It began with a goal; provide the best education to those who need it the most. The idea of starting a charter school at the age of 28 is no easy task, but Jacob Wertz ’05 is up to the challenge. The former De Paul Scholar discussed how his dream is become a reality with the help of a willing community and a strong conviction in serving others.

Tell us about your time as a student at SHC.

Academically, I was in a good space as a De Paul Scholar. The challenging courses I took in the program prepared me to go to a great college, Northwestern. While I was at SHC, the Iraq war was just beginning. Being in high school in the heart of the city, I was able to organize and attend the rallies and marches to oppose the war. At SHC, I also served as Editor-In-Chief for the Emerald and was fascinated with the news, and I became more knowledgeable about global issues. The career I have now owes a lot to the development of my passion for social justice while at SHC.

What made you want to work in education?

When I got to college, I could study real issues directly and not through the lens of the media. I changed my major from journalism to education policy, and it became clear to me that improving education is the critical piece to building a more just society. At Northwestern, I also saw a new set of issues of racial inequality in Chicago, which made it clear that the achievement gaps in education are based on where students are born and where they grow up, which is profoundly unjust. I grew committed to doing something about it. I started studying promising solutions, and often found the best solutions were coming from quality urban charter schools, which are public schools independently operated by non-profit organizations.

After college, I worked for a charter school network operating in in poor communities on the Southside and Westside of Chicago. There was an enormous cultural and racial division between our students’ experiences and my experience as a student. The unfortunate reality is that these challenges exist in all places across the country.

Also, DeMarillac Academy was founded when I was a freshman at SHC and the story of Valiente is in many ways similar to DeMarillac. We share a mission of developing children to be ready for a college prep high school environment. DeMarillac’s leader, Mike Daniels, was SHC’s Director of Campus Ministry while I was a student. My teachers at SHC demonstrated a commitment to providing educational opportunities and maintaining high expectations for students regardless of their background. This stayed with me and informs the work I do today.

Tell us about your journey as founder of

Valiente College Prep. I had incredible opportunities after college in Chicago to help a charter school network grow. I’m very proud of my work there, where we had 100% of our graduates from an all-boys charter high school get accepted to 4-year colleges every year. Then, about a year and a half ago, I received Building Excellent Schools Fellowship, which provided me with a $100,000 stipend and support for about 150 days of intensive training on school design, leadership and operations. The Fellowship exists to identify and train leaders creating new charter schools across the country. Within those 150 days, I spent about 100 days training in Boston, and travelled across the US to study successful charter schools that had been developed by past recipients. During the Fellowship, I visited over 50 schools across the country and learned how to implement key components of effective urban schools: longer school days, hiring and support for great teachers, and a focus on college prep.

Tell us about your choice to begin Valiente College Prep in Los Angeles.

Locating in Los Angeles ensures that we are focused on providing opportunities in an underserved community, and enables Valiente to set an example that can be observed by schools across California. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest in the United States, and is a center of reform, innovation and improvement in education.

Valiente will be located in the city of South Gate, which is in a working-class area of Southeast Los Angeles. Roughly 95 percent of South Gate students come from low income families Demographically, the region consists primarily of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. Fewer than seven percent of the adults in our community have graduated from college. We believe our students will be the first in their families to graduate from a university.

Our name, ‘Valiente,’ is Spanish word meaning brave or courageous. I wanted to honor the courage of families living here who sacrifice to provide opportunities for their children. We also want to nurture courageousness in our students, because we know that first generation college students in particular need courage to navigate the college experience.

Valiente College Preparatory will open this fall for 4th and 5th graders. We were just approved in February by the Los Angeles County Board of Education, and as our students get older, we will become a 4-8th grade school. Valiente is a mission-driven public school. Our mission is college prep for low-income students. Right now, I am working to recruit families, teachers and donors who believe in that mission.

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I have been doing community outreach in order to recruit students and supporters in South Gate. Over the past year, I have been going door to door at homes, and visiting parks and local shop, to speak with parents and grandparents about the school. I often visit park events, city council meetings, and speak with pastors to get to know the community and spread the word about Valiente.

As a charter school, parents have to make a choice to enroll at Valiente instead of the local district school. We’re tuition-free and there is no test for admission, but families still have to be educated about who we are and why we are a better option, or they will not enroll. If we had not shown there was a demand from the community, we wouldn’t have been approved by the school board. We already have more than 200 families who wish to enroll their children in the fall and hundreds more families who signed a petition asking the school board to approve us.

I also recruited an accomplished and diverse Board of Directors. We raised $30,000 at our first fundraiser, a small amount, but the ball is rolling. There is a lot of industry in South Gate and getting the industrial leaders to support their community, along with the broader Los Angeles and California philanthropic community, is a big goal for our Board.

Charter schools are public schools, funded by taxpayers, but as a new school we have additional start-up costs that are not funded, We will always want to do more to create opportunities for our students to obtain a truly rigorous, well rounded education. My goal is not just to start another public school, but to start a school that truly transforms students’ lives by giving them the opportunity, challenge, and support to succeed academically while developing their courage and character to be leaders. The most essential component of this comes down to great teaching in our classrooms. Teaching is an art and a science and I am always looking for ways to support teachers’ innovation and improvement. Some innovations are straightforward, like giving more time to kids who are struggling. That is why we have a longer school day that keeps kids in class until 4:10pm. Others will require us to continue to innovate, reflect, and improve over time. I look forward to what lies ahead and the impact Valiente College Prep can make.

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