Monday, December 29, 2008

Overcoming Founder's Syndrome

Almost every charter school that opens can credit one to three people who made it happen. These founders were the people who gave up personal time to write the charter school application, attended countless meetings and trainings, and carried the bulk of the load for everything that needed to be done. When the charter school opens there needs to be a transition away from the organization being the founder's "baby" to a sustainable organization. But how can that be done without alienating the founder or losing the original vision before the school is firmly established? The key to this transition rests with the other board members.

The entire board should operate as one, without individuals making decisions absent full board approval. The board should meet only once a month to physically limit their time together and reinforce the administrator's role in leading the school on a day-to-day basis. The board should focus on writing policies during the first year, even though they may be tempted to carry out many of the operational duties they began assuming before the school had employees. This could take the form of "committee work" or simply individuals on the board who seem irreplacable.

When the school opens, the founders must transition from operating independently doing "all that needs to be done" over to being one member of a board. Hopefully there are numerous board members with the expertise, skill and experience to live up to their responsibilities. Board leadership should be spread across every member.

Typically when the entire board is developing its first strategic plan is a good time to refocus and objectively examine where the board should ultimately govern. There will be a transition period, but there should be progress made on turning over operational management to school staff.

Sometimes founders express concern that there aren't enough qualified people to volunteer for key responsibilities and use this as justification for not relinquishing some of the tasks they've been doing all along. People need to be asked to help with specific projects. Founders who confidently complete responsibilities, such as overseeing facility renovation, often don't communicate their need for assistance. Moreover, they're not building a sustainable foundation for the school's future. Once the school opens, founders should focus their work on preparing for when founders are no longer on the board.

A few tips to transition from leadership resting largely with key founders are:
* Write policies -- lots of policies. Put everything in writing so that future boards have a record for their own decision-making. Founders want to convey their values for the school as the school's culture and reputation are shaped. That's best done through policies.
* If not everyone on the board is carrying their weight--replace them. Founders need to ensure the board is operating as one, which means every board member needs to fulfill his/her individual role.
* Communicate often and honestly with the administrator. Primarily the communication should serve to develop a trusting relationship that will be needed for future crises or difficult decisions. It's important for the founder to reinforce the administrator's leadership role both personally and in front of staff members or parents.
* Put structures in place for the board to govern through policy. This includes using a strategic plan, holding effective and productive meetings, and continually taking a step back to look objectively if the board should even be addressing a particular issue. Sometimes the most effective way for a governing board to communicate its role, is to not address something. A parent unhappy with the administrator's tardy policy will understand the administrator makes daily operational decisions, that are supported by the board, if the board refuses to consider a change to the administrator's policy.
* The entire board should increase their capacity to lead the school by seeking training. Having someone with experience in charter school governance, who is outside the organization, give another perspective to the board is beneficial in a number of ways. Most charter school board members don't know how other charter boards operate so they don't know if their board is "normal." Professional development for the board lays a foundation for mutual understanding that increases the board's effectiveness.

Many founders have personal characteristics that allowed for the charter school to be created. These characteristics may include tenacity, an entrepenurial perspective, a willingness to take risks or an willingness to take a "no" answer. Even if the founder can stay on the board for the first several years of the charter school, there will be a point when the founder leaves. The school community should honor and respect the role the founder played in creating the school and take the steps necessary to achieve the next season of the school's life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"The Forgotten Middle" Report

ACT has just released a report, "The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring That All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School." The report says that fewer than 20% of eighth graders are on target to do college-level work by the time they graduate high school. Further, the "level of academic achievement students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school."

In conducting the study, researchers found that three behaviors significantly predicted the student’s future academic performance: “academic discipline, orderly conduct, and having positive relationships with school personnel.”

Academic discipline can be found in many characteristics and behaviors, including the following:
· The ability to complete homework assignments on time.
· The perseverance to work through multiple-step directions and problem solving exercises.
· The self-control to focus on academics rather than pleasurable activities.

The dictionary defines “discipline” with the phrase “orderly conduct.” By their middle school years, students should be able to independently complete assignments and manage projects. “The Forgotten Middle” study indicates these college and career readiness characteristics should be a primary focus in middle school in order to achieve greater gains in high school. A student learning organizational skills in middle school will find high school and college projects easier to manage.

