Don Shalvey, ‘fearless’ charter school pioneer and mentor, dies at 79

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Don Shalvey

Credit: San Joaquin A+

Don Shalvey, who created California’s first charter school in 1994 and, as an organizer, strategist and mentor, had an outsize influence on the charter movement’s growth over a quarter-century, has died.

Shalvey succumbed Saturday to glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer that was diagnosed a year ago. He was 79 and living on the family ranch in Linden, a small town near Stockton, where for the last seven years he was CEO of San Joaquin A+, a nonprofit that underwrites charter and district early college pathways for career opportunities. He was also a longtime member of EdSource’s board of directors, returning to the board for a second time in 2021.

“Don was a towering figure in public education with a direct influence on the opportunity of people in under-resourced communities to get a first-class education. He did it regardless of criticism or compliments because it was the right thing,” said John Deasy, former Los Angeles Unified superintendent and close friend for four decades. 

In 1999, Shalvey founded the first multischool charter organization in California, and was its CEO for a decade: Oakland-based Aspire Public Schools is now the state’s largest charter operator, with 36 schools serving 15,000 students, the equivalent of a midsize school district.

“He was fearless,” said Steve Barr, a political activist who started Green Dot Public Schools, the first charter school network in Los Angeles, after Shalvey emboldened and then tutored him in starting a school.  

Don Shalvey
Don Shalvey
Courtesy of the Gates Foundation

Shalvey was instrumental in passing two state laws that enabled charter schools to expand. The first, in 1998, lifted the statewide cap of 100 charter schools. Two years later, Proposition 39 entitled charter schools, as tax-supported public schools, to equivalent space in district school facilities.

In a shrewd compromise that led to the support of the California Teachers Association, Proposition 39 also lowered the supermajority needed to pass a local school facilities bond from 66% to 55%.

Shalvey set high expectations and inspired a shared vision of what charter schools could become in high-poverty neighborhoods. Known for his variety of saddle shoes — a throwback to growing up in the ‘50s in his beloved Philadelphia — he had an encyclopedic memory of popular music and used karaoke and name-that-tune to build camaraderie at staff meetings or break the ice at conferences. Those who knew him say he was affable, persistently cheerful and unpretentious. 

Knowing he was ill, colleagues and admirers shared remembrances over the past year through LinkedIn, chat groups and videos; others conveyed their thanks in person.  

“Everybody wanted to make sure that he really understood how deeply grateful we are for his impact on our lives and the lives of students,” said Caprice Young, a former Los Angeles Unified board member whom Shalvey persuaded in 2003 to lead the newly formed California Charter Schools Association. She visited him earlier this month.

Deasy said that less celebrated was Shalvey’s mentoring of thousands of people: “It was his true legacy, and Don took it seriously.” 

Lucky charter school leaders got his cell number, knowing that from 4 to 6 p.m., he was captive to the commute from Aspire offices in Oakland to Linden. “We always knew we could ask him for advice. If you had a question about something you couldn’t figure out, he’d be there,” Young said.

Heather Kirkpatrick, a former teacher whom Shalvey hired in 2001 to plan Aspire’s first high school, said, “Just as he has for so many people, he changed my life trajectory. There was a big feeling early at Aspire that you were along for the ride of your life,” she said. 

When she suggested that teacher residencies might help retain teachers versed in Aspire’s teaching practices and culture, Shalvey encouraged her to start a five-year pilot program. It became a model for the state.

Mala Batra, the current CEO at Aspire, said conversations with Shalvey profoundly affected her, too. “There isn’t a day that goes by that you are not present in our work at Aspire,” she wrote on a tribute page for him. “A ritual you created, wisdom you shared, a practice you ingrained, a mark you left, a question you posed, a song you liked, a ‘Why can’t we do it like Don?’”  

Carrie Douglass, an early Aspire employee, recalled that Shalvey called all Aspire employees on their birthday — sometimes four and five calls a day as Aspire added school sites. “Many employees said that annual phone call got them through another year,” she wrote on a LinkedIn post.  

Shalvey was equally committed to offering guidance and support in his volunteer efforts, including as a longtime member of EdSource’s board of directors. 

“Don made an indelible mark on how I go about my work and how to prioritize kindness while also being passionately determined,” said Anne Vasquez, CEO of EdSource, who credits Shalvey for highlighting the need for trustworthy journalism in the rapidly growing Central Valley. “Three years ago, EdSource had zero staff based in the Central Valley. Today, we have three, including our K-12 editor.”

‘Purposeful test kitchens’

Shalvey grew up an only child in Philadelphia and attended a 5,000, all-boy Catholic high school in Philadelphia and summers in the Poconos at Camp Wyomissing, first as a camper then as a counselor. It was there, he recalled, where he learned to lead. “Dad wanted me to be an engineer, and I chose not to go to MIT,” he said. “I wanted to be a teacher.”

After graduating from La Salle College in Philadelphia, he got a job offer as a middle school math teacher in Merced in 1967. His cousins, who lived in San Francisco, said, “Sure, come stay with us, we’re right near Merced.” They were confusing Lake Merced in San Francisco for the Central Valley city 165 miles away. But Shalvey grew enamored of the Central Valley, and it became his home base for the next six decades.

After teaching for a dozen years and serving as a principal, then an assistant superintendent in Lodi Unified, he became the superintendent of the San Carlos Elementary School District, south of San Francisco. Convinced that the state education code and inertia discouraged innovation, he established the San Carlos Charter Learning Center. He had the support of his school board and teachers, who shared his view that the charter school would serve as “purposeful test kitchens” for innovative practices in technology and multi-age instruction. It’s now the nation’s oldest operating charter school.

“Our work was about innovating and committing to learning and sharing what we learned with teachers,” Shalvey wrote in an EdSource commentary in 2017.

