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Charter school leader Vielka McFarlane brings personal history, passion to education

Vielka McFarlane, after winning a fight with Los Angeles County schools officials over California's 'parent trigger' law, plans to open a new charter school in Compton.

May 30, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Vielka McFarlane, whose upbringing in Panama taught her the value of education, is passionate about charter schools. Her newest is set to open in Compton after a battle with Los Angeles County schools officials..
Vielka McFarlane, whose upbringing in Panama taught her the value of education,… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Three decades after leaving her native Panama, Vielka McFarlane hasn't forgotten how a first-class education can transform a poor kid with a hard-knocks life.

The Los Angeles charter school operator remembers leaner days and long hours helping her struggling family sell empanadas from a street cart. Her eyes mist when she speaks of her hardworking parents, who sacrificed to send her to the best schools in Panama, despite discrimination from that society's upper-class, and then to Los Angeles in 1982.

So when the Compton school board rejected her petition this year to start a charter school in a city with some of the state's worst standardized test scores, McFarlane got fired up. Determined to fight for Compton parents the way her mother and father fought for her, McFarlane appealed the board ruling to Los Angeles County education officials — and last week announced that she had won.

She will open her new school this fall — Celerity Sirius, named after the brightest star in the night sky.

"For me, it's personal," says McFarlane, 48, whose African roots and fluent Spanish reflect Compton's racial and ethnic demographics. "I see my parents in those Compton parents. Now I can do something about the injustice, the denial of opportunity, the idea that it's OK for some kids not to read."

McFarlane's Celerity Educational Group has been at the center of the state's first test of a landmark law allowing parents to petition for major changes at low-performing schools. In December, parents at McKinley Elementary in Compton submitted petitions to convert their campus to a Celerity charter operation under the new "parent trigger" law. Those petitions are tied up in court.

But armed with county approval of her separate charter petition, McFarlane is moving forward with plans for her new school for 220 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Church of the Redeemer in Compton. She has already hired a principal, plans a facelift for the space and expects to open her doors for applications beginning Wednesday.

Celerity Sirius will be one of three new campuses the group plans to open this fall, bringing its total to seven schools. Three of the schools have standardized test score data, and all three rank in California's top 10% of schools with similar populations of mostly low-income Latino and African American students.

Through a quality education, McFarlane says, she aims to give children broader choices in life — to attend college, to start a business — instead of dropping out of school, an all-too-prevalent path in places like Compton.

"We want to prove we can take the bottom kids and move them as high as they can go and get them through college," says Grace Canada, Celerity's school services director.

McFarlane's venture as an educational entrepreneur started in 2004 the same way many of her other abrupt life changes began: with an epiphany. By then, more than two decades had passed since her father mortgaged their Panama home to give McFarlane a plane ticket to Los Angeles and $1,000 in cash.

"I have nothing left," McFarlane says her father told her. "You're going to have to make it with this."

Her cash was stolen shortly after her arrival here in 1982, and she was penniless when she fast-talked her way into a job with a California milling company by touting her bilingual skills. After an assortment of jobs, including pitching tourism for the Egyptian government, McFarlane says, she decided she was a "loser with no purpose in my life."

She walked into Los Angeles Unified School District offices in 1991 and asked to teach. Pressed by a teacher shortage at the time, the district gave her an emergency credential and sent her to Holmes Elementary School in South Los Angeles, which McFarlane says was caught in the crossfire of a gang war.

On her first day there, McFarlane says, she saw a fourth-grader chasing a teacher with a knife. But she loved the experience of seeing the light of learning in children others considered lost causes.

"I found there is no kid who doesn't want to learn and not one parent who doesn't want her kid to be a success," she says.

She moved into administration four years later as a bilingual coordinator, then assistant principal, then principal at Overland Avenue Elementary School near Westwood. Ever the serious student, she improved her English at night school, earned an undergraduate degree in economics at Cal State Los Angeles, acquired her master's degree in education administration at National University and is working on a doctorate in organizational leadership at Pepperdine University.

In 2004, she was working as a coordinator for the district's charter schools office when, she says, she realized she was "bored out of my mind." That's when she took the plunge, mortgaged her home and launched plans for her own charter school.

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