Heart of an Organizer, Blood of an Educator: Amethod’s Jorge Lopez
How the Richmond-born leader made a lasting impact on so many students and schools, and went from high school dropout to CEO
When Jorge Lopez was working as an organizer in Butte County in the late 1990s, he remembers one day more than the others: the day he visited Los Molinos Continuation School, part of the Federal Department of Migrant Education. He remembers the school being “in the middle of a field” in a labor camp. Some of the students lived in farmhouses with no running water or electricity.
“I grew up in poverty, in Richmond,” said Lopez, now the Chief Executive Officer for Amethod Public Schools (AMPS) charter network, which operates three Locally Grown Oakland Public Schools. “But country poverty? That’s a whole other level. I could not believe I was in the United States.”
Standing in front of those students, looking out at a group of kids who looked like him, he had a realization: this is what I want to do. “I told my boss I was going to start teaching,” he said. He soon started working with students who had dropped out of school, just as he had after getting thrown out of school and sent to continuation as a 10th grade student in Richmond. The job went beyond teaching. “I was like a case manager as well, I’d track them, provide health services like dental screenings if they needed it,” he said. “It was an all-encompassing job.”
Lopez stayed in education in the more than 20 years since, taking on one all-encompassing job after another. He has worked for AMPS since joining the network’s flagship school, Oakland Charter Academy, as principal in 2004. Under his leadership, the school was named a National Blue Ribbon School, as well as a Title I Academic Achievement Award, Distinguished School Awards, and the California Charter Schools Association’s Charter School of the Year. AMPS has since grown to include six schools, three each in Oakland and Richmond.
Lopez has made a lasting impact at each place he worked, from Butte County to Sacramento to Oakland and Richmond: turning schools around, creating new schools and making drastic improvements for students and communities. He learned early on the importance of building grassroots support, of having the community’s backing and getting parents involved.
From his experience, charter schools are best positioned to change outcomes for our most vulnerable students. “When you drive up and down Highway 80, the 5, the 99 in the State of California and you see black and brown kids, I guarantee you there’s academic performance problems at that school,” he says. “Just look at the data. Go into those schools.
“Charter schools, when done well — and they have to be quality — will change those outcomes.”
The first charter school Lopez worked at was Dolores Huerta Learning Academy, where he taught fourth grade, in 1999. He and his family had moved from Butte County to Oakland to take the job at a time when Oakland as a city and its public school system, was very different. (Though some similar dynamics then remain the same nearly 20 years later, with an OEA strike a few years before and dire financial problems that led to a state takeover a few years later.)
“The schools were hugely impacted,” Lopez remembers. “There was overcrowding, they would do rotational calendars at the local elementary school because they didn’t have enough space for all the kids.”
At that time there were fewer than 10 charter schools in Oakland. “Charter schools have become the common enemy,” Lopez says. “Back then, there was no common enemy.”
“Charter schools, when done well — and they have to be quality — will change those outcomes.”
Through a chaotic time, he shut out the outside world and focused on reaching his students. “I closed the door to my classroom and I taught and I built my class,” he says. “What I learned was the way you have to do it is be better than everybody else.” He created systems and made sure there was no idle time. Soon he had the model class, with parents clamoring to have their kids in his class. “That’s how I became the principal,” he said.
Dolores Huerta had already cycled through two other principals that year, and he stepped in to provide steady and consistent leadership. Lopez experienced a challenging year as the school’s leader. It was a stressful time. His wife was pregnant with their first child and he would be staying at school past 11 pm. He had doubts about staying in education and started considering law school and affecting change through the legal system.
He looked around Oakland and saw other new charter schools were thriving. “They were hiring their own people, had their own board and council,” he said. “I really liked that, so I thought, this is a good possibility just the way it was being run (at Dolores Huerta) was wrong.”
Lopez left Dolores Huerta to move to Sacramento to pursue an education masters at Sac State. Sacramento is where he drafted his first charter school petition, for a journalism and communications high school. He was running the Sacramento Youth Project for the Mexican American Alcoholism Project.
