Sunday, August 31, 2008

To Uniform or Not? That is the Question

I can't believe I haven't written about this topic before because it used to be one of my favorite subjects to debate back in the mid-1990's when we started Jefferson Academy. Of the four charter schools I've helped start, none require school uniforms. In fact, in northern Jefferson County where there are four K-8 charter schools all modeled after Jefferson Academy, none of the schools require uniforms.

When we were putting together the charter application we did the research on school uniforms. In fact, the school we were modeling after, Academy Charter School in Castle Rock (the first charter school to open in Colorado), requires uniforms. We purposefully decided not to go that direction. This decision was later debated at JA board meetings by board members who wanted uniforms. Ultimately, we decided that since whether or not the school required uniforms was a fundamental piece of the charter application it would therefore, need to go to a vote of the membership (parents) before it would ever change. There hasn't been much serious discussion about it since.

First, let me throw out that I can see why some charter schools require uniforms, especially in urban settings where there are concerns for wearing gang colors or the inequality of what students may be able to afford to wear. I don't believe, however, that uniforms impact student academic achievement.

There are numerous scientific studies to support my position. Brunsma and Rockquemore's study found: "The findings indicate that student uniforms have no direct effect on substance use, behavioral problems, or attendance. Contrary to current discourse, the authors found a negative effect of uniforms on student academic achievement."

Additional studies tend to be inconclusive and neglect other impacting factors such as school culture, school size, leadership or curriculum.

My reasons for not believing school uniforms should be required in most situations is mostly anecdotal. A friend said he grew up attending a parochial school and when he graduated he didn't know how to dress himself for work or some social occasions. He never had to learn how to make clothing decisions while he was growing up.

I wanted my children to learn how to dress appropriately while they were still in my home. I realize that I was a very involved parent with high standards for my children and we were never really into trendy clothes. We did, though, have numerous discussions over the years about what was appropriate. For example, my children were greatly influenced by the time we spent with family in rural North Dakota where the opening of deer season is considered a school holiday and literally everyone is wearing orange. But living in the school district where the Columbine tragedy occurred, was not the place to wear camo.

One of the strongest arguments for uniforms is that they are an equalizer. A charter school that needs that type of equalization amongst students has a legitimate need. For the schools that don't, students learn how to interact with a variety of students, deal with inevitable cliques, and realize not everyone is created equal. In schools with the uniform requirement, students often still figure out their differences by jewelry, shoes, and backpacks.

It's safe to say that factors such as high expectations, a solid curriculum, effective leadership and good instruction have a greater effect on student achievement than school uniforms.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Presidential Candidates on Education

Neither of the Presidential candidates attended public schools for their K-12 education, hardly the norm for recent Presidential candidates. The Hoover Institute's article in Education Next explains that Democratic candidate Barack Obama had a private school education while Republican candidate John McCain was educated in military schools.

Neither candidate has talked much about public education policy during his campaign. People have tried to surmise policy positions by the people advising the campaigns on education issues.

According to, university professors spent their summer vacations contributing to the Obama campaign. In fact, educators were only topped by lawyers in Obama's top contributors list.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

California Charter Schools

I'm in Temecula, California where it's been great to run into people who actually know what a charter school is. There are five charter schools in Temecula.

In California, there are more than 500 charter schools. Some are what we in Colorado would call a home school umbrella program, or a network of homeschooling families. Colorado's Charter Schools Act prohibits charter schools from being home-based schools. California and Colorado both passed charter school legislation in 1993.

One of the first people I met outside of Colorado who was involved in charter schools, was Eric Premack of the Charter Schools Development Center, a California-based company offering services to support charter school development. Eric offers a wealth of information and resources through the CSDC and several different training workshops. I've had several conversations with Eric over the years and value his expertise, especially in the area of charter school governance. Some of the training offered by CSDC is comparable to training we have in Colorado, such as the Chief Business Officer training. Some of the resources on the CSDC are applicable to Colorado charter school leaders and can be a great resource.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Police and Post Offices Outrank Public Schools

Police departments and post offices got better approval ratings from the general public than public schools according to the Reason Foundation's Lisa Snell:
An August 2008 poll conducted by Education Next and Harvard University finds
that Americans think less of their schools than of their police departments and
post offices. When asked to grade the post office, 70 percent of respondents
gave an "A" or "B." In contrast, only 20 percent of Americans said public
schools deserve an "A" or a "B." Twenty-six percent of the country actually gave
their public schools a grade of "D" or "F." And African-Americans are even more
down on public schools, 31 percent gave public schools a "D" or an "F."