The Legislature capped the number of charter schools when it passed the state’s charter school law in 1992. The ceiling might have remained intact, even though the maximum number was reached, had Shalvey not met Reed Hastings and Barr on Sept. 17, 1997.  

In the area to take daughter Chelsea to Stanford University, President Bill Clinton chose the San Carlos charter school to sign a bill creating a new grant program for charter schools. Barr was doing work for the event, and Hastings, in between selling a high-tech startup and starting Netflix, had extra time and was interested in charter school expansion. The two had lunch soon thereafter. They agreed on a plan for a statewide initiative to raise the charter school cap to 100 per year and gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot. Rather than spend money fighting it, CTA  agreed to legislation that included requiring credentialing requirements for charter school teachers. It also contained a provision that Hastings conceived permitting a nonprofit board of directors to oversee multiple charter schools.

Putting his job on the line

That authority would reshape charter schools. Aspire became California’s first charter management organization. After the first schools opened in Stockton in 1999 and then Modesto, Aspire quickly expanded to Oakland and the Bay Area, and Los Angeles; within a decade it had 21 schools.

In an interview last year, Hastings said Shalvey risked his reputation in leading the effort to expand the number of charter schools, knowing it would be very hard to get another job as a superintendent.

Other not-for-profit charter management organizations, known as CMOs, followed, among them San Francisco-based KIPP, Green Dot and Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, Summit high schools and Rocketship elementary schools. All targeted underperforming children of low-income Black and Latino families in urban areas.

“Don was the right leader at the right moment when leaders in Silicon Valley were looking for an alternative, and charters became the idea that you could do something differently with public education, especially for the highest-need kids,” said James Wilcox, who succeeded Shalvey as Aspire’s CEO in 2009 after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recruited Shalvey to become deputy director of K-12 education.

Wealthy donors like Hastings, Eli Broad in Los Angeles, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation fueled the expansion of Aspire and other charter organizations by funding startup and scaling-up expenses until the schools could operate independently on state funding. Charter school growth paralleled the boom in public school enrollment in California in the early 2000s before peaking at 6.3 million in 2004-05; many district schools were already overcrowded. Then, as state enrollment declined gradually over the next 15 years, charter school enrollment increased steadily. 

Challenging low expectations

Shalvey would tell colleagues at Aspire that their mission was to “make a dent in the universe, one scholar at a time.”

With the motto “College for Certain,” Aspire challenged the mindset of low expectations and replaced it with the belief that everyone would go to college. 

“We decided that underserved kids really had to be part of a full, focused play that college was for certain for you. That’s visual, that’s cultural, that’s a series of activities,” Shalvey said. “We said everything we did had to ensure that kids were getting in, staying in and getting supported.” 

Shalvey built a college-going culture — a novel idea in immigrant neighborhoods where most students would be the first to go to college. Each classroom had a different college banner, an idea he drew from cabins at Camp Wyomissing. Students would learn about the college, and current students or graduates would write to them about their experiences. All students had to be admitted to at least one college; in an onstage ritual, all students would exchange a letter of acceptance for an Aspire diploma at graduation. 

In 2010, the international consulting firm McKinsey & Co. named Aspire to its list of 20 of the world’s most improved school systems. Only three U.S. systems, including Long Beach Unified, received that honor.

A 2023 analysis by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that Aspire was one of 22  charter organizations that significantly outperformed demographically similar students in traditional public schools in state reading and math tests.

“We never thought we had it all figured out; we were always growing and learning,” Aspire CEO Wilcox said. 

Aspire has said that a larger percentage of its students goes on to graduate from college with either an associate or bachelor’s degree than students with similar demographics. But the figure from all graduating classes, through 2019, was only 30.5% within four years and 35.5% in six years, according to data from Aspire. 

Last year, after surveying parents, teachers and students, Aspire changed its motto to better reflect its broader mission to prepare students to “pursue and persist in college or any post-secondary pathway”  of their choice. Instead of “College for Certain,” it is now “Empowering Minds. Transforming Futures.”

Shalvey’s thinking evolved, too. With 70% of Central Valley high school graduates staying in the area, San Joaquin A+ focuses on developing an Early College High School model, which enables students to receive college credit while in high school and “earn as they learn” so that by age 26, “they are doing what they love and earning what they need,” Shalvey said.

Continuing tensions with school districts

With 1 out of 9 students in California now attending a charter school, districts often have tense relations with the charter schools that they authorize or approve over their objections. Antagonisms, especially with charter management organizations, have become more cutthroat in an era of declining student enrollments, as both districts and charter schools battle to fill classrooms.

Shalvey acknowledged in an interview last year that the conflicts date back to the revised charter school law that lifted the charter cap; it included collaboration and competition among charter schools’ purposes. 

“That’s the dilemma,” he said. “In the beginning, you had to do the common thing uncommonly well. So that set it up that we were competing because my school’s scores are better than your school’s scores. And that was just wrong.”

During his 11 years at the Gates Foundation, where he was involved in initiatives to adopt the Common Core standards and incentivize reform in teacher evaluations, which met resistance in California, Shalvey also seeded collaborations between districts and charter schools. There were partnerships in Denver, Hartford, Connecticut., and a three-way collaboration between the Spring Branch district, KIPP-Houston, and YES Prep in Texas to share course offerings and post-graduate strategies.

It wasn’t easy to bridge the mistrust in California. He cited Summit Learning, which opened its learning platform to all districts nationwide, and KIPP, which trained hundreds of school counselors and its own team in a college-completion initiative.

“When you get together with other charters and other school systems, you learn from one another. And it grows,” Shalvey said last year. “We weren’t trying to be the only ones trying to figure this out. There are no secrets in public education. You want everyone to get it.”

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