Interview with Lester Long of Classical Charter Schools

In 2006, what was your visionary goal in founding a distinct charter school, what makes it unique, and what do you hope to achieve?

We provide an outstanding first-class college preparatory elite education to K–8 graders, the most rigorous for the most deserving and the most under-served students. I wanted the highest impact and to do the most for the kids who need it the most. 

I didn’t do well in school and didn’t go straight to college after high school. I got into banking, where I saw real systems. The structures in banking are strong, but I wanted to apply those systems to something more meaningful, so I quit banking and became a school teacher in the South Bronx.

There, I saw meaning but no systems. I wanted to marry the two. How do you marry systems and a process of real excellence? And how do I do it for these kids who, quite honestly, were just not getting a great education? 

It was so sad because I saw it with my own eyes, one of the core, if not the core problem in America. Show me where you were born, the zip code of where you were born, and maybe your ethnic background, and I can often predict how things are going to go. That goes against the spirit of America. So, I’ve dedicated my life to making it so that demographics don’t determine destiny

That’s been the goal from day one. It’s a lot of work, but we’re really proud that we’re in the poorest congressional district in America, with all the negative social statistics, but our kids actually outperform, and not just academically, the white kids in Scarsdale and Chappaqua. That’s statistically the case.

They do academics with a very adult mature level of grit that a lot of kids in suburbia don’t have. We’re setting them up with the academic, behavioral, and moral components, strengths, and tools they need to thrive in a brand new economy where there are no more factory jobs. 

My grandfather was a farmer, but there are no more farming jobs. You can no longer be bad in your class, but get out of high school and get married, have three kids on a single income as a factory worker. It’s a knowledge-based era we’re going into, so we really need to make sure our kids have a strong foundation so that they can get decent jobs in a time where a lot of those blue-collar backbone jobs are long gone.

You’re talking about bringing processes and tools from the world of business and capital that allow information to flow smoothly, to a school setting. Why the South Bronx?

The reason is the maximizing impact of doing so. We’re all here for just a brief time, and we all want to, in the end, matter. It’s not about anything else. I saw areas of great need. There are 32 school districts in New York City, and these districts were always in the bottom two or three for decades. I wanted to go where I could have the most meaning. 

My feeling was if we can create communal change and really target four schools in an area, and it can be done here, it can be done anywhere. We want to be a proof point that this is replicable. This is a system. This is a recipe. This is getting a recipe and getting people that are passionate about learning, and putting that together, and making those changes. I think you could pick us up and move us to parts of Philly or Hartford, Connecticut, or Asbury Park, and we could do great work.

Why are you expanding at an aggressive and ambitious pace? You could stay with the one school and collaborate with people like Ed Rendell in Philadelphia to expand nationwide, but you keep expanding in the Bronx. What’s driving that?

It’s realizing that one school is great but, when we accept kids, the event is called a lottery. Parents fill out a form, and we put the names in a hat and pick out names. We get about 13 applications per seat, but it shouldn’t be a lottery. You’re not supposed to win a lottery to get a decent education. That’s not winning. That’s a failed system. I should be working with every kid born in America in 2005, regardless of their zip code, not just lottery winners.

A system has to have oversight, but when we have partnered with other schools, it’s difficult. There are different cultures, different levels of intensity, passion, and of work. Our staff wants to grow too. So, if you’re a teacher and you’re working hard, you may want to be a principal. We had an internal pressure, a healthy pressure, to grow here.

In 2014, you teamed up with CTS—Technology for Education to provide IT services at Classical’s two schools, at the start of the school year. Why engage CTS?

Depth of service, to be very blunt. We had a previous IT consultant from 2006 to 2014, but we really needed a portfolio or a suite of services. We needed someone who could do wiring, hardware, and construction—all the way to unsophisticated end-user support issues, like teachers not able to log in.

CTS has the whole thing. It’s really critical, when you’re growing, you don’t want to have one IT guy that does his stuff in the wall, another IT guy that does the network stuff, and other help desk people at different firms. 