“Having positive relationships with school personnel” could take on many nuances such as every student knowing a caring adult in the school, or a small school culture where no student’s accomplishments or needs are neglected. Through these relationships, school has meaning for students. Teacher’s model high expectations for students through their own personal high expectations and students begin to appreciate the value of advanced learning.

The ACT report has several recommendations for improving college and career readiness. The first is to “focus on K-8 standards on the knowledge and skills that are essential for college and career readiness, and make these nonnegotiable for all students.” This recommendation can be accomplished with a focus on foundational skills in the key subjects. Having a strong foundation allows students to succeed in high school and take increasingly difficult courses.

The report also recommends monitoring student progress and intervening with students who are not on track, beginning in the late elementary school years. In addition to monitoring progress on the foundational skills and knowledge of the core subject areas, the process should include monitoring progress on the academic discipline and orderly conduct skills identified as influencing college and career readiness. These behaviors, if positively developed during the formative years, can become laudable employee traits in the future.

Ultimately, the report is a reminder that the middle school years are just as important for college and career preparation as the high school years; in fact, probably more so.

New Orleans to Convert Failing Schools to Charter

Anyone following the changes in the public education system in New Orleans, post-Katrina, knows that there is a high number of charter schools (50%) and that there is now real accountability. For any remaining skeptics who wonder if the system can be cleaned up, the superintendent, Paul Vallas, has just announced four underperforming district schools will be converted to charters. Additionally, Vallas will permit high-performing district schools to convert to charter status if they choose.

Vallas contends that preventing a "monopolistic education system" doesn't serve students well. He advocates charter schools, which operate with autonomy and are dependent upon consumer (parent) demand.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2nd CD Selects Angelika Schroeder to State Board

The 2nd Congressional District's vacancy committee selected former Boulder Valley School District board member, Angelika Schroeder, to replace Evie Hudak on the State Board of Education. Schroeder will be seated in January, which is the time the board will also elect new officers.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another Viewpoint on SAR Data

Krista Kafer, team lead for the Charter School Support Initiative and author of several CDE publications, had a column in last Sunday's Rocky Mountain News. In it, she uses the SAR results to show the high percentage of charter schools getting an Excellent or High rating. Watch for more detail on this when the state evaluation of charter schools is released in January.

"Yes We Will"

Rich Barrett, the founding principal of KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy in Denver who is now working on opening a KIPP high school has an opinion column in the Denver Post.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Interview

It's considered a best practice for authorizers to interview the steering committee or founding board members of a new charter school. The Charter School Institute does this and it's widely recommended by charter authorizers throughout the country.

Whether or not a charter school applicant has the capacity to carry off the formation of a new school is largely dependent upon the key people involved. Somewhere within the founding group should be the capacity to hire an effective administrator, identify and prepare a facility, ensure adequate cash flow and the numerous other things that need to be done before the first students arrive.

Founders should be asked about how the school's vision and mission were created, what their individual vision for the school is, what expertise they will bring, if they have any potential conflicts of interest, their understanding of the administrator's role versus the board's role, and other topics that will bring out the founder's knowledge about the school's governance and operations.

In my experience of working with founding charter school groups, it's possible to determine which schools will be successful right away and which ones will struggle, if approved. I have the advantage of getting to know most of the founders. I've seen several "overachiever" founding groups that have gone on to create some of the best charter schools in the state. Authorizers would be wise to also spend time getting to know the people who are applying for a charter school in their district.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

DC Charter Schools Take Strong Academic Lead Over Non-Charter Public Schools

I'm in Washington, DC for the annual Charter School Program Project Director's meeting. The big news here is that the DC public charter schools made the front page of the Washington Post for impressive gains in student academic achievement. One-third of DC students attend a charter school. Two-thirds of the district's students meet poverty standards.

According to the article, "D.C. middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than the regular public schools in reading and 20 points higher in math." This point spread is even more remarkable when you compare it to the national trend to stagnate or decrease academic performance as the student ages. Throughout the country, middle schools and high schools struggle to get students to attend, much less perform academically.