Almost all charter schools in Colorado survey perceptions of their parents. Increasingly, I see these surveys administered online. Most schools publicize the results on their websites, also. By doing so, charter school leaders increase the transparency by which they make decisions.

Do ratings from parents on these types of surveys really make a difference? Yes, they do. The charter board considers them when strategic planning and evaluating the principal. The administrator uses them in teacher evaluation, program design and potential areas for expansion. Charter schools operate only with consumer (parent) demand, which is why charter school leaders care about customers!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Vince Chowdhury Finally Resigns from Jeffco School Board

Vince Chowdhury has given his resignation to the other Jeffco school board members, effective today. At the regularly scheduled meeting this evening, the board will declare a vacancy. Good riddance, Vince!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Data Guide Available

For all the data gurus who work in charter schools, CDE has just released a new data guide that sounds like it'll answer every data question that's ever arisen! I printed off the 46-page guide, but will have to wait until the weekend to read it.

This guide isn't just for school staff--it's for parents to read and use, too! It'd be great for school accountability committees (a.k.a. School Advisory Councils) to review at a meeting to increase their capacity to use and understand data.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Parent Info from Nathan Levy

I heard Nathan Levy, a nationally-recognized speaker, the other day. He had numerous really good tips for parents. Here are a few:

* Allow students to feel uncomfortable because that's how they learn. Students need to learn to deal with frustration.

* Parents jump in too quickly. They think they're helping, by "rescuing" their child. In fact, they're not letting the child learn to resolve problems.

* Good parenting is ultimately the "voice in the head." Adults still hear their parents' words and that means the parent was effective.

* Students must learn the rudiments before they are able to be creative (i.e. art, writing, basketball).

Nathan Levy has written numerous books. He has a series of 20 books called "Stories with Holes" that make students think outside the box. After hearing just a sentence or two, students must ask questions with only a "yes" or "no" answer in order to figure out what the story is about.

Update on the Michael Phelps Story

The Providence Journal has an article about Michael Phelps' ADHD that's worth reading!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Better Results for the Same Money!

The headline in the Rocky Mountain News reads, "Denver Charter Getting Better Results with Same Budget." What taxpayer wouldn't support the efficient use of public education money?

Now go to the state growth model chart and first click on "middle schools" and then check out the different subjects comparing W Denver Prep and Kepner as the article discusses. Note that several charter schools are in the high-performing quadrant (top right).

There are a couple of key factors that charter schools have to make them more likely to succeed. For instance, they hire teachers based on performance and employ them at-will and the charter school is mission-driven with a curriculum that was specified in the charter school application. In other words, they have control over their program and are focused on the end-product: increased student academic achievement. These are components that cannot be replicated in a system driven by the teachers union and curriculum-for-the-masses.

Further, many of the successful charter schools are led by dynamic leaders who don't make excuses for themselves, their staff members or their students. They do everything imaginable to get their students to learn; including giving a huge amount of their time and energy. These leaders focus on changing student's lives, not just getting another funded student in the door for count day or collecting the next monthly salary.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Imagine Charter School at Firestone Opens

Today I attended the grand opening of Imagine Charter School at Firestone. They have a brand new facility just a couple of miles off I-25 at the Longmont exit. Just recently they added two more classes due to the demand -- 560 students have registered! They expected to open with 300-350 and the response from the community was more than they'd anticipated.

It would be safe to say that the parents were very impressed with the new principal, George Sanker. Mr. Sanker recently moved from Baltimore with a strong background in Core Knowledge and character education. His assistant principal is equally talented: Linda Befus.

The school is opening with preschool through 8th grade. They've even been able to enroll 20 8th grade students; it's very uncommon for a new charter school to fill it's top grade. Usually the junior high has to grow over the first few years.

This charter school had a tough battle to reach today's celebration. After being denied by the St. Vrain Valley School District, the founders appealed to the State Board of Education. The board eventually ordered the school district to negotiate a contract with Imagine at Firestone, which they did -- but a year later than the school wanted to open.

