Interview with Alison Suffet Diaz: Environmental Charter Schools

Alison Suffet Diaz is the Director of Growth & Sustainability for Environmental Charter Schools (ECS), a role she moved into in 2019 after serving as Founder and CEO for almost 20 years. Alison started her career as an attorney and transitioned to a teacher at a traditional public high school. She had observed far too many students falling through the cracks without a supportive community or connection to school content. She was looking to create a different kind of educational experience for students and found that when students were informed and empowered to make change in their own communities, it positively impacted their academic achievement, pursuit of higher education and the desire to further their impact in the world. Environmental Charter Schools was born and has now become a model for schools across the country.

Environmental Charter Schools

Today, ECS is a network of free public schools that serve students in south Los Angeles County. Its mission is to reimagine public education in low-income communities of color to prepare conscious, critical thinkers who are equipped to graduate from college and create a more equitable and sustainable world. The ECS approach focuses on college preparation and environmental and community engagement through interdisciplinary instruction, small learning communities and community partnerships. This approach results in students who are prepared for college, motivated to continue learning and desire to positively contribute to their community.

ECS not only incorporate sustainable green features in their designs, such as a living stream and solar-powered greenhouses, but also connect students to real-life experiences through the local environment. Students study local challenges, research solutions, and then take action locally to make a measurable difference. At the heart of ECS is “the community” where everyone gets to know one another, builds trust, collaborates, and takes healthy risks. Through that, teachers and counselors are best able to help students find their passions.

ECS provides wrap-around services for each student. The community is broken down into smaller units where there is one counselor for every 120 students and one teacher for every 25 students. Students take a life/college prep class every year which ensures that they are supported. They also are assigned a teacher advisor during their tenure at ECS. The advisor becomes an additional liaison between school and family. In fact, they are the ones that hand the students their diplomas upon graduation.

Transitioning during the pandemic

Because of this foundation, ECS was able to quickly pivot at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. They closed their doors on a Friday and opened them back up on Monday for lunches, computers, WiFi, etc. High school teachers were online on Monday and middle school was online by Wednesday. Having achieved 97% attendance during distance learning, ECS decided that a return to campus so late in the 2020-21 school year would have to meet carefully articulated learning objectives. They started with students whose needs were not being met in distance learning. For example, students with disabilities often need more one on one supports that may be difficult to provide remotely. They expanded to other students who were not being served well in distance learning. Recently, they began bringing back each grade level for on campus activities, which are different from the instructional activities students have been receiving in distance learning. For a year, students have missed out on in-person community building activities. When they return, one of the goals is to provide space for team building.

Working with PCSD

When Alison was looking for a permanent home for ECS’ second school, she approached PCSD in 2011 for not only critical project management expertise but also investment and financing guidance for Environmental Charter Middle School – Gardena. While ECS and PCSD finished the project in 2013, PCSD has remained an invaluable partner ever since. For example during the pandemic, PCSD provided a low-cost loan to make Covid-related improvements including upgrading our HVAC systems and expanding learning spaces onto rooftop patios. Even more recently, PCSD provided advice and guidance on a new facility acquisition ECS’ fourth school.