DC Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has created a reputation for shaking things up and demanding school faculties demonstrate academic achievement in the school or else look for other jobs. She's encouraged charter schools to address the academic needs in the district. Largely due to the autonomy charter schools provide, but also due to the the ability to offer unique and innovative educational programs, charter schools are often able to more effectively address student academic needs. Now, one of the largest school districts in the nation, DC Public Schools, has evidence that charter schools are serving the district's students better than non-charter public schools!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Charter School Grant Searchable Database

I often get asked if I know anything about other grants available for charter schools. Now I have a great resource to direct people to. The National Resource Center on Charter School Finance & Governance has an online searchable database for charter schools here.

The site provides search options for:
* uses of funds
* federal agency
* who can apply
* type of funding
* matching requirement

The database is easy to use. Every charter school should check it out!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mark Sharpley: Charter School Hero

Yesterday at the Jefferson Academy boys basketball game I was reminded of how great the coach, Mark Sharpley, is. Mark came to the JA at the beginning of the high school right after he'd taken a state 1A championship with his private school team and earned a 1A Coach of the Year. Several of Mark's top players followed him and in the second year of JAHS the team won a state title in boys basketball. To my knowledge, this was the first charter school to get a state title in an athletic sport anywhere in the nation (I checked with other state leaders at the time).

Now the JA team is comprised of students I knew as elementary school students or that I remember when they were born. I don't know if kids just grow taller now, but the varsity team has 7 of the 12 measuring over 6 ft. Two are 6'5". To be clear, these boys didn't transfer in, they're long-time JA families. Several of these families have a second or third son playing for Sharpley.

Obviously, Mark Sharpley is an extremely talented coach. But I believe his "secret" is more than just the fundamentals or his skill. Mark's greatest strength is the young men of character that he develops through personal relationships, perseverence and dedication on the basketball court and his own personal integrity. Mark's a tough coach. His players work hard the entire year, including summers where they either play Jam ball or work Mark's clinics. He drills them on the fundamentals, in fact since he's built up the program at JA, these basic skills are taught early at JA, and it shows in their performance. Currently the high school has four boys teams.

I've heard Mark say that it's not the game that's the most important -- it's what the young men learn from playing the sport. Every day his plan for practice includes a character trait or quote that he discusses with the players. Whether it's as a team, or individually, he has numerous conversations with his players about the type of men they should always strive to become. He seems to have a knack for understanding the young male thought processes. He knows when to push them harder and he knows when to drive home his point.

Mark does all of this with the greatest of humility. He's very low-key about his accomplishments and the recognition he's received over the years. He's "adopted" several young men in the past. Sharpley's own son, who's in seventh grade this year, is over 6 ft already and clearly headed to a successful career on the court.

I've always had a great deal of respect for Mark Sharpley. While probably most everyone who knows him, respects his talent and leadership, I think Mark's greatest quality is his own personal character and integrity. He serves as an excellent role model for his students. He impacts lives just because of who he is.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Northeast Academy

I visited Northeast Academy in the Montbello area this week. They have about 450 students in grades K-8 with another 250 on the waiting list. At the national Core Knowledge conference last month the school received official Core Knowledge status.

Dr. Thomas Bouknight is the principal; he's in his second year at Northeast Academy. Additionally, a key founder of the school, Janet Darnell, works at the school and remains heavily involved in development and administration.

Character development is a priority at Northeast. The school serves primarily an at-risk student population and their goals are to excite students to learn and develop high-quality students of character. The character development is done through a formal character education program and also a positive school culture.

I've often heard the phrase, "it's all about the kids," bantered about. Northeast Academy is a school where the atmosphere speaks for itself: It is all about the kids.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

SAR Scores Put Charter Schools at the Top!

Four of the top five high schools in the state are charter schools! Number one for a second year in a row, The Vanguard School (CSI-Colorado Springs), has a 2.88 score. Number 3 in the state -- again for a second year in a row -- is Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins. Ridgeview Classical's score is 2.23. Peak to Peak, in Lafayette is number four with 1.92 and The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs is fifth with 1.91.