Today the school was packed with excited families and children proudly wearing their new school uniforms! The first day of school is Tuesday. You can bet there's lots of families in Firestone that will enjoy this new charter school for years to come!

Friday, August 15, 2008

More on Aurora and Public Charter Schools

Face the State has an article about charter schools in Aurora getting less than a fair share of proposed mill levy and bond funds.

Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, John Barry's, comments about charter school capital needs "not making the cut" and the lack of participation by charter school leaders in the process is interesting. The six charter schools in Aurora sent a letter to the district at the end of July citing they'd been told last winter, by the district, to just wait until the district got more information to them on the process. As the time ticked by, the charter schools decided they couldn't wait any longer and started asking questions. The charter schools, in their letter, stated they believed they were excluded from the process.

I'm sure we'll continue to hear more from Aurora and the district's charter schools.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cheyenne Classical Academy Tries Again!

Three cheers for the perseverence of Cheyenne Classical Academy parents who are submitting another charter school application to the Cheyenne, Wyoming School District! These parents were beat down last year when the school board voted against them and legislation to loosen the charter school law failed.

Parents are proposing a classical school modeled after Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins -- a proven success! Cheyenne Classical would serve students in K-8 using the Core Knowledge curriculum.

While trying another charter school application through the school district, the school's founders are simultaneously appealing to district court, the State Board of Education's decision to uphold the denial by the local board.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympian Michael Phelps

It's pretty hard not to get caught up in watching Michael Phelps win gold medals by breaking world record after world record. Today's USA Today has a great article about Michael and what drives him and how his body is ideally suited to swimming.

But, interesting to me was that Michael Phelps' mother is a middle school principal and that Michael was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in elementary school and he took Ritalin for it. Michael had a hard time focusing. Yet now, his coach says he's incredibly focused when he's swimming or preparing for a race.

I'm one of those parents who wrestled with the decision to give Ritalin to two of my sons and I eventually made the decision to medicate them. I don't want anyone to view that statement as an encouragement to medicate. I did lots of research and we did numerous things to address the boys' ADD, not just Ritalin. But, I believe the combination of everything we did, especially the intensive work the boys did with the Special Ed teacher and the eye exercises, ultimately gave them the tools to overcome their learning problems.

The outcome could have probably been the same without Ritalin, but maybe not in same timespan. The boys took the medication for three years. They told me that it allowed them to concentrate better.

Some of the other strategies we used were:
* Eye exercises to increase their reading fluidity. Their eyes didn't track to the end of the line, but would instead jump to the following line.
* Putting lots of repetitive things on audio tape. They'd listen to their spelling words before going to sleep at night.
* Teaching several different organizational skills. For example, getting assignments done was an obstacle so they had a clipboard where they'd stick all their assignments and the back of the clipboard had a daily checklist that they'd review before leaving class.
* Teaching tracking. They had worksheets with random letters and had to go completely across each line to find the sequential letters in the alphabet. With the Visograph computer software that's available now, this type of exercise is now computer-based.

Michael Phelps probably taught himself skills to focus when he swam that were also cross-applied to his education. With a caring mother who obviously had a strong knowledge of his diagnosis (she presents workshops on ADD for parents), Michael overcame his difficulties.

Be sure to read the entire USA Today article. It's very interesting to learn about the unusual characteristics of Michael's body. Plus, it's a great story to convey to young boys who are themselves, struggling to overcome ADHD or learning disabilities.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back to School

Today was the first day of school for students in Jefferson County. Some parents are eager to have their children back in school and others are concerned about how the school year will go. Parents in Kansas City expressed some words of advice for other parents.

Parents of elementary-aged students should definitely advocate for their children by being involved volunteering in the classroom and monitoring academic progress. Parents with concerns about a particular teacher should keep in especially close contact to make sure lines of communication are open. Don't wait to speak with your child's teacher when there's a problem.

As students mature they need to learn to advocate for themselves. Parents can help their student think through how to handle a particular situation and then the parent can check back to make sure it was resolved satisfactorily. Again, even in secondary school, it's good for teachers to know parents and know that parents are concerned about their child's academic success. Take advantage of all parent/teacher conferences whether your student is struggling or not.