I just want one phone number. CTS really has made it pretty seamless, even though there are separate teams. I just call, and I know I’m going to get someone. If I call the wrong number, they provide a seamless transition to whoever I’m supposed to speak to.

So CTS is handling everything and then, around 2015, you create a five-year plan for technology upgrades across all the schools, utilizing the ERATE program. What has that meant for your school?

I don’t know tons about ERATE. It’s a government-subsidized program for us to obtain vastly cheaper hardware, not necessarily end-user devices, but all the wiring, all the networking stuff. I don’t know everything about ERATE and that is exactly what I want. I don’t want to know. CTS was really helpful in that.

All systems existing in the world, ultimately, are for fostering, improving, sharpening, creating relationships. Ultimately, it comes down to relationships. And we had a trusting relationship with CTS. They would keep us updated on what was required for ERATE, and I didn’t have to get into the details, which I simply don’t have the capacity to do. It was that end-to-end service, and one of those ends is something like an ERATE, a game-changer.

When you’re building schools every two years, ERATE’s real money. It’s six figures and tight support, which changes the economics for each of those schools every year.

You have a fairly technically sophisticated school program. There’s an incredible technical infrastructure that props it up. How does technology integrate with education in your schools?

It integrates in the area you would think least or last. It is not child-facing technology. It’s very much the back office. Every school, every classroom has a projector, every school has a desktop, and every teacher has their laptop. CTS was a big part of getting us on the cloud back in 2013 and 14. They put us on the cloud right when schools were only shifting over to SharePoint. So, it’s very infrastructural, both in hardware and software. We’re pretty proud of that.

If you walk into a Classical classroom, you see desks and chairs, a whiteboard, a projector with a desktop attached to it, but what you don’t see is that our curriculum is on a cloud, supported by and helped by CTS, every lesson and every subject in every grade, K–8. When students take tests, we scan all that data into a giant SQL database. Again, CTS was a big part in making sure that was done accurately and securely, knowing what ports open for what data. What you would see there is very powerful and informed teachers, not necessarily kids with devices.

In 2019, you had a long-time ops or tech employee leave, and CTS placed a full-time technician in that person’s stead. What has that transition been like for you?

It’s been a godsend. Only slightly more expensive, but having someone on the ground all day, every day, rotating across the schools and being able to be at school two and working on school one because of computers—that was a game-changer. 

CTS has a great ticketing system. They know what they do all day; they communicate to you what they did, how many tickets were opened and closed. You get justification for the cost. Tech has gotten to be so much more than it used to be. It’s nice to have that end-to-end solution where they’re the resident experts. So, I’m happy that happened. We thrive, and we improved, because of that shift and transition.

When COVID hit, CTS was providing IT services to all three schools and finishing the fourth school in the winter, and then suddenly everything shifted. What was that experience like? 

It would have been terrifying because we provided a very classical old-school experience. If you went to our schools, from 2006 to 2020, you walked into a room, you saw kids in desks, in rows, in a uniform, paying attention to a teacher in the front of the room, a very old-school, 1950s Catholic school. All of a sudden the school building is closed and we had to flip, intellectually, into this new world, this new remote learning world, and they were a partner with us, not just in gathering the devices and dispensing devices, but thinking through all the small things, like access points. 

Some of our parents weren’t able to obtain access points, so CTS was a thought partner in how we deliver access points and wifi to people who don’t have them and some level of support for those parents. That’s a big one. They got 150 Chromebooks and then another 212 on top of that all within a few months, maybe even a few weeks. 

And we weren’t the only company that was calling, saying, “Hey, we need computers,” so their capacity to lean on their suppliers in their supply chain to get us those was really helpful. It made all the difference. I’m proud to say that our kids take the same tests as they did a year ago. Last year, March 18th, the year before, it’s the same test. When you look across our network, our kid’s performance has had only a nominal drop of maybe 3%.  Something like 25% of the kids that go to the DOE are lost. A quarter of those kids are gone, whereas our kids are averaging a couple of points less. 

