CharterFolk X Vol 10 – Liza Bercovici, A Connection So Deep It Lifts Us All

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am delighted to recognize Liza Bercovici, Founder and Executive Director of Gabriella Charter Schools in Los Angeles, as CharterFolk Extraordinaire.

As I have said here at CharterFolk on many occasions, if there is anything about CharterFolk that gives us the leverage we need on ourselves to push through the challenges that we face, it is the deep connection to the work that so many of us bring. When we tap in at the level needed to keep things real, or when we see around us those whose connection is that deep, something lifts us. And that is when we simply can’t be stopped.

In my days working in charter schools, I have met many people whose connection to the work lifts great numbers of people around them. But I have never come across someone whose connection surpasses what Liza brings to our movement. Gabriella Charter Schools are named for Liza’s 13 year old daughter who was killed in an automobile accident. After the accident, Liza left her work as a lawyer and created a dance program for low income youth because her daughter had loved dance and because Liza had seen how dance had brought great benefit to her daughter’s too-short life. The new dance program was greatly successful, but it wasn’t very long before Liza began wondering whether the success they were having helping kids achieve excellence on the dance floor could translate into excellence in the classroom as well.

Thus was born the Gabriella Charter School, a school that has turned out to be one of the most respected and successful of all schools in California. I hope you might have three minutes to see how a local news station covered the story when Liza and Gabriella were given special recognition at the White House.

I remember very distinctly my first visit to Gabriella. I began snapping photos everywhere I went – simple things like how they used flowerpots outside their temporary classrooms in order to give the place a special feel.

Or more profound things, like the love that the school’s boys and girls had for the dance classes.

Of course, most impressive was seeing the quality of instruction happening in classroom after classroom. It was clear that everyone at Gabriella knew that the school itself was a living monument, and its work had to be taken on with a level of seriousness respectful of that fact.

At the end of my visit, I told Liza, “I’m telling my board that if there isn’t a second Gabriella in a few years, I should be fired.” She chuckled. Yes, the school had a massive waiting list, and the organization had developed a leadership team that could clearly replicate successfully. But after an early period of controversy and pushback, things were calming down with the District now. As long as they just stayed quiet and didn’t rock the boat, things probably would have been smooth sailing for Gabriella forever.

But eventually, the pleading from parents made it clear to Liza: the kids and families of Los Angeles deserved another Gabriella. And given the deepness of her personal commitment, and given the deepness of the commitment of all connected to that organization, once they had made their decision, there was simply no stopping it. I mean, who could say no to a pitch like this?

So it was with a special feeling of excitement and gratitude that I went to visit Gabriella 2 in the fall of 2017. True to form, the visit left an impression on me like no other. After observing a few classrooms, I sat down to talk to Liza and the leadership of the school about the various “1000 cut” restrictions the District was attempting to impose on the school. Afterward, we exited the room – one provided to the school by the District under Prop 39 – and as I put my hand out to hold the door for the person behind me, an old staple left in the door caught my finger …

… giving me the most tactile lesson I’ve ever experienced about the “thousand cut” threats that face our schools. I recognized right away the resonance and took out my camera to document the moment. Ever since, the photo has served as a source of constant leverage reminding me to do even more to help places like Gabriella Charter School avoid the myriad tiny cuts that ultimately undermine the ability to serve kids and families as they deserve to be served.

And it only made sense that I would learn the lesson at Liza’s school.

Gabriella is one of those special places where the lessons that confront our movement are made as real as anywhere I know. We come away from our time there even more motivated to do whatever is necessary to make sure that even more kids and families receive the better education they deserve.

And it happens because Gabriella’s founder, Liza Bercovici, brings a connection to the work that simply surpasses understanding. Over the many years of making her amazing organization, she has lifted up so many around her to aspire to the level of commitment she brings to the work every single day. She has certainly done that in me. It’s why I couldn’t be happier to recognize Liza here as the very essence of CharterFolk Extraordinaire.