Students learn differently and as they progress in school they learn skills for how to adapt to different teaching styles. Theoretically, good teachers differentiate instruction for different learning styles, but that doesn't always happen. Moreover, sometimes students just plain clash with a particular teacher. Parents should regularly check-in with their children to see how things are going at school, especially during the first few weeks of a new school year.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why Board Member Agreements are Essential

Almost everyone I know on a charter school governing board has very good intentions and wants to do the right thing. I often use the quote, they're "the well-intentioned in full pursuit of the irrelevant."

Once in awhile, there's a rogue board member who has his own agenda. This is the reason board member agreements are so important. When a board member steps out of line, it is the responsibility of the board president to point out the provision in the board agreement that addresses the action.

The reason I say it is the responsibility of the board president is because interpersonal problems with board members isn't a valid reason for an executive session. I believe the first step when someone has acted inappropriately is for a one-on-one conversation. Treat the other person as you'd like to be treated; give that person the benefit of the doubt with a gentle correction.

If the conversation between two people doesn't work, there is no choice but to have a discussion amongst the board, in public session. This should be used as a last resort.

To be proactive, every charter school governing board should have an agreement, with expectations and norms. This should be signed at least yearly by every board member and kept on file with the corporate records. This agreement should also be used during the candidate eligibility and interview process.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

New Look

Yes, you are seeing a new look here at Colorado Charters! I'm one of those who likes change; hope you do, too!

Fantastic New Resource: Ballotpedia

This year's Colorado ballot will have up to fifteen ballot measures! Feeling overwhelmed? Check out the new Ballotpedia website.

This website has factual information on all the referred measures and initiatives. Several of these will impact charter schools, either directly or indirectly. I'll be posting more on this in the future, but for now, check out Ballotpedia and bookmark it so you can refer to it as you make your decisions on how to vote this fall.

Friday, August 8, 2008

"Unwanted Orphans" Part 2

I could blog for weeks on the Aurora Sentinel editorial. Please bear with me while I address some of the other bizarre opinions expressed in the editorial.
"But these schools are really creatures of the state itself, not local school districts, and they have no place on local bond-issue and mill-levy elections."
Colorado's Constitution [Article IX] repeatedly stipulates that our state is a "local control" state in regard to education. This means that local school boards have the Constitutional authority to determine the curriculum, set graduation standards and determine how funds will be spent. This phrase is used ad nauseum in the state legislature. School districts don't want the state telling them what they should be doing.

That's why it's mystifying what the Aurora Sentinel editorials were thinking when they try to suggest charter schools should come under the authority of the state and not the local district. The whole premise of the Charter School Institute law, which permits a "good authorizer" district to retain sole chartering authority, is to ensure local control. In fact, the basis of the lawsuit against the Charter School Institute was that the law takes away district local control. (The courts ruled in favor of the Charter School Institute, but now opponents are appealing the decision to a higher court.)

It seems as though the editors make the argument only for the purpose of denying the access of mill levy and bond funds to public charter schools. Already charter schools pay up to 23% of their per-student funds for capital expenses.

What's been said in legislative hearings is also the message in the Sentinel editorial: public charter school students are second-class citizens. Wasn't this the same thing that was said when the 2007 General Assembly cut charter school capital construction funds in half? Wasn't this what Senator Windels meant when she reminded charter school representatives testifying on a bill in her committee that "you always said you could do it cheaper!" Implying that it was fair that charter school students are educated in buildings that are substandard and oftentimes, renovated strip malls or grocery stores without adequate gymnasiums or lunch rooms.

Sentinel editors reveal some of their bias when they say that charter schools "operate without the important infrastructure of seasoned school districts." Would that "infrastructure" include the teacher's collective bargaining agreement that guarantees a job-for-life to teachers if they just show up and sit in a chair all day? That that "infrastructure" be what Supt. John Barry is trying to change with his ideas for reforming Aurora Public Schools? Do the editors believe John Barry is also enamored with the "seasoned" school district employees who have failed thousands of students who either dropped out of APS schools or were extruded because staff just didn't want to deal with them?