We’ve already won three Blue Ribbons. If they do 3% less during a global pandemic, I think we’ve done great work. And a lot of that stems from just that seamless support. 

We also assess kids online. How do you give a kid a test when he’s sitting in his house and you can’t see what he’s doing? CTS was also a thought partner in that process. That structure, that reliance on systems, and that trust in our IT provider has allowed us to be sort of the third pig in The Three Little Pigs—the one with a brick house—and not the first or the second.

You said it’s an intellectual shift in switching to remote education when you’ve been a traditional school all these years. Can you define that intellectual shift?

I think it’s intellectual, moral, logistical, and emotional. The shift is like we were on a century-long habit of being teachers, waking up and going into a classroom, and bam, it’s gone. All the systems we put in place might not help. In March and April, there was a real fear. We were all hearing the sirens, like “Wow, this thing is going to cause a lot of death.” It was scary. 

And how do you create strength? How do you discuss change and discuss stability? In any relationship, sometimes, we have to rely on existing habits and sometimes we have to name the things that have changed. How do you manage the change for someone? 

We say, A) things are changing, but B) we want things to actually feel similar. I want to comfort you, I want you to feel calm, speaking to the scholars, their parents, and even our staff. 

Remember, our staff is, on average, 25 years old; they’re scared too. It’s hard. Sometimes someone wants to freak out and sometimes you have to let them, and sometimes you have to bring them back to, “No. We want the experience to be the same.” 

As for the experience for the kids, we wanted to keep it as similar as possible. So, they were still in uniform, they were still expected to behave the same, there just happened to be two screens between me and them. But other than that, it’s the same thing.

It’s really nuanced in how you balance trying to keep things the same so that feels safe and trying to acknowledge, “Holy cow, this is a different world.” Balancing those in any relationship is hard because we change all day. At any minute, you might want a normal relationship, and then the next minute, you might say, “Oh, I need change.” That was really hard for our kids, parents, or staff.  

Where CTS really benefited us is getting that support there, so people aren’t at home saying, “Oh my God, I’m sitting at home, I have a 70-year-old mother that’s living with me. My kids are all crying on the screen, and now my computer doesn’t work.” That fourth one is sometimes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Having them there just as consistent high-quality support so that we don’t have to worry about that fourth thing, was really important.

If you look back at the partnership since you began, what have been some of your adventures in taking on a sidekick like CTS, and how do you see the relationship going forward?

It’s birthing out a new program. It’s remote. This is going to have a multi-billion dollar impact. It’s going to affect education from the one-year-olds to the 30-year-olds. If Princeton’s spending half its money on buildings, and I can get a Princeton education sitting home, do I get half my tuition back? It’s a big question. 

So, that remote part and that seamlessness of remote and Zoom and Teams gets us closer to our vision. Education tends to be slow in change, but that remote part gets us closer. What does that mean? Maybe on Saturdays, we offer Zoom classes or remote classes. Do we record our classes during the week and have students who are absent select from a library of those recordings and be responsible for watching them on Saturday?

Can we have a summer school where a lot more kids can be available because now we’re not limited to the size of our building? What if, for example, Classical decides right now, “You know what (any kid in America), here’s our Zoom schedule. No matter what grade you’re in, come in and we’ll have some adequate controls, but if you want a Blue Ribbon-level curriculum being taught at Blue Levels of instructional quality, come on in.”? 

Scalability is something that really excites me. I desire it more than anything. This year has shown me one thing. It’s shown the world, if we were listening, the distance between the haves and the have-nots has ratcheted back to where it was a long time ago. We were working so hard to help create equity, and 2020 just kicked that distinction hard in the knees.

For more about Classical Charter Schools and CTS’s role as their technology partner, read the Classical Charter School case study.

“CTS helped reinvent and reimagine the Classical classroom without losing the quality education delivered before COVID shut down the school buildings.”

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