Five Questions for Alex Hernandez

Charter School Growth Fund's Alex Hernandez with Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Saskia Levy Thompson, program director, and LaVerne Srinivasan, vice president, National Program.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) where he identifies and develops promising charter schools in the western United States and Texas. He leads the Impact Team and has built CSGF’s next generation schools practice. Hernandez is a former high school math teacher and a former area superintendent in the California Central Valley for Aspire Public Schools, a leading K-12 charter school network.

One of your main objectives is to grow the number of high quality schools. At the current pace, you will have supported 1300 schools nationwide by 2010, up from 50 schools in 2005. What is the right balance between opening new schools and sharing knowledge and practices that can be implemented in existing schools?

We’re growing at 20 percent a year. We’re trying to get to a million, two million kids. The fun thing about working with our portfolio is you don’t have to convince school personnel to share with one another—they’re very avid consumers of each other’s practices. People go out and learn.

At the Charter School Growth Fund we’re increasingly doing more and more convenings around specific topics. Last October, we had 24 people whose job it is to manage schools, come together in Dallas and talk about what is success and what are best practices in the field. We were able to do some amazing work with them, and we’re doing that four to six times a year with special education. We’re also doing something around advocacy and English language arts.

Let’s talk about knowledge sharing among your network of operators and across the education sector. How are you setting up a platform? How do you inform the field about best practices, or worst practices to avoid.

The first thing is just communicating best practices in ways that are actionable and that practitioners can understand. That sounds so simple, but from my experience, it almost never happens. You’ve got the giant white paper that’s not so informative, or no one knows where it is, or what to read, or else something that’s a puff piece and you actually don’t understand the work underneath. Can we create something that people can take back and it will make them better on Monday?

I’m working on a set of blog posts around facilities. If you’re a new charter school network, how do you know if a new facility is affordable?  Here are the metrics you should care about, here are the pitfalls that most folks find, and we’re drawing on the experience of all our operators and our investment team and our facilities team. We’re going to release an affordability tool that they can use to plug in their numbers. I think they’re going to find it really practical and actionable.

Now that CSGF is launching its third fund for investments, can you tell us about the key performance indicators and growth milestones that you focus on when reviewing charter school operators?

We think about three things. The first is academic performance. Based on the demographics and the geographic area, are you outperforming other schools in the area? Unlike the stock market, we think that in education past performance predicts future performance. If you’ve run a great school chances are you’re going to open up a great school.

The second thing we look at is financial health and how they use philanthropy. We think schools need to break even on public revenue, that charter networks should use philanthropy efficiently, and that it could become a big deal scaled at 10,000 kids. We want to make sure they’re both doing a great job serving kids, and we’re building really great healthy and robust organizations.

The third thing is they need to be interested in serving more families. It’s complicated to be a fast-growing, young organization. So we want to make sure that they have an opportunity to serve more families, but sometimes the smart thing to do is to open that next school, and sometimes open three schools, not two schools. Every situation is different. We’re helping guide them in that process.

One of your significant roles is to provide an incubator for rapidly evolving school designs. How does CSGF approach research and development?

We’re a nonprofit and structured very much like a small investment firm. We’re not built like a university with a lot of researchers. So we’re privy to a lot of best practices, and we’ve got a number of professionals in our organization who are exposed to a lot of things. We’re able to connect the dots very quickly on emerging trends. We’ve got a pretty small, scrappy team that puts these together, and that’s how we approach the work.

I am pretty active in my position leading the next generation portfolio to encourage more research and development in that space. If we spent two percent of our national budget on R&D, we could be spending $12 billion a year in K-12 alone. We’re not spending anywhere close to that. We just had a big conversation about how to make next generation learning easier for other folks to do. I try to be very active at encouraging people to go to the right places so other people can take advantage of innovations.

Can you tell me where you see personalized learning heading?

Personalized learning is moving forward for a few big reasons. We’re in this generational change towards more choice and better experiences. Think about how we watch TV or hail a cab. You’re seeing the same thing in schools. You’re seeing parents exercising a lot more choice. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of families on a waiting list for our schools across the country. There’s a belief that schools can be better and there can be more to schools.

I had a parent who discovered his kindergartener could do math at the third grade level. No one in the building knew. When they found out, no one was really jumping up to do anything about it. So the parent said, “How can I get my child what she needs when she needs it?” And that was really about as articulate a justification for more personalization and better experiences for kids.

What all these things are adding up to is a flurry of activity for a new school model. A school doesn’t have to be 30 kids in a room with a teacher. It can look a lot of different ways. Once you start relaxing the assumption that everyone has to do the same thing at the same time and at the same age, a lot of different combinations are popular. The answer isn’t that everything works equally for every kid. It’s what works for what kid in what situation, and how do we help kids get to those things that work for them in those situations.