Even if this vehement anti-charter school sentiment comes from only this small segment of Aurora, there are still state-level public pressures that will influence APS decisions. For example, one of the "good authorizer" criteria listed in the Charter School Institute law, which permits districts to retain exclusive chartering authority, states:

C.R.S. 22-30.5-504(5)(a)(II)(B) "The provision of assistance to charter schools to meet their facilities needs, by including those needs in local bond issues or otherwise providing available land and facilities that are comparable to those provided to other public school students in the same grade levels within the school district."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Unwanted Orphans"

The editorial in yesterday's Aurora Sentinel calls charter schools the "unwanted orphans" of the local school districts. All because the charter schools dared ask if their school's capital construction needs could be included in the Aurora Public Schools' bond and mill levy questions this year. The right of charter schools to be treated equally in these types of taxpayer-generated ballot questions is granted in statute by the State Legislature [C.R.S. 22-30.5-404 et. seq.].

The newspaper uses inflammatory language to argue that charter schools don't have any accountability and that absent accountability it would be "taxation without representation" to permit charter schools to receive mill levy or bond funds.

In enacting state law on this topic, legislators specifically said that their intent was not to supercede local control of school districts, but they wanted to encourage school districts to consider the capital construction needs of their charter schools by requiring them to invite charter schools into the discussion about a potential ballot question and that the charter school's needs would be fairly considered. Apparently, editors at the Aurora Sentinel are saying they know more about charter school state policy than the legislators elected to represent the public.

Moreover, it appears the editors have never read a charter school facility financing agreement or else they wouldn't say that for-profit charter management companies make money on failed charter schools. These companies, only a couple of which are considered "for-profit," take a loss if a charter school fails. Their vested interest is in ensuring success of the charter school and so the facility financial arrangement is designed to allow for initial startup costs before facility funds begin to flow to the management company.

Editors further argue that Aurora Public Schools shouldn't be spending taxpayer money on out-of-district students. Interesting that they didn't point out that APS receives a per-student amount from the Legislature each year for those students. Doesn't that cut both ways or should the district only receive funds when it's to their advantage?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Current Finance Issues

I had lunch with seven charter school business managers today because we were planning the next school year's professional development series. Many of the suggestions for workshops related to practical information they need such as establishing a new charter school business office or using the state Chart of Accounts.

But they also asked for reminders on the original charter school philosophy. The dilution of the original philosophy has been a concern of mine for a long time. As new people come in to lead in the charter school system, they don't understand the original beliefs that people fought for when the Charter Schools Act was originally adopted by the Legislature in 1993. They don't even know about the original battles we faced such as the district telling our charter governing board that they would evaluate our principal yearly. Not!

Some charter schools have given up some of their autonomy, either because they didn't know any better, they thought it might be easier or they simply didn't care. For example, some charter schools run all their financials through the district's system. They don't have their own bank account. Even all their payroll goes through the district. While other charter schools get a monthly transfer of the Per Pupil Revenues into their own bank account and operate completely separate from the district. Since charter schools were created on the foundation that they would operate autonomously, in exchange for results, even this business operating decision should be influenced by the charter school philosophy. Maybe it is time for a refresher course.

Public Charter Schools Announces New Online Job Board

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has just created an online job board for charter schools and people interested in teaching in a charter school. There aren't many entries right now, but once the word spreads it'll probably be widely used.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Independence Academy in Grand Junction Gets a New Building

Independence Academy (fka Deep River Charter School) in Grand Junction will open its doors later this month in a new facility. The school is leasing an elementary school from the Grand Junction School District. The charter school opened in 2004 and is the only charter school authorized by the Grand Junction School District. Caprock Academy operates in Grand Junction, but is authorized by the Charter School Institute.

Independence Academy's new principal, Damon Lockhart, has a background in Special Education and hopes to eventually expand the number of students attending the charter school. The school uses the experiential education model.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Chowdhury Recall Effort Begins

Parents and citizens in Jeffco have had enough of school board member Vince Chowdhury's refusal to resign after a guilty plea to third degree assault on his 16 year-old daughter. Chowdhury admitted to slapping his daughter and she contends he also tried to choke her for not opening the manual garage door when he arrived home at 9:40 p.m. causing him to honk his horn for several minutes.
Numerous people in the community have asked Chowdhury to resign. In fact, the Jeffco school board formally asked him to resign in a letter with a deadline of July 25th. Chowdhury has not responded to their letter or deadline.
The website has the arrest affidavit, an aggregate of news clippings and a blog. People are encouraged to attend the Aug. 21st Jeffco school board meeting to ask Vince for his resignation.