Corrected: This story gave an incorrect name for the Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit organization that runs a network of 13 charter schools in the state. It is Portable Practical Educational Preparation.
It’s not unusual to hear students at the Cesar Chavez Learning Center say that if they couldn’t go to this kind of school, they would have given up on formal education a long time ago.
Housed in a strip mall a mile and a half from the U.S.-Mexican border, the Chavez center allows students to attend school for a half day—morning or afternoon—for just four days a week and still get a regular high school diploma.
But flexible scheduling is just one of the many accommodations made by the network of Arizona charter schools that includes Cesar Chavez. Such adjustments are all part of a bid to attract and retain busy high school students and would-be dropouts.
Cesar Chavez is one of 13 charter high schools run by Portable Preparatory Education Portal Inc., or PPEP, a Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit organization started by a Baptist minister in the late 1960s to help farmworkers and their families. The charter high schools, which the group calls PPEP Tec schools, were begun 10 years ago to educate the children of farmworkers, but now serve all kinds of students who are at risk of leaving school prematurely.
“We try to be as flexible as possible to help the students,” says Angelica Ron, a teacher who directs the Cesar Chavez school and the Jose Yepez Learning Center, another PPEP Tec school, located 10 miles north of the border in Somerton, Ariz. “We understand we are the last opportunity for many of them.”
Time is precious for most of the charter schools’ students. Some are raising children of their own, or they have to work to help support themselves or their parents.
Take Cesar Chavez student Maricruz Beltran who, at 18, takes charge of her three school-age brothers when her parents leave for weeks at a time to pick grapes in southern California. Although she lives with her aunt, Beltran nonetheless must cook and make sure her brothers, who are 7, 9, and 13, complete their homework.
If it weren’t for the convenient hours of Cesar Chavez—she attends school from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday—“I think I’d be a dropout,” she says.
Beltran, who wears her straight brown hair pulled into a practical knot, has seen firsthand why it’s important to get a diploma. Last summer, she helped her family pick grapes. Wearing gloves and a face mask to protect herself from pesticides, she was paid $6.50 per hour—most of which she turned over to her family. “It was super-hot,” she recalls. “Oh my God, you get so tired.”
Beltran hopes to get her diploma in December and go on to college so she can become a nurse or a teacher. “I want to finish school,” she says, “and I want a career and to have a better life.”
From their size to their study-hall like setting, the PPEP Tec schools definitely don’t look or act like traditional public schools.
The schools operate in two or three shifts with only about 65 students per shift—far fewer than the students’ home schools, which might have enrollments in the thousands.
PPEP Tec students do all of their work in school. They don’t get homework. And except for special situations, they are not permitted to take textbooks home.
“A lot of times, our students disappear. Books are expensive,” explains Rebecca Edmonds, the superintendent of the PPEP Tec schools, who works out of the group’s headquarters in Tucson.
In essence, the school day is a long study hall. Students plow through their reading and the exercises that make up a course of study. Teachers and teachers’ aides give one-on-one help.
Though the Cesar Chavez and Jose Yepez schools have several certified teachers, they rely heavily on paraprofessionals, who have qualifications that don’t show up on paper, says Edmonds. “They have a particular affinity for working with the students we have,” she says. “A lot have been the kind of student we have.”
Monica Castro, a paraprofessional who leads reading groups at Cesar Chavez, reinforces that point: “I talk to the students as a friend. Many of our students are teenage mothers. I was a teenage mother.”
PPEP Tec schools don’t have science labs, regular extracurricular activities, and hardly any formal electives. Students can take remedial classes as electives or create their own electives for independent study.
In order to help students work through their self-paced courses, teachers at Cesar Chavez and Jose Yepez assign some students to small pull-out groups for extra help with mathematics and English.
Students earn credits, usually a fourth of a credit at a time, if they score at least a 70 percent on an end-of-course test. To graduate, the students have to finish a standard high school curriculum—which includes 3.5 credits of social studies and 2 credits of science.
The PPEP Tec schools are positioned to meet the needs of highly mobile students living along the border.
Many Cesar Chavez students have been in the United States for less than two years. Fifty-six percent of the school’s 127 students are English-language learners. Though discussion is allowed in Spanish, the instruction at the school is in English, as are all materials and tests.
And while their primary residence is supposed to be in the United States, many of the students come from families that spend time on both sides of the border. Some students choose the afternoon shift at Cesar Chavez so they can travel to Mexico after classes end at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and not be back to school until 1 p.m. on Mondays.
Omar Molina, a 19-year-old who moved to the United States from Mexico two years ago, is fairly typical of the students at Cesar Chavez.
Quiet by nature, Molina isn’t sure what grade he’s in, but knows he’s lacking 9½ credits out of the 20 required to graduate. Molina was born in the United States, grew up in Mexico, and then returned to the United States as a teenager. He had attended San Luis High School, a regular local public school, but transferred to Cesar Chavez in the fall of last year.
