angeles workers — Cristina and her team are also working toward something bigger: improving the broader communities they serve.
At Green Dot, parent coordinators at every school ensure that parents have the resources necessary to be actively involved in their child’s education — especially if they don’t have the time or resources to visit the school frequently during normal school hours. The coordinators host a series of events and workshops to engage parents on nights and weekends, lead volunteering initiatives and work closely with community leaders and local organizations to help address families’ concerns and students’ needs.
Green Dot has the hard-won experience of adapting to meet the needs of the most vulnerable students — whether starting new schools or turning around existing schools that have chronically underserved their students. Their first turnaround effort began in 2008 at Alain LeRoy Locke High School in South Los Angeles. The school was created 50 years earlier as a response to the Watts riots and named after the first African-American Rhodes scholar and “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance. Gang rivalries spilled onto campus that May, which led to police in riot gear quelling a resulting fight between hundreds of students. Locke’s graduation rate was 18 percent.
At the end of its timeline for improvement as required by federal law and with the faculty frustrated by years of mismanagement, Locke became the first school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where the teachers themselves petitioned the district to be turned into a charter school. It was a new challenge for Green Dot, which already operated a few nearby schools, and a lesson for other charter networks which came after them.
“We made mistakes thinking we could go into Locke and use the same strategies we’d used in our other schools,” Cristina said. “We underestimated the mental health and social-emotional needs — what is required to serve the full continuum of special needs and what it means to serve an attendance boundary where you are the home school. We receive 11 new students a week at Locke.”
The lessons came rapidly. Some students face extremely difficult realities, including living in circumstances of poverty, homelessness and foster care or returning from juvenile detention centers. Cristina acknowledges that Green Dot is still working to get it right, but Locke’s graduation rate continues to climb. In 2017, it was 61.6 percent.
“We originally came at it with this approach that we were going to come in and save Locke. The reality is that Locke saved Green Dot,” Cristina said. “We became more agile. We understand more completely what it takes to turn schools around and to truly serve the highest needs. It has opened our eyes to what it means to serve every child, no matter what, and to provide differentiated programming and support based on those needs,” said Cristina, who also touted Green Dot’s special education programs that grew out of their experiences at Locke.
Green Dot needed to build a model that included psychologists and social workers, in addition to counselors, after students showed exposure to multiple traumatic events causing post-traumatic stress. It takes three traumatic events to broach a diagnosis of PTSD; their students were showing 14 and 20 traumatic life events. These students take the same classes and tests as others, of course. “It taught us about acceleration of learning. Students come in ninth grade at a third-grade level. While we were doing that work in a start-from-scratch school, doing it at a turnaround makes it that much more difficult. It forced us to rethink our approach to intervention and prevention.”
Double-Digit DeJesus is still leading her team toward the wins for students. “Part of our core strategy is building a highly-replicable model, striving for outstanding student outcomes at every level, and closing achievement gaps,” Cristina said. “We’ve gotten a lot closer at preparing every child for leadership and life.”
And she continues to reflect on her influence in her daily work. “I truly believe this is what I was meant to do. I don’t have a job. I found my life’s work. I do what I do because I feel there is such a need,” she said, who earned a master of education, master of education administration and doctoral degree in educational leadership, all from UCLA. “I told myself my first year as a teacher, 23 years ago, the day I don’t feel passion for the work and the students we serve is the day I should start looking for another profession.”
Sue Jean Hong, principal at Ánimo Inglewood, credits Cristina for the culture she has built on the campus and across the organization. “One thing that Cristina is really awesome at doing is getting people on the same heartbeat, understanding why we wake up and come to work,” Sue said. “That’s the legacy that she left. It’s not all about relationships. It’s about rigorous, amazing teaching, being reflective, doing whatever it takes to make sure you meet the kids’ needs. For us, that’s our task — make sure we keep that line, pushing it forward for all of our students.”
“I think people honestly don’t understand the complexities of turnaround work,” Cristina added. “My frustration is that as a result we’re not having all the right conversations around what it takes to truly serve all the students with the highest needs and what it’s going to take to turn around the most underserved schools around the country.”
To Cristina, that means that the political divide in public education about charter schools vs. neighborhood schools vs. magnet schools needs to end. “Nobody has this all figured out and we want to and need to work together,” Cristina said. “We as charters need to share best practices, have an open door, offer our learnings and seek the same from our district colleagues.”
Just like that mosaic found in the fire, Cristina’s passion continues to fuel and sustain Green Dot California’s urgency to deliver the best educational experiences and outcomes for its students.
“How do you make this work stick? It has to be done,” Cristina added. “Kids are waiting for us. There is no more time to waste.”