2006 Award Recipient

Don Shalvey

Aspire Public Schools

Don Shalvey - The James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards Skip to content

At Aspire Public Schools, the expectation for students is clearly spelled out above every classroom door.

Each class, starting with kindergarten, is named for a different college or university, to send a message to kids that they’re all expected to go on to postsecondary education.

“College for certain” is the slogan of Aspire Public Schools, a collection of 14 charter schools with more than 4,000 students in underserved, low-income communities across California. The importance of high expectations is one of the lessons that Don Shalvey, Aspire’s cofounder and CEO, learned from a lifetime as a public school educator in California.

Over a 40-year career, Shalvey has been a teacher, principal, and school district superintendent in some of the state’s most disadvantaged and most privileged communities. Today, he is a leader in the charter school movement, which aims to improve California’s public education system by offering parents and students alternatives to traditional public schools.

To be sure, public discussions over the impact of charter schools can be heated. But because of Shalvey’s reputation as a respected public educator, and thanks to his warm, open manner, he has been able to foster constructive dialogue between people on both sides of the issue. And his success with Aspire Public Schools has inspired constructive changes in some public school systems.

In 1992, as superintendent of the San Carlos School District, Shalvey led the district’s effort to sponsor the first charter school in the state, and the second in the nation. In 1997, he co-led the campaign to change California law and expand the allowable number of charter schools beyond 100. (Today, there are close to 600.)

And in 1998, he started Aspire, the first nonprofit organization to develop multiple charter schools in underserved California communities. Today, Aspire has grown to 14 schools in East Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Modesto, Oakland, Sacramento, and Stockton.

To me, it’s kind of an elegantly simple equation: a good education creates more opportunity than not. It creates a more robust community than not.

Don Shalvey

Aspire creates high quality public schools in urban neighborhoods that mirror the best private schools. Key features of Aspire schools include their small size, longer school days, and commitment to rigorous assessment and parental involvement.

“Everyone is seeing the art of possibility,” says Shalvey. “If we can create a long-lasting institution that focuses on underserved kids and gets them to graduation, we will have had an impact.”

Aspire schools’ early results are impressive. Teachers and parents give the schools high marks. By several academic measures, student performance is improving dramatically, and Aspire seems to be delivering on its “college for certain” commitment: each of its first two classes of high school graduates met the standard of 100 percent acceptance to college.

Shalvey explains, “To me, it’s kind of an elegantly simple equation: a good education creates more opportunity than not. It creates a more robust community than not.”

For his entrepreneurship and effectiveness in advancing the quality of public school education in California, Don Shalvey is a recipient of the 2006 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.

Don Shalvey

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Aspire Public Schools


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In 2009, Don joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he served as Deputy Director.

In 2020, Don retired from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and is now the President and CEO of San Joaquin A+.

Don Shalvey died in 2024.


The written profile and video reflect the work of the leader(s) the year they received a Leadership Award. Please contact the leader(s) for current information.