Shayla Bownman overheard a man talking about the Fortune School while riding the bus. Now, she says, both her kindergartner and first-grader are flourishing at the south Sacramento charter.
"They have a chance at being somebody, even though they are on welfare and are low-income," she said. "I'm very blessed to have this opportunity."
But not everyone is so enamored with Fortune School. The nondescript little charter in a shopping center on Stockton Boulevard has become the hot-button issue in a crowded race for four seats on the Sacramento County Board of Education.
The Fortune School network was approved by that board as part of a five-year charter that allows a new K-8 school to be opened in Sacramento County each year. The Fortune School is less then a year old.
Opponents say the charters free public schools will pull students and the dollars that come with them away from school districts and that local school districts should have been asked to approve them instead of the county board.
Charter operator and educator Margaret Fortune says the schools are needed to close the "severe and persistent" African American achievement gap in the county.
Thursday morning the 183 kindergarten through third-grade students at Fortune School seemed oblivious to any of the controversy. Larayja Roytaylor held out her hand to greet a visitor, softly speaking her name and explaining the current lesson. Each class assigns a daily greeter in case of visitors.
The students were in their dress uniforms khakis, a skirt or jumper topped off with a crisp white shirt, vest and sweater. Clip-on ties for the boys, criss-cross ties for the girls. On other days they wear khakis and a collared shirt or an orange Fortune School T-shirt.
At the top of each child's worksheet are spaces for them to write the school motto "Listen, respect, work hard" as well as the year they will graduate from college.
"We expect every one of our students to go to college," Fortune said.
To reinforce that expectation, every student at the school took a field trip this month to California State University, Sacramento. Fortune said they will visit other universities as the school grows. Fortune plans to add a grade each year until the school is a K-8.
Thursday the class of 2027 walked through the halls single-file to lunch, some clasping their hands behind their backs, other holding a book a school rule.
Eighty-one percent of the students at the school are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch because of their family's low income. The school also serves a free breakfast.
Sixty-two percent of the students are African American, 27 percent are Latino, 3 percent are white and 8 percent are other races. Twenty of the students are English-language learners.
Fortune has made a concerted effort to recruit families around low-performing schools. "As it turns out, that's where African American students are generally going," she said.
The achievement gap is a disadvantage to the entire country, she said. "We miss out on the talent these kids can bring to us and the skills adults can bring to us."
Co-principal Kiyomi Meeker said the school often takes kids other school districts have given up on. She said teachers, administrators and parents will sit around the table and brainstorm ideas to help a child who is floundering. "We will do whatever it takes to succeed," Meeker said.
So, how are the students doing academically?
That's not so easy to determine. Because the school is less than a year old, no state test scores are available.
But a report to the county Board of Education in February from Francie Heim, a consultant hired by the board to provide oversight to the Fortune School, says that tests given at the beginning of the school year and again the first trimester show all grade levels are increasing the number of students testing proficient or better in English Language Arts.
The most dramatic increase in English proficiency was in kindergarten where in one trimester there was a 66 percent improvement in the number of students who became proficient or advanced in English. Sixty-two percent more students also became proficient in English in second grade during that time. The smallest increase was a 43 percent improvement in the third grade.
Her report said that first- and second-grade students were not tested in math at the beginning of the year because of a short time frame before school started but that students in kindergarten and third grade showed an increase in their math scores since the beginning of the school year.
The Fortune School also provided The Bee with data for the second trimester that showed continued progress by nearly all students.
"A lot of people have the mentality that low-income kids can't learn," said kindergarten teacher Phuong Tran, who taught in San Diego before coming to Fortune School. "They have proved they can. They are reading, writing."
Instruction at Fortune School is governed by five principles high expectations, choice and commitment, more time, a focus on results and citizenship. The school has a longer school day and school year, and requires students to come to school during vacation breaks if they are falling behind.
"By the time students have finished first grade, they will have attended the equivalent of three years of school, instead of two," Fortune said.
The school, operating on a $1.8 million budget this year, is managing its money well, Heim said. She said the school was awarded a federal planning grant of $575,000 $325,000 in 2011-12 and $250,000 in 2012-13 as well as a Walton Family Foundation grant of $250,000 in 2011-12.
These grants have funded many of the startup costs, including furniture and equipment, supplies and teacher professional development.
As a free public school the charter also receives state and federal funding.
Fortune said she will continue to focus on opening schools in south Sacramento. The next school in the network, William Lee College Prep, will open on Aug. 15 in Oak Park. The school is named after the publisher of the Sacramento Observer newspaper. The principal will be Erin Marston, one of the teachers at the Fortune School.