In 1992, the world of education in California changed forever. The state passed the Charter Schools Act, making it legal to start new public schools that would function independently of state and local regulations. For Mary Bixby, it was the opportunity she’d been waiting for: Solve one of the greatest challenges in U.S. education by helping struggling students who don’t have the money to pay for private schools or tutors. To do this, she would have to create a new type of school.
Bixby was up for the challenge. “If you have a young person who’s disengaged, then square one is how do you get them engaged? That’s where I think every single school in the U.S. needs to begin, and I don’t think that the traditional model does all the things it needs to do in order to motivate young people.”
At the time, Bixby was running a hybrid storefront program for struggling students in a San Diego mall. There, students took academic courses and received training in retail sales and merchandising, and then worked at the stores. Bixby wanted to build on that innovative model for her own charter school vision — creating something that would really meet the needs of students.
Bixby didn’t look for the students with the best grades to attend her school. In fact, she looked for the opposite. “We wanted students who were struggling, who had given up hope, who were not engaged. Then we specially trained our employees at every level. We’re all about engaging kids on an individual basis — knowing their name and their family’s names. So it’s an entirely new approach to public education.”
Bixby’s model was part business plan, part education program. For starters, she got rid of the traditional model of a centralized campus. Instead, she created 17 high-tech and highly functional resource centers throughout the county to meet 6th to 12th grade students where they lived. She invited community members to be part of the process.
Each student gets a personalized education plan, one-on- one attention from teachers, individualized college and career planning, and a flexible schedule that meets their academic and personal needs. They also take personality and aptitude tests to identify their strengths. Using a university model, each student takes one to two courses every four weeks. Any student can take any course. Field trips and guest speakers are frequent.
Bixby says that what really sets apart the program is how it relies on unbiased and timely data to inform instructional design.
“I’ve heard a school superintendent say, ‘It’s like trying to move a battleship’ when you try to make a change in the traditional setting,” says Bixby. “We’re not like that. If you have an environment that is positive, constructive, productive and agile, it can make quick changes. If we see something in the data mid-year, we can make adjustments to better serve each student’s needs.”
We wanted the students who had given up hope, who were not motivated and not engaged. It’s an entirely new approach to public education.”
Bixby used her Vistage group to incorporate a business perspective into all her educational decision-making. She learned that to run an effective operation, you need a high level of satisfaction among your employees. You need clean and attractive working spaces. You need to embrace a vision that includes change and flexibility. And that’s just the beginning.
Her Vistage group and Chair have also helped her develop a distinct vision of leadership. “Leadership occurs at every level. We have a responsibility to teach, support and create opportunities for anyone at any level. I don’t care if they’re a clerk in the inventory room. They can all act as leaders, being proactive and suggesting improvements. Sometimes I’m a leader, sometimes I’m a follower. Leadership means you are working at creating some kind of change.”
At the same time, she emphasizes her own accountability. “When the buck stops on your desk, you need to have a high level of confidence. You have to be clear-headed. You have to be bold. You have to be a risktaker. You cannot be afraid of being wrong. You have to be able to generate trust in other people. And you’ve got to be able to take a hit. Things may seem like they’re not going your way, but I really believe in making lemons into lemonade.”
No matter who’s leading and who’s following, one group is always at the top of the totem pole — students. “When we look at our value system,” Bixby explains, “kids come first.”
In 2015, the school received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest presidential honor for performance excellence through innovation, improvement and visionary leadership. Other recipients have included PwC, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, Nestlé and Purina; it’s the first time the award has been presented to a school in its 28-year history.
The school won for its ability to help students who were academically behind and at risk of never receiving a high school diploma. Between 94% and 98% of those enrolled have graduated from the Charter School of San Diego or successfully transitioned back to a traditional public school.
In 1992, Bixby couldn’t have imagined that she would have opened six charter schools throughout Southern California, all using her Altus Schools model. She continues to look ahead and plan for the future. A sign over her office door reads, “The difficult we can achieve right away, the impossible will take us a little longer. It’s all about where you want to go.”
Altus schools have facilities in uncommon locations, like malls, to offer vocational opportunities to students.
Faculty tailor curriculums to each student, drawing on close teacher-student relationships and data.
Bixby gives decision-making power to every level of staff, making Altus more agile and increasing retention.