More good news in top middle school SAR scores! Eight of the top 10 middle schools in Colorado are charter schools.
#2: Summit MS-Boulder
#3: Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy-CSI, Colorado Springs
#4: Liberty Common School-Fort Collins
#5: The Connect School-Pueblo
#6: American Academy @ Castle Pines
#7: Littleton Academy
#8: Stargate Charter School-Thornton
#9: Platte River Academy-Highlands Ranch

The SAR scores are used to determine a school's rating: Excellent, High, Average, Low or Unsatisfactory. When the legislature adopted the School Accountability Report law, it defined a bell curve so that 40% of schools fell into the Average category while only 2% would be rated Excellent.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

SARs Released Today

Today the Colorado Department of Education released 2008 School Accountability Reports.

ACT and CSAP results are used to develop school ratings. This is the first year the Colorado Growth Model data was incorporated into school ratings.

Additionally, the SAR contains information from each individual school and information especially for parents.

Historically, charter schools tend to get more "Excellent" and "High" ratings than their non-charter public school counterparts.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ridgeview Classical Ranked #15 in the Nation

The U.S. News and World Report just ranked Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins as the 15th best high school in the nation. The charter school, which opened in 2001, has been at the top of the state's School Accountability Report measures and was previously near the top 100 in the U.S. News and World Report study.

The charter school uses a "classical" approach to education with a focus on Latin, classical literature, writing, and critical thinking. The trivium of classical education is grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar is learning basic skills often by rote mememorization, associated with elementary school-aged students. Logic happens during the middle school years when students begin thinking using the skills they have previously acquired. Rhetoric is in the high school phase when students apply all they have learned to participate in deeper discussions and cogently persuade their readers.

The school has been fortunate to have numerous key individuals shape the school's initial years. Dr. Terrence Moore was critical to the formation of the academic program model. Founders Kim Miller and Peggy Schunk, honed in on keeping the original vision and mission in all decision-making. Since the beginning, other individuals have served on the governing board and in key staff positions. For example, the current principal, Dr. Florian Hild was a teacher from the very beginning.

Ridgeview Classical Schools is authorized by the Poudre School District. Last week the Court of Appeals handed down a decision ruling in favor of Ridgeview in a case where the school district wanted to pro-rate student funding if a student left Ridgeview after the annual Oct. 1 funding date.

Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette ranked #69 in the US News and World Report listing. Peak to Peak was in the top 100 last year, also. Dolores Huerta in Pueblo ranked in the Bronze category.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"We're a Charter, Not 'an Expenditure'"

Guest post by Russ Spicer, Headmaster of Liberty Common School in Fort Collins. This piece originally ran in the school's weekly newsletter, on Jan. 30, 2006.

An article about Poudre School District’s proposed budget ran in this week’s Coloradoan. Not surprisingly, the article mentioned on several occasions that “charter schools” were negatively impacting their budget. The article made sure to list charter schools as an expenditure of $8,420,457 dollars. This is exactly what the district would like everyone to believe. The reality of this situation is that it is not an “expenditure.” It is simply parents choosing to place their children in a charter school instead of the mainstream public school, and thus allowing the PPR (Per Pupil Revenue) to go with the child to the charter instead of staying in the district. Again, this should not be called an “expenditure,” it should be called an educational choice.

In the Liberty Common School - School Accountability Report, it is reported the Poudre School District revenue per pupil is $7,874.00. The actual funding provided by the state for Poudre School District students last year was $5,704.00. When you add on the local tax contributions, state tax contributions, federal grants, state grants, private/partnership grants, and other discretionary income, the number jumps up to the $7,874.00 as reported on the School Accountability Report. What the report fails to mention is that Liberty Common School does not receive money from all of the sources that the district does. We actually only receive additional funding through the charter school capital construction money and mill levies from 1998 and 2000. What does that amount to you ask? Our total per pupil revenue, for the 2004-2005 school year, was $5,983.00. That means that we operate on 76% of the district budget and can still be a high performing, nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School that consistently receives excellent ratings on the School Accountability Report.

