Monday, March 31, 2008

Codifying Charter School Background Check Bill Advances

SB 208, Charter School Background Checks, passed out of the Senate Education Committee last week on a 6-0 vote. The bill is now pending second reading by the full Senate. Since charter schools already conduct background checks on prospective employees, there is no fiscal impact associated with this bill. The bill simply codifies current practice.

Final Door Closes on Charter Raptor School

The proposed charter school, a joint effort by Imagine Schools, Inc. and the Rocky Mountain Raptor Center in Fort Collins, had the final door shut in its effort to open a new charter school this fall. The school had applied to the state Charter School Institute and was denied. Then last week the Poudre School District Board of Education denied the charter application for similar reasons.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Charter Idea Turns 20

Twenty years ago this month Albert Shanker, then-American Federation of Teacher's President, gave a speech in which he introduced the concept of "charter" schools. Albeit his original vision included union representation in charter schools, he did envision schools being mission-driven with a special niche in the educational market.

The first charter school legislation was passed in Minnesota in 1991. Colorado's law passed in 1993. Many of Shanker's original ideas, such as allowing teachers to vote on whether their school converted to charter status, didn't materialize in the laws adopted in many states. Colorado's charter school movement is known for its grassroots creation of schools--many parents got involved in opening the first charter schools.

In Colorado the charter school legislation was originally bipartisan; now the strongest supporters are Republicans and a handful of Denver Democrats. But the people who started the state's charter schools are both Republican and Democrat. Charter schools are very diverse politically, uniting under the common theme of being able to operate a school of choice.

A group of teachers started the CIVA Charter School in Colorado Springs. Waivers sought, and granted, include the statutes for teacher licensure and negotiating with the teacher's union. No charter schools in the state have a collective bargaining agreement.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Charter School Marketing

I was reading about the creative ways some Michigan charter schools are marketing their schools for potential students and it made me think about how far we've come since all students were "assigned" to a particular school. School choice, and in many states simply charter schools, have redefined how families choose a public school.

Several of the successful Denver charter schools have people who take fliers door-to-door prior to their initial year of operation. After that first year, the lottery pool is typically much larger than the number of available openings and so this type of marketing is no longer necessary as "word of mouth" creates demand. But these schools continue to make home visits and have parents sign contracts to be sure they understand their role in their child's education.

Charter schools are "niche" schools that have to understand what they do well and market their school accordingly. The people in many communities throughout Colorado believe all charter schools are like the one they know in their own community, which is far from the truth. Many charter schools, even if their educational program is largely similar, are very different. For example, for years Grand Junction has had an alternative high school charter that has struggled with academic performance and staff turnover. Now this year, Caprock Academy is operating a K-8 Core Knowledge charter school in Grand Junction that is completely different. Parents are becoming more educated about charter schools as they hear about a different kind of charter school operating in their own community.

The philosophy that schools actually want to compete for a child's education is an outgrowth of the charter school movement. Rather than schools sending the message that parents have no role in their child's education, charter schools are recruiting and welcoming parental involvement--and not just to do bake sales and sell candy bars! In charter schools, parents make arrangements to finance facility costs, govern the school and work alongside a teacher in the classroom.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chalk One up for High Schools!

National Heritage Academies president, J.C. Huizinga, is finally going to open a charter high school! For years, NHA limited their focus to K-8 charter schools. NHA does a great job with the educational program, operations, facilities and almost all their schools demonstrate marked academic success. It's exciting to see J.C. entering this new phase!

I've been a part of a K-8 charter school board when we wrestled with whether or not to open a high school. I tell folks starting a high school is about 20 times harder than a K-8 school. There's so many additional things to think about such as the sports program, how to be competitive with the local "smorgasbord" high school, and it just plain costs more to do a high school. But, it is REALLY worth the extra work! Talk about being able to make a difference in student's lives! Plus, when there's students feeding in from a comparable K-8, it just makes sense to reap the benefit from years of work put into the academic success of those students.

J.C. Huizinga is starting a new company to do high schools. This is another example of J.C. making wise business decisions on behalf of his management company; he's not willing to dilute the focus of the K-8 operation. It'll be interesting to watch the development of this high school--the curriculum that's selected, the extracurriculars the school offers, and how it pans out financially, specifically.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wyoming State Board to Hear Charter Appeal

The founders of Cheyenne Classical School have filed an appeal with the Wyoming State Board of Education to appeal the denial of the Laramie County School District (Cheyenne). Many charter schools in Colorado had to use this same process in order to get their schools approved initially. In fact, by 1998 when the Colorado Charter Schools Act was taken off pilot status, almost half of the then-operating charter schools were open due to the appeal process.