“I really learned about governance, understanding the approaches to creating a school,” he says. “I learned how to do a budget. It really trained me up.”
That experience proved vital in his next role as principal of Oakland Charter Academy. He had heard about the job from a friend who connected him the board. A month after his interview, he was hired and that spring before he started, he began visiting the campus on International Boulevard and 30th Avenue. He was not impressed.
“I closed the door to my classroom and I taught and I built my class. What I learned was the way you have to do it is be better than everybody else.”
“It was a joke of a school,” he remembers. At lunch, there was a taco truck in the middle of the courtyard. He watched a little girl walk out of the back gate. He himself had walked in off the street with no questions asked. The walls were dirty and littered with old staples. He says it was the second lowest-performing middle school in Oakland at the time.
Lopez joined ready to make big changes. He met with the teachers and evaluated them. He met with individual board members and shared with them breakdowns of the school’s data and finances. “I knew what I wanted to do was radical,” he says.
Before his first fall at OCA, he led a summer school on campus for the 6th grade students. They became his ambassadors, helping establish the school’s culture. He hired a parent to paint the building inside and out. The taco truck wasn’t invited back. He hired some new teachers. “Parents started seeing the changes right away,” Lopez says.
Lopez emerged through some tumultuous early days at OCA because he had the support of the board. He hired young teachers and convinced them to get multi-subject credentials. He changed the curriculum model. He remembers practically living at the school, observing classrooms and coaching teachers every day. “I had to,” he says. He reached out to school leaders and board members from other Oakland charter schools to learn from them.
He marketed the school to the community. He would tell the fruit vendor on the corner, or a family walking by, or guys in suits going to lunch, that they should come in and “visit the best school in Oakland.” He felt he had to constantly hustle.
“To me that’s what a charter school is,” Lopez says. “It’s a constant grind, a constant hustle. An urgency to build community, build instruction, build teachers. That is what a charter allowed me to do. At Oakland Charter Academy, that’s where it all came to fruition, all my experiences.”
Nearly 15 years later, Lopez is still with the AMPS organization. During that time, AMPS has opened up 5 other schools: Downtown Charter Academy and Oakland Charter High; and three schools in Richmond: Benito Juarez Elementary, John Henry High School, and Richmond Charter Academy.
Oakland Charter High was the first to open. While Lopez was working on a grant for an elementary school in Oakland, one of the OCA graduates was shot and killed. He spoke to the student’s mom, and it crushed him. Other parents implored him to open a high school as well, telling him how hard it was for their students to survive in the large, traditional high schools.
“After they come from (OCA) they’re thinking different, they’re thinking about college and then we send them into the lion’s den,” he remembers parents telling him. He called the program manager and re-did the grant.
Oakland Charter High opened in the fall of 2007 at 12th and Webster, and enrollment tripled. That led to the creation of Downtown Charter Academy. By this time Lopez was the executive director of the organization.
“To me that’s what a charter school is. It’s a constant grind, a constant hustle. An urgency to build community, build instruction, build teachers. That is what a charter allowed me to do.”
He credits much of the growth to the power of word of mouth. Families will be upset at their school, and start asking around about better options. That’s often how they hear about AMPS schools. “The need is so great,” he says. He’s proud that Richmond students are getting in to top colleges when they graduate high school. “I went to school in Richmond, there were very little UC Irvine’s and UCLA’s when I was coming up,” he says.
His proudest accomplishment might be that the AMPS families are activated and engaged.
Recently, Lopez and other AMPS leaders accompanied a group of parents on a trip to an Oakland private school. “We told them, ‘this is what you’re going to be left with when charter schools are eliminated,” Lopez says. “They asked, ‘Is this a charter school?’ ‘No, it costs $40,000 a year to go here. The system says, ‘Tough, you’re going back to the inner-city schools.’ And they say, ‘hell no.’”
“So it’s all coming back full circle,” he says. “That’s how I started, as an organizer. Being with families and kids is where my heart is at.”