It is faulty logic for the district to say that we are “an expenditure” to them. PSD simply takes the money given to them by the state of Colorado for our students (the $5983.00), and then returns it to us. That is it, plain and simple. Oh, and did I mention that they take out 2% of that money for “Indirect Overhead.” This money goes to the district to support the work that they are required to do with the charter schools. Please see listed below the costs of the “Indirect Overhead” for the past few years.

2001-2002 $36,482
2002-2003 $47,228
2003-2004 $55,645
2004-2005 $57,197

The only thing that the district can reasonably assert in regards to how charter schools are effecting their budget is that students whom are choosing to attend the charter schools indirectly cause the district to lose the money because those students are not attending their schools. The question that begs to be answered however is, “if the district schools were already meeting the needs of these students, why would they want to attend the charter schools in the first place?” That is the beauty about charter schools and schools of choice. The parents and students can talk with their feet. They have the option to choose the school that they feel is best. There is now competition in the choice of a school, whereas before there was none.

We are not “an expenditure” to the district. Liberty Common School is a very viable, educationally rigorous, academically strong, safe, award winning, fiscally sound, charter school of choice. One would think that PSD would want to embrace our school and other successful charters, and even try to implement some of our successful strategies instead of semi-denigrating us by calling us a drain on their budget.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Now's the Time to Opt Out!

December 15th is an important deadline for teachers in Colorado who don't want their union dues going to political activities with which they might disagree. That's the deadline for teachers to complete a form in order to keep their $39 fee.

The detailed information on how to opt out of this deduction is at the Independent Teachers website.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Charter Schools

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued their decision in Ridgeview Classical Schools v. Poudre School District. The case was filed after the Poudre School District (PSD) made the charter school leaders sign a charter contract that made an adjustment to funding when students left the charter school after the annual October 1 count day. Contract stipulations required the charter school to give up funding for students that didn't remain in the school.

The Court of Appeals, in a 3-0 decision, said that the contract provisions requiring prorated student funding were "null and void" because they were contrary to the Charter Schools Act. In the suit, the district claimed the prorated funding was a "purchased service," but the court said that wasn't a valid argument because the charter school hadn't chosen to purchase the service, there wasn't any way to determine the actual cost (as required by statute for purchased services), and the school would need to get a service to carry out its educational program.

This case had already been heard in district court. It's possible that PSD may decide to appeal the Court of Appeals decision to the state Supreme Court.

The opinion, written by Judge Roy and supported by Judge Graham and Judge J. Jones, has numerous interesting statements. The opinion recognizes the lack of negotiating power a charter school developer has in contract negotiations by stating, "the school district is the conduit through which all of the public funding for the charter school -- local, state, and federal -- must pass, resulting in the school district having a vastly superior bargaining position."

The court examined the legislative history of charter school laws and determined that "legislators were specifically concerned that charter schools had to accept less funding than that dictated by the statute to get their applications approved."

The funding for public schools in the state School Finance Act is predicated on the annual October 1 count. The court said that "there is no funding enrollment date specified in the Charter Schools Act" and that the district's position "ignores the school's need for stability in funding because a significant portion of its annual expenses are fixed and do not vary with enrollment."

This decision is momumental for the charter schools that have recently signed prorated contracts, believing they had no other options. Some districts have enacted policies that district schools don't have to accept charter school students who disenroll after the October 1 count day. Other districts have required monthly or quarterly student counts on which they base charter school funding. This court decision bolsters charter school leader's contentions that their funding must be based strictly on the annual count, the same as school districts get their funding from the state.

This case was originally heard by the State Board of Education in September 2006. The board remanded the case back to the district for reconsideration. After Ridgeview Classical School leaders were required to sign the prorated contract, they did so with a letter stating they signed it under durress and immediately filed the lawsuit.

Ridgeview Classical Schools is a K-12 Core Knowledge and classical charter school serving about 700 students. Every year the school has been in the top three high schools in the state based on its School Accountability Report score.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Resources for Finance and Governance Issues

I spent some time on the National Resource Center on Charter School Governance and Finance website today. They have some interesting resources online. Charter school authorizers will want to check out the resources for contracting with education service providers. Charter school leaders will want to use the online searchable list of grants that are available and get ideas for financing capital needs. There's even information for state policy makers who want to know how their state's law compares to others.