Cheyenne Classical School is based on the successful Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins. Founders of CCS claim the school district's hearing process was flawed because it resembled a debate rather than a hearing.

Over the years in Colorado, the State Board has repeatedly chastised school districts that did not give their charter school applicants a fair hearing. There is a misperception in school districts throughout the state that the State Board "always backs the charter school." This is not true because the hearing data shows a fairly even split on State Board decisions. But most districts have learned to be fair and have solid rationale for their decision-making.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Charter School Background Checks Bill Introduced

A new bill, SB 208, Charter School Background Checks has just been introduced and is sponsored by Sen. Windels and Rep. Benefield. The bill makes it explicit that charter schools must conduct CBI background checks on all their employees (they already do) and requires charters to also check the CDE database on employees. If employees aren't licensed, they may still be in the CDE database if there is a red flag.

See also my previous post on this subject:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

CIVA Charter School

CIVA Charter School has a new facility this year that's very impressive. They financed the building and its renovation through a District 11 bond question on the 2004 ballot. The school's director is Randy Zimmerman, who has brought the school back to its original vision.

CIVA stands for Character, Integrity, Vision and the Arts. A major component of the school's program is character development. Students from all over Colorado Springs, and neighboring communities, attend CIVA.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Brighton Collegiate & District Go to Mediation

After the Brighton 27J Board of Education last week directed their legal counsel to prepare a revocation resolution for the Brighton Collegiate Charter School, at last night's meeting the board voted to go to mediation instead. This move gives both parties the opportunity to work out their differences and yet retains the charter school's ability to appeal to the State Board of Education should resolution not be reached.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hirsch on Improving State Standards

E.D. Hirsch has a solution for increasing the base of knowledge students should be able to demonstrate, as measured by achievement tests. As Hirsch also noted in his book, "The Knowledge Deficit" comprehension increases in students when the reading material is based on something they already know. In essence, his point was to "kill two birds with one stone" by having students read content-rich material while they're improving their reading comprehension skills.

"So my modest proposal is that reading tests should contain passages about specific topics taught not just in literature, but in all other subjects taught in that grade, except for math," writes Hirsch. "For instance, if third-grade language arts standards specify Alice in Wonderland, third-grade science standards call for studying the speed of light, and third-grade social studies standards include the Vikings' explorations of North America, then passages on the third-grade reading test should cover those same topics. We would then have true curriculum-based reading tests instead of the mysterious tests we now have. This cunning device would make tests fairer and pedagogically more useful, and boost our students' abilities."

Source: "Plugging the Hole in State Standards: One Man's Modest Proposal"

Monday, March 17, 2008

National Math Advisory Panel Report

While numerous districts in Colorado are discussing whether to increase high school math credit requirements to match the CCHE college entrance requirements, the feds have just released a report from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. This panel based their research on scientific findings, much like the previous National Reading Panel did with reading curricula.

Many have argued there's a link between higher order thinking skills and mathematics. If the foundation isn't built by middle school, it makes math achievement even more difficult in high school. Yet the Math Panel found the need for students to learn fundamental math concepts by middle school was critical if students would be able to master algebra in high school.

Here's an excerpt from the report:
The report respects the role of teachers as those in the best position to determine how to teach a given concept or skill. Instead of defining methods for teaching, the report offers a timeline of when students must master critical topics. The panel determined that students need to develop rapid recall of arithmetic facts in the early grades, going on to master fractions in middle school. Having built this strong foundation, the panel stated students would then be ready for rigorous algebra courses in high school or earlier. Noting changing demographics and rising economic demands, Secretary Spellings stressed the significance of the panel’s findings on algebra.“The panel’s research showed that if students do well in algebra, then they are more likely to succeed in college and be ready for better career opportunities in the global economy of the 21st century,” said Secretary Spellings. “We must increase access to algebra and other rigorous coursework if we hope to close the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.”

The entire report is at:

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Students "Win the Lottery"

The second year that Jefferson Academy was open, there were more than 1000 students on the waiting list. As a parent who was extremely grateful for the great education my children were receiving, I felt guilty that more families couldn't experience what our family was experiencing. I mailed to the JA wait list and over 300 parents showed up for the first meeting for Lincoln Academy in 1996. In fact, knowing that wait list forms would be date and time stamped, parents began lining up several hours before the meeting.

Jefferson Academy had only been open a few years when Kindergarten class lists were filling with babies born before the end of February. Parents signed up their newborns, many times this was the fathers coming straight from the delivery room.

