Thursday, May 31, 2007

Defining a New Charter School's Vision/Mission

Today and tomorrow we're conducting a How to Write a Charter School Application training. Meeting these new charter applicants is like a teacher welcoming a new class. It's fun to see the excitement in their faces and hear the passion in their voices when they talk about their "dream."

We talked about the vision and mission of the school: how to write it after listing belief statements and how it should clearly communicate what the school will look like once it's open. The vision may be diluted with every person who is added to the steering committee. Many developers experience a challenge in communicating their vision to prospective parents and their potential authorizer. Defining what the school is--and is not--is critical at inception.

Charter schools are mission-driven schools that fulfill a particular niche. While they cannot require enrollment criteria, they can specifically design their school to target a specific type of student. In other words, they can, and should, define their "specialty."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What's Key to Starting a Successful Charter School?

Someone asked me today, "What's key to starting a successful charter school?" I've seen charter school applications get approved that are about 10 pages long and I've seen the 4-inch binder applications written by experienced educators get denied and never open. Getting a charter school application approved is very political.

The people involved in starting a charter school are the ones who determine whether or not the school will be successful. Charter school operators sacrifice fancy buildings and instead concentrate on delivering a quality educational program. Inexperienced staff can be great with the right leader and effective professional development. Charter school board members don't have to bring a lot of expertise as long as they're willing to learn and have a never-ending commitment to the school.

But boiling it all down to one or two key factors to success? First, an educational program designed to increase academic achievement with the targeted student population. Second, a principal who can implement the board's vision and effectively lead the staff.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Remembering our Veterans

My thoughts and prayers to all our U.S. military; those who served or are currently serving. Plus a special recognition for the families of these veterans who sacrificed along with their loved ones.

My personal favorite of all military personnel is my son, a Corporal in the Marine Corps. He deeply loves the personal freedoms and liberties we hold dear in the U.S.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

High School Graduation

Dr. Terrence O. Moore gave the graduation speech yesterday at Ridgeview Classical School's fifth graduation ceremony. He talked about teachers, books and students. Dr. Moore said that the role of a teacher minimizes as the student's learning increases, eventually resulting in the student having learned everything they can from the teacher, which is when the teacher/student relationship ends. Dr. Moore finished his speech by saying the faculty of RCS had completed their work with the graduating students and all they could do at that point was send them off with love.

For Dr. Moore, to state that he was sending the graduating students off with his love was not a trite statement at all. He told them how much he'd enjoyed teaching and discussing academic subjects with them, but also his enjoyment of just spending time with them. The bond between the students and Dr. Moore was palpable. It was obvious that there was mutual respect and admiration forged through years of hard work and high expectations.

Lest anyone imagine the graduation service as lovey-dovey, it's important to note that RCS is the number one high school in Colorado for the last two years. Almost all of the 26 students graduated with High Honors. The students earned numerous awards, scholarships and recognitions for their academic achievements. Further, Dr. Moore is a former Marine. I know that he holds high expectations for his students and models high expectations for himself. His leadership is key to the reason RCS is the top high school.

Some high-performing schools are very prideful of their accomplishments. At RCS' graduation I saw authentic recognition for accomplishments as a result of hard work and perseverence, recognition for the moral character developed amongst a group of students who encouraged each other to excel and flourish, and the obvious affection and devotion between students and staff who had--together--labored and had fun doing it together!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Jefferson Academy's Graduating Class of 2007

This year's graduating class at Jefferson Academy is the first class to attend from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I attended the graduation ceremony the other night and was impressed to see twelve original students receive their diplomas.


As one of the original founders of the charter school in 1994, the first year I did most of the enrollment process. I got to know the families through enrolling their children; we all became very close because we were pioneering together. That first class of 5th graders eventually created our junior high program and later were our first high school graduating class.


The very first day of school at Jefferson Academy I was there to see the culmination of months of work by a number of parents devoted to the formation of a common dream. I've often told charter school developers to savor the first day of school--especially by making a visit to the Kindergarten class. There's something magical about those young faces lit with the excitement of the first day of school that makes it all worthwhile!


Congratulations to the Jefferson Academy Senior High class of 2007! It's been a privilege to watch you grow into admirable adults!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Welcome Commissioner Dwight Jones

Today the State Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint Dwight Jones as the new Commissioner of Education, effective June 1. Mr. Jones is currently the Superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District where he has effectively led the district to close the achievement gap. Gov. Ritter was one of the speakers to welcome Mr. Jones to his new job during this morning's reception.

