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Pop Music Star Kicks Off National Charter Schools Conference

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The need to harness the support of families and communities to strengthen and grow the charter school movement is being repeated many times by charter supporters here at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference in Washington.

The conference, hosted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, kicked off this morning with a standing ovation for international pop music sensation Armando Christian Perez, or "Pitbull," who gave his first "real speech" (his words) to educators about his educational experiences as an immigrant growing up in Miami and as a parent of children who attend charter schools. Perez is working to help open SLAM Charter Middle and High School, which is scheduled to open its doors for the 2013-14 school year.

SLAM, which stands for sports leadership and management, will help prepare students for careers in sports-related fields, said Perez. "I don't want any mom in America to have to lie about where she lives so her child can attend a better school," he told the audience to a round of applause.

After Perez's speech, former Today Show co-host Jane Pauley hosted an on-stage discussion with a high-profile panel of education and charter school experts: Ana Ponce, the chief executive officer of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles; Craig Barrett, the president and chairman of BASIS schools and former chairman of the board of Intel; Michael Lomax, the president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund; and Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education under the George W. Bush administration.

The wide-ranging discussion touched on topics of assessment, funding for charters, common-core standards, and the leadership of the charter school movement.

"This is a movement that feels like it's being imposed on communities rather than growing up in the communities," said Lomax. "How do we do more than just build a sense of mission among the parents we're touching and the kids we're touching? How do we engage the people in these communities?"

Lomax's comments were echoed by Ponce, whose charter school currently operates in a predominantly Latino neighborhood.

"The charter movement has the barrier of being perceived as a white movement that's educating kids of color," she said. To help empower communities of color to embrace charter schools, the movement needs to be supportive of leaders of color who want to open charter schools, she said.

The panel also touched on the politicization of the charter school movement. Barrett, a self-identified Republican, lamented the Republican National Committee's decision to oppose the Common Core State Standards. "It was stupid. It was ridiculous. And it was idiotic," he told the audience. "To come out against high expectations and high standards and try to blame it on ... any other liberal cause you can think of is just stupid."

The panelists emphasized the need to cut through the political rhetoric to allow for the growing acceptance and influence of charter schools.

Spellings discussed the role of testing in building accountability and closing achievement gaps in the K-12 system. "Testing reveals precisely and specifically where our problems are, who the problems are, and how to resource this problem," she said. She warned the audience that although too many students are already reading below grade level, even more students will fall below that mark once the common-core standards have been implemented. "We're in a shoot the messenger phase," she said. "We need to be prepared to accept the news ... around the problem."

But Ponce, from Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, reminded the audience that "testing needs to be a piece of the accountability but not the entire accountability [indicator]" which drew a wave of applause from the crowded room. "We need to engage others in the learning that we've done," she said. "We're going to change public education community by community."

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