Why are parents so desperate and what are their chances of getting their children into a good charter school? It's estimated that over 25,000 students are waiting to get in to Colorado's charter schools. Due to the federal Charter School Grant Program many charter schools now use a lottery to determine enrollment. Every once in awhile we see a media story about families "winning the lottery" when their child is selected to enroll in a popular charter school.

Charter schools thrive in a competitive market. They develop a reputation in the community and parents spred the word amongst themselves. The essence of the charter school philosophy is that the charter school performs, which drives demand.

Several charter schools in our state were created because parents couldn't get their children into a particular charter school. That's why so many charter schools are very similar in educational program and design.

I'm sorry to say there isn't any magical way to "win the lottery" at a charter school. However, I do recommend parents put their children on the list at every charter school they're remotely interested in. That way, they'll at least have options to choose from.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Leadership Lessons from John Barry

I had the honor of hearing John Barry, the Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, speak today on the subject of leadership. Mr. Barry spoke to 55 of CDE's leadership during a leadership retreat. This was one of the most interesting speeches I've heard in quite some time.

John Barry retired from the US Air Force as a Two Star Major General. He was the Executive Director of the investigative team for the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster. He spoke about both the physical causes and organizational causes of the shuttle's failure on re-entry. Here are a few of the points John Barry made in relating the findings of the Columbia's investigation to educational leadership lessons:

1. Factors of the disaster were: history, decision-making, organizational culture, and system effects.
2. After the Challenge disaster in 1986 all of the recovered debris was put into an empty silo and capped; after the Columbia disaster all of the debris was laid out and studied and then sent out to others for them to also learn from.
3. Complex organizations fail in complex ways; they need complex, integrated solutions.
4. NASA "normalized deviance"; tiles had previously broken off and hit the shuttle six other times, but because it was a problem that was too difficult to fix, and there hadn't been any severely adverse consequences, the problem was never remedied.
5. NASA's culture viewed the Columbia mission as routine; it was the 113th space mission and Columbia was over 20 years old.
6. Sensors were located throughout the shuttle, but they didn't feed information to the cockpit or ground control due to the shuttle being more than 20 years old and the technology hadn't been updated. Sensors could only report the information after the fact when the "black box" was recovered--in other words, too late to make a difference.

HB 1159 Approved by Senate Ed

The Senate Education committee adopted numerous amendments to HB 1159, the Charter School Instiutte bill, and then unanimously moved it to the full Senate for second reading. Many of the amendments were technical to clarify intent.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Parent Education Levels and Student Achievement: Is There a Connection?

I recently heard that there's a corelation between the education level of parents and how well their children perform in school. Then I read this today: I found the statistical analysis very interesting. Here's part of the conclusion:

The take away is that just because the correlation between parental education and total student performance is midsized, does not mean that the correlation between low-SES student performance and parental education is also midsized. It's much lower than that. And the student achievement gains we should expect to see by placing low-SES students in higher-SES school districts (as a function of parental education) will likely be low to non-existent. In any event, we should not expect those gains to pull low-SES student achievement up to the mean performance of all children based on this data.

Bad Teacher Contest: Winners Get $10,000 Each

Have you heard about the group paying $10,000 to bad teachers if they'll quit or retire early? Here's the scoop: I have a teacher to nominate! This teacher is currently working at my daughter's neighborhood public high school. My daughter, who wants to be a teacher, and I have almost daily talks about what an excellent example this teacher is of "what NOT to do." It's not a good sign when the first day of class the teacher says, "The only thing I hate worse than teaching ___ [the name of the class she's teaching] is teaching ninth graders."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

HB 1159 to be Heard in Senate Ed Thursday Afternoon

This Thursday afternoon, HB 1159, the Charter School Institute bill wll be heard in the Senate Education committee. The committee hearing starts at 1:30, but HB 1159 is way at the bottom of the list, so don't expect it to be heard until after 3:30 p.m. To listen to the audio streaming of the hearing, go to: and click on Senate Room 354.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading First and Reading Wars

Sol Stern, writing for the Fordham Foundation, has published a report on the federal Reading First program called, "Too Good to Last: the True Story of Reading First." The foreward is written by Checker Finn and Mike Petrelli--both people who saw the reading wars up close. With No Child Left Behind's Reading First program there was, for the first time, a requirement for reading programs to be based on scientifically based reading research. Having previously caught bits and pieces about the controversy surrounding Chris Dougherty, the first director of Reading First, the details in the report provide a complete picture. Further, having experienced the ill-effects of the whole language movement with my own children, I appeciate the heroic efforts made by people who were willing to take the heat!