During the State Board meeting earlier in the morning, the Board all expressed their appreciation to out-going Commissioner William Moloney. Comm. Moloney has served since 1997, completing an admirable decade of serving the students in Colorado. Both former Gov. Owens and current Gov. Ritter sent letters to Dr. Moloney commending him for his outstanding leadership.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Greatest Threat to Charter Schools

Whether you call it "regulation creep" or "bureaucratic creep" the greatest threat to charter schools is the gradual re-creation of the public education system charter schools were created to be different than.

This belief that crops up from a variety of people and in a variety of scenarios is manifest when someone believes more regulation is better (e.g. requiring licensed teachers), everyone else in public education is doing it (e.g. step and level pay schedules rather than pay for performance), or simply not questioning new requirements (e.g. charter schools must use their school district's auditors). Every year the Legislature attempts to re-create the system that has already failed many public school students. The most alarming part of this, is that this quietly creeps up on individuals involved in charter schools and the movement as a whole.

Some of the charter schools operating in Colorado look very much like a district-operated school. Conversely, some charter schools refuse to accept any federal funds and deposit their monthly per student revenue in their own bank account. At least one district in the state requires their charter schools to use the district's financial accounting software, which means charter school funds are kept in the district's coffers until they are paid via a requisitioned check.

People involved in charter schools, especially governing boards and administrators, need to be vigilant about maintaining the autonomy the original concept of charter schools envisioned as a means of "doing things differently." Every single action needs to be evaluated with the question, "Does this allow us to maintain the original concept of charter schools, which is to be autonomous and free from bureaucracy?"

Monday, May 21, 2007

Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy

One "silent hero" of the Colorado charter school community that we don't hear very much about is Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy (CMCA). I visited the school today and was very impressed with many of the things happening at the school.

The people at CMCA are very humble about their accomplishments. I asked the Executive Director, Collin Mullaney, to what he attributed the incredible test scores routinely produced in the middle school and he quickly credited their middle school Language Arts teacher. CMCA has two Language Arts classes each day and for struggling students, they get a third class. CMCA students have scored 100% on the Writing CSAP--an extremely rare feat! And Collin is right--they have a great teacher!

Two of the three administrators at CMCA have been at the school since the beginning. They completely understand the school's philosophy and know how to implement it. The school is a model for many components of their educational program, including reading, writing, Core Knowledge and Direct Instruction. The program design has been very successful with the CMCA student population: 24% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible and 26% ethnic minority. CMCA qualifies for Title I funds.

This year CMCA added a high school. Their district (Cheyenne Mountain 12) wouldn't allow them to use the words "Cheyenne" or "Mountain" in their high school name, so although the K-12 is one charter, the high school is called the Vanguard School. The school recently purchased land a couple of blocks from their current site that will hold the entire K-12 campus as it is built out. The location is ideal with good access, open space and trees, and lots of space to grow.

CMCA has been awarded the prestigious National Blue Ribbon award in 2004 and the state John J. Irwin School of Excellence award from 1999 to 2006. I'm confident more achievements are in the future for this incredible school!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Charter School Governing Boards

I'm often asked what type of characteristics a new charter school governing board member should have. I think someone's character is more important than the skills they bring to a charter board.

Charter school board members in the state have done some pretty bizarre things over the years: completely changing the vision/mission of the school, not reporting things they must by law, changing the bylaws and reconstituting the board when questioned by parents, holding executive sessions to discuss issues not covered under Open Meetings laws, and the classic--micromanaging the administrator. One wise person I know says that the best and worst of charter schools are parent board members. It's true.

CDE recently released a charter school board training handbook. It's online at www.cde.state.co.us/index_htm and will be the basis for future online training modules. Every person who serves on a charter school board in Colorado should read the handbook.

Friday, May 18, 2007

More on Excellent Charter Schools

I can't resist writing more on a couple of our great charter schools. The Coloradoan reported Ridgeview Classical Schools and Liberty Common School getting the national Charter School of the Year Award at: http://www.coloradoan.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070518/OPINION01/705180334

There are many incredible people involved in these schools! I first met Kim Miller and the other Ridgeview Classical founders in 2000 when they were conducting research on their school design. As with many phenomenal schools, Ridgeview found some awesome leaders: Terrence Moore, Don Carpine, Peggy Schunck, Kim Miller, Laurel Van Maren and others.

Likewise, Liberty Common School immediately rose to a level of success under the masterful guidance of Dr. Kathryn Knox. The school is now led by Russ Spicer, a principal who leads the school to fulfilling the original vision. Others who have greatly contributed to Liberty's success are: Maureen Schaffer, Randy Everett, Cindy Paben Johnson, Craig Horton, Tim Ricketts, Valerie Pericante and the Kast's. Last fall Liberty celebrated their 10-year anniversary. This year 100% of Liberty's 3rd grade students were proficient or advanced on the Reading CSAP.