Molina likes the Chavez schedule because he can work at his own pace, he says in Spanish, and has more time to earn money.
Molina works afternoons Monday through Thursday and all day on Friday helping his uncle maintain computers for the Gadsden Elementary School District in San Luis. The minimum-wage job helps him support his girlfriend and their 6-month-old daughter. They all live together.
Molina goes to high school in the United States so he can learn English, he says. But he prefers speaking in Spanish.
Cesar Chavez students Fernando and Ricardo Moreno, 17-year-old twins, were also born in the United States. After 1st grade, they moved to Mexico. They returned to the United States two years ago and enrolled in San Luis High School. They transferred to Cesar Chavez at the end of last school year.
“We needed more credits faster, so we came here,” says Fernando, who is in 11th grade and gets stuck reading words, such as “theories” or “extraterrestrials,” that likely wouldn’t be an obstacle for an 11th grader who is a native speaker of English.
On the job at Del Taco, a fast-food restaurant, he wears a grin and confidently moves from task to task. Fernando and Ricardo work more than 30 hours a week each to help pay the family’s bills and maintain their own car.
On a recent Tuesday, the Moreno twins were preparing tacos at Del Taco from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. They darted in and out of the walk-in refrigerator carrying packages of meat or stacks of tacos. The twins joined their young co-workers in a steady, light banter in Spanish.
Students in the charter school network seem to like PPEP’s emphasis on old-fashioned study.
It helps, they acknowledge, that the school day is only about five hours long, compared with as long as seven hours at traditional schools.
The PPEP Tec approach is better than a regular high school, says Abel Plaza, 19, who enrolled in the Jose Yepez center after he had heart surgery and lost a year of schooling. “I push myself as much as I can and then I ask the teacher for help,” he says of the charter school. He adds that it wasn’t always clear to him at a regular high school how his classes related to credits.
Many students think they can earn credits at a PPEP Tec school faster than at a regular school.
“It’s an illusion,” says Edmonds, the PPEP Tec superintendent. On average, students don’t earn credits any faster at the alternative schools, she says. They can count remedial courses as electives for credit, but they have to reach a certain academic level—pass Geometry 2 and Reading 4, for example—to graduate.
Edmonds believes the quality of a credit earned at a PPEP Tec school is as good as a credit earned at a regular high school.
But Miguel Contreras, the guidance director at San Luis High School, chuckles when asked if that is the case. “If you ask me, the answer will be a definite no,” he says.
The PPEP Tec schools have helped students who have not done well in traditional public schools and “don’t seem to be college-bound,” he adds, “and all they want is a high school diploma to defend themselves for the rest of their lives.”
Contreras notes that the sheer size of San Luis High, which has 2,000 students, is daunting for some. But he doesn’t believe the PPEP Tec schools prepare students well to go on to college.
He thinks a new state requirement—scheduled to take effect in January—that students must pass the Arizona high school exit exam to get a diploma will make it more evident to them that the quality of education at such alternative schools, including one run by his own district, is inferior. The exam is part of the state’s assessment system, called Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
“I would love for them to surprise us all and show us, ‘We’re not only holding our ground, but we’re doing better than all of you.’ But I’m afraid that isn’t going to happen,” says Contreras, who has worked in the Yuma area as a school guidance counselor for 15 years.
John David Arnold, the minister who founded PPEP Inc. and who is now its chief executive officer, says that PPEP Tec charter schools have graduated 1,800 “at-risk kids” who have been given a “second chance.”
Maricruz Beltran, the student from Cesar Chavez, says she and her fellow students worry about the new requirement. In fact, she’s trying hard to graduate by December so she can avoid it. Beltran has taken the exit exam three times, but has passed only the writing section. She hasn’t passed the math and reading sections.
Two years ago, four students—or 6 percent—of the 65 Cesar Chavez students in all grades who took the math section of the Arizona exit exam passed. Last school year, 28 students—or 26 percent—of 107 Cesar Chavez students who were tested in math passed.
Edmonds says you have to consider where the students start out when they enroll in PPEP Tec schools. Some can’t do long division without a calculator or don’t know their multiplication tables, she says. “If they come in and can’t do basic math, they can’t do algebra and geometry,” she says. “We have to spend a huge amount of time teaching basic math until they can do algebra and geometry.”
But the state gives some leeway to alternative schools in its accountability system because they serve students deemed academically at risk, says Robert J. Franciosi, the deputy associate superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education.
For an alternative school to earn the state’s “performing” label, only 5 percent of its students who sit for the math section of the high school exam must pass. For regular high schools, the bar is set at 30 percent. So far, all of the PPEP Tec schools have a “performing” label.
Still, Edmonds believes the exit-exam requirement will hurt students who struggle to meet the state standards. “Not only in our schools, but in all of Arizona, they are going to start dropping out of schools,” she says.
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Dropping In