New Aurora Charter School Conducts Same Sex Lottery

There's a new charter school in Aurora, AXL Academy, that conducted its enrollment lottery last week with over 400 students vying for 240 spots. The school will offer same sex classrooms, K-5, this first year and eventually grow through eighth grade. Students will learn two languages in order to graduate.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Justice High School

Boulder's Justice High School is featured in Westword this week. Magistrate T.J. Cole started both Boulder Prep and then Justice HS. The school operates in the courthouse in Boulder. The judge is the school's principal in addition to his work in the judicial system. Both charter schools have served a very unique student population using a unique, highly individualized educational program.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Who Has the Right?

There's always been tension between the rights of a charter school and the rights of the district that authorizes the charter school. First, both parties are, according to statute, supposed to "negotiate" the charter contract, based on the charter application. Occasionally charter founders have the opportunity to discuss certain provisions in the contract. Most often, the contract doesn't change after it's presented to the charter school leaders and so there's little "negotiation."

Many times over the years charter schools and their authorizers have debated governance issues and where the boundaries are drawn. The Academy of Charter Schools brought suit against their authorizer, Adams 12 Five Star School District, contending that the district didn't fulfill portions of the charter contract. Prior to that law suit there'd never been such a case.

Then Leadership Prep Academy brought suit against the Widefield School District, after losing an appeal bid to the State Board of Education, stating the district went too far in telling the charter school they had to change board members. Just last year the Aurora Public School Board of Education told one of their charter schools a particular individual could not serve on the charter board.

Where is the line drawn? When does a district overstep its bounds in the charter relationship when the charter school is supposed to be able to operate autonomously and self-govern? Does the district have the right to step in and mandate governance specifics if it disagrees with actions taken by the charter board? How can a district resolve issues in the charter school without taking a heavy-handed approach?

The answers to these questions are not black and white and, unfortunately, probably many times the answers come only after the State Board of Education or the courts have been involved.

Proactively, the district should carefully examine charter school applications in regard to governance issues such as bylaws, terms, how directors are elected, conflicts of interest and any other key governance provisions that could impact the success of the charter school. It's easier to have these discussions before problems are present.

Whenever problematic issues need to be addressed, a good philosophy is for the district to specify what the outcome should be and the charter school have the responsibility to fix it. Oftentimes, districts find comfort in what they know best: "expert" committees, policies and procedures, and lots of documentation. While these approaches all have their place, they do little to build the rapport and trust which is often absent in the charter school-school district relationship.

Charter school leaders value their autonomy and contractural right to lead their schools with little outside management. Further, it's the responsibility of the charter school movement, as a whole, to make sure all of its schools are operating properly.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What's Enough When Checking out Prospective Teachers?

Charter schools don't have to hire licensed teachers. Consequently, charter schools should take another step to conduct due dilligence on prospective teachers by checking the CDE database. Even though an individual doesn't have a license, there's a possibility the teacher candidate would still be in the database, especially if the candidate tried to get a teacher's license and was denied or if information was obtained from another source and included in the database. This extra step, in addition to conducting a background check through the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, means the charter school has taken every precaution available to it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Great Online Resource

OK, I know I'm nerdy and love to read. So it's no wonder that this page's list of resources caught my attention:

Check out Acronym Finder, LearnNet, Portals to the World,, or

Monday, March 3, 2008

Charter Schools Competitive in Teacher Recruitment

This article in the Rocky Mountain News today spotlighted the problem of DPS public schools, bound by the teacher's union contract, unable to compete with charter schools for the best teachers. Charter schools, which do their own hiring, can hire the best and brightest before other public schools can even begin interviewing, which doesn't happen until mid-March in Denver. Moreover, charter schools can hire teachers without a valid Colorado teacher's license, providing additional flexibility to retain high quality teachers.

Many charter school teachers are lured by the ability to have an academic focus in their classrooms, which is supported by parents. Further, the students have a love for learning and are excited to learn even more. For many, this is what many young people dreamed about when they chose to become a teacher.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

New Teacher Advice

It's that time of year when teachers are beginning to look for employment. I've spoken to many people interested in working in charter schools and give them all the same advice.

1. Not all charter schools are the same. In fact, even though at least 40% of charter schools in Colorado use the Core Knowledge curriculum, even these schools are all quite different. Check out each school individually and find out what it's unique characteristics are.

2. Ask what type of professional development is available for teachers. Some schools offer a blanket PD plan while others try to match the individual needs of their teachers. Does PD support include mentoring by an experienced teacher?

3. Is the curriculum and methodology a match with your own educational beliefs? If your philosophy doesn't match the school, it's never going to work so don't even try it.

4. Visit for job postings. Mail your resume and a cover letter to each of the charter schools you're interested in. They're all listed at: Attend job fairs, especially the UNC job fair, which is the largest in the state.