Both of these schools consistently hold high expectations for their students. School is hard work for students at Ridgeview and Liberty! The parents, students, staff, governing board members and administration at these two schools deserve this special recognition they received this week!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Three Colorado Schools Named Charter School of the Year

Three Colorado charter schools were recognized as Charter School of the Year at a Center for Education Reform event in Washington, DC this week. Congratulations to Liberty Common School in Fort Collins, Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins and Jefferson Academy Elementary in Westminster.

Each of these schools are open today because of the appeal provision in the Colorado Charter Schools Act. Jefferson Academy appealed in order to open in 1994. Liberty Common School appealed "gross imposition of conditions" after trying mediation. Ridgeview Classical Schools had to appeal last year when their school district tried adjusting their funding monthly and saying board members could not be employees of the school. Each of these schools are models of academic success and have been exemplary models for other charter schools!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Instructional Time

Perhaps the most innovative, yet simple, value provided by charter schools is increased instructional time for their students. Few conventional public schools have stretched their hours beyond the traditional 180 days a year, 6.5 hours per day. Many charters provide additional time because they are able to make innovative allocations of resources.

Among survey respondents, 57 percent go beyond the traditional school day or year.

Source: Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools: 2005 Data, Center for Education Reform, 2006.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Targets or Quotas?

This week the charter appeal hearing between the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) and the Imagine School at Firestone was about a minimum number of Free/Reduced Lunch eligible students being required by the district. The district said that because theFree/Reduced Lunch rate in the Firestone area was 31.1% the charter school contract should require that minimum or else if the charter school fell below for two consecutive semesters, they'd lose their charter.

Every new charter school in the state is eligible to receive the Colorado Charter School Start-up Grant IF they use a lottery for admission. Federal nonregulatory guidance on the lottery doesn't allow for dual lotteries to guarantee a certain F/R minimum. It doesn't even allow weighting students with extra lottery chances if they qualify for F/R Lunch. However, with a mandatory requirement, the odds of an open lottery guaranteeing enough F/R Lunch eligible students is remote. In other words, Imagine School at Firestone would have to forego their chances at receiving approximately $500,000 or more over their first three years of operation simply because of this charter contract requirement.

The SVVSD claimed the mandatory minimum was a "target" and not a "quota," as the charter school applicant's attorney called it. There are several charter contracts in the state that stipulate a goal for F/R Lunch eligible students. The difference is when consequences are attached to not meeting that minimum. Then it becomes a quota.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Charters & the State Board of Education

Yesterday the State Board of Education remanded the appeal from the Life Skills of Denver Charter School back to Denver Public Schools. DPS had revoked the charter, which has been open for 3 1/2 years. Life Skills serves a very high minority and Free/Reduced Lunch eligible population on a year-round calendar using a computer-based curriculum.

Today the Board denied exclusive chartering authority to the Poudre School District and granted it to the Pueblo 60 School District.

The charter appeal today was from the Imagine School at Firestone in the St. Vrain Valley School District. In a packed hearing room, the district justified their requirement of a contract provision requiring Imagine to serve at least 31.1% Free/Reduced Lunch eligible students or surrender their contract after two consecutive semesters below the mandated minimum. Schools within the district have Free/Reduced numbers between 10% and 90% with a district average around 30%. Since this was a second appeal, the Board ordered the district to negotiate a contract and open the charter school. Imagine plans to open with grades K-3 in the tri-town area.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Charter Authorizers

In Colorado the only charter authorizer is either the local school or else the state Charter School Institute. However, other states have a variety of authorizers such as the Indianapolis Mayor's Office, colleges and universities, non-profit organizations, and State Boards of Education.

Why different authorizers? For the same reason there is a wide variety of charter schools: innovation. Authorizers that have the sole responsibility of chartering (e.g. the Colorado Charter School Institute) tend to be better at holding their charter schools to high levels of performance.

The primary roles of the authorizer are to 1) decide which charter applications are accepted, and 2) monitoring and oversight. This responsibility to hold a chartered school to a high performance level is done through a performance contract, or charter. Authorizers often wrestle with the desire to let their schools operate autonomously and yet be held to high levels of accountability. This delicate balance is further complicated when the charter schools slips in financial or academic performance.

There is a national organizations for authorizers, called the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Their website is at: www.qualitycharters.org. They have highly regarded quality standards for charter school authorizers and a variety of best practice documents in their resource library. Further, they hold an annual conference with helpful information.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education

Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, spoke at the National Charter School Conference in Albuquerque two weeks ago. Here's a clip from her remarks:

On that last point, I'm pleased to let you know that my Department is drafting revised guidance to give states further encouragement and flexibility to help more high quality charters flourish...

In addition to measures aimed specifically at charter schools, we are proposing a number of changes consistent with the spirit of charters.

On the flexibility front, we plan to allow the use of growth models to track individual student progress from year-to-year and monitor achievement gaps.

And to help deal with the pressing problem of restructuring schools, we have developed a menu of options for local school officials to choose from, including real governance changes and—as I mentioned—the option of reinventing these schools as charters, regardless of arbitrary caps.

For all the innovations in education in America in the past fifteen years, so much about our approach to education still looks more like 19th century agrarian America than the nation that gave birth to Microsoft and Google.

The demands of the 21st century are not going to wait—we need every student to achieve their potential today.

No Child Left Behind is largely comprised of charter school philosophical components. School choice, meaningful parental involvement, and high expectations for academic achievement are all embodied in No Child Left Behind. These philosophies are hard to argue against. Who is going to be the one to tell a minority, low-income parent her child doesn't have to prepare for college or give that parent an excuse about how her child just can't learn the same as other children? Yes, ALL children can, and should learn!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Merrifield's Email Continues to Drive Discussion

H/T to Ben at Mount Virtus [www.bendegrow.com] for pointing out that the Merrifield "special place in hell" email has received national attention at World Net Daily. http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=55502

Last week the Merrifield email was a hot topic amongst the Colorado "charterizers" in attendance at the National Charter School Conference and mentioned by many of the national speakers. Most were shocked that Rep. Merrifield expressed such strong antagonism against a system that is the solution for many at-risk students. In Colorado, support for charter schools has leaned Republican (with a handful of stalwart Democratic supporters). In other states support is clearly bipartisan.

What would happen if the charter school discussion centered on what's best for students? We know that our society has become sophisticated consumers. We have a multitude of choices in breakfast cereal, vehicles and restaurants. Why does anyone believe "one size fits all" in education?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Paradox Valley Charter School

Today at edspresso.com I read this:

For example, Paradox Valley Charter School in Colorado enrolls a student population where 90 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch (a barometer for poverty used by the federal government) and 25 percent receive special education services. The school was rated “excellent” on the state’s school report card, which school leaders credited to the quality of their staff and innovative curriculum.

I've been to Paradox Valley Charter School and agree that it's an awesome school! Paradox is located at the end of a 22 mi. long canyon on the border of Utah. A few years before the charter school opened, the local school was closed due to low enrollment and the kids rode the bus into Naturita. Obviously, this impacted the town of Paradox! They now have a K-8 charter school that is the lifeblood of the community! They even have a branch of the Montrose Public Library in their building and offer preschool.

This region of the state is economically depressed and many homes in the valley are comprised of a father, who probably works at the big ranch or mine in the canyon, and several children. The burden of single parenting is eased by having a school in Paradox. The people in this town may have had some tough battles in their lives, but they're very giving and kind-hearted people!

Renee Owen was the key founder of the Paradox Valley Charter School. She's leaving at the end of the school year to go be the Principal of a private school on the east coast. One time at a Rural Charter Schools Network meeting, Renee and a few others were discussing how far they lived from the nearest grocery store. All had about an hour's drive. Renee also spoke about how she was trying to get her children to drink goat's milk. Renee is a woman who can get anything done! She has a heart of gold and loves her community. Renee wrote the school's charter school start-up grant application and every year it was incredible--the grant reviewers couldn't wait to read the next installment of the story about Paradox Valley Charter School. Renee is a gifted writer who brings her reader into the heart of her school.

There are several remote areas of Colorado where the charter school not only allows families to keep their children close to home and off dangerous mountain passes, but the school is also the center of the community's activities. It's often not economically feasible for a school district to keep remote schools open. However, a small charter school can be more creative with budgeting and using volunteers. A perfect example of this is the Paradox Valley Charter School!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Charter Schools Lose at State Capitol Today

All the anti-charter school provisions put on by the state House last week were adopted by the Senate today. Sen. Nancy Spence noted this was the first time in her 9 years of service that the School Finance Act bill didn't go to conference committee for review. Instead, the bill now goes to the Governor for his signature.

What does this mean for charter schools? The charter school capital construction fund was cut from $8.5 million down to $5 million. This pot of funds goes down on a per student basis each year as the number of charter school students increase. Charter schools will be lucky to get $100 per student next year, after receiving more than twice that last year. These funds were hijacked to fund the Online Education bill, which establishes a new division within the CO Dept of Education to oversee online education.

The School Finance Act bill, adopted earlier today, also restricts Charter School Institute board members from serving on charter school boards or being an employee of a charter school. Further, State Board of Education members cannot serve on charter school boards or be an employee of a charter school. These new provisions obviously restrict the influence of people involved in charter schools from impacting education reform. Not many years ago we saw the General Assembly and State Board of Education specifically require charter school representatives to serve on advisory committees. Times have changed for charter schools!