Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Online Recap of National Charter School Conference

In case you weren't one of the more than 3,400 people who attended the National Charter School Conference, check out the recap here. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan's, speech is on day one.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Further Remarks from Ed Sec Arne Duncan

The following is from a press release from the U.S. Dept. of Education:

Following up on his remarks earlier this week at the National Charter Schools Conference in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today issued the following statement urging states to work with charter school operators to turn around struggling schools and provide innovation and choice to students and parents:

“States need to have a plan to turn around their lowest-performing schools. I’m an advocate of using whatever model works for children and I want charter schools to join that work. But they won’t be able to get into the turnaround business in states that restrict the growth of charters. States that slow innovation are limiting opportunities for students and placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage for $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants.

“For example, in Indiana and Maine, state legislatures must act in the best interest of students and open doors to education entrepreneurs, like those running charter schools. While some states limit the number of charter schools, others like Louisiana and Tennessee, have lifted their caps on charters, giving more students the opportunity to attend higher performing schools.

“Let me be clear, I am not simply advocating for more charter schools. We need more good charter schools. There needs to be a high bar set for entry during the charter application process, and accountability systems need to link student achievement to instruction.”

“Many charter school operators are today’s top education innovators and entrepreneurs. Children need more high-quality educational options, and charter schools have an important role to play in the school turnaround business.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

NY Chancellor Says NYC Charter School Movement Built on Accountability

Chancellor Joel Klein, New York Public Schools, addressed attendees of the National Charter School Conference on the second day of the conference. Klein noted early in his remarks that he’s a board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Klein said they built the charter school movement in New York on accountability for performance. Charter schools are compared to other public schools serving the same cohort of students. Further, every school gets a letter grade and a report card that parents can understand.

Klein noted that next year the city will have 100 charter schools after having previously been stymied by a cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in New York. Moreover, eleven charter management organizations now operate schools in NY. Harlem has 25 charter schools. Klein proudly said that they gave charter schools public school space because they’re “all our kids.” He went on to say, “If you do great work, we’ll make space for you.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Michelle Rhee Supports Charter Schools in DC

The most energizing key note speaker for the opening day of the National Charter School conference was Michelle Rhee, the innovative leader of District of Columbia (DC) Public Schools. Rhee shook up the system when she closed schools and fired principals and teachers in order to increase academic achievement for the district’s students. Rhee said that there was a 70% gap in achievement between white students and African-American students in the district when she arrived to serve as superintendent. Further, only 8% were on grade level in Math according to the NAEP.

Repeatedly referencing the need to increase life opportunities for children, Rhee stated charter schools have brought two key tenets to the DC educational system: excellence and scale. She said that high-performing charter schools have eliminated the ability of traditional public school leaders to make excuses for their students not being able to perform at the same level as white students. Rhee said, “It’s not about market share, it’s about serving students well. We need to care about quality; for kids!”

Ed Sec Arne Duncan Addresses National Charter School Conference

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the Obama administration, opened the 2009 National Charter School Conference by speaking about the types of reform needed in education today. He said his plan has prioritized four reforms:

1. High college-ready standards;
2. Robust, comprehensive data systems;
3. Recruit and keep the best teachers and principals; and
4. Turn around chronically underperforming schools.

He said states applying for the federal Race for the Top funds must demonstrate their acceptance of public charter schools by not having a cap on the number of charter schools that can be approved. Further stating his support for the charter school concept, Duncan said, “The charter school movement has brought about one of the most profound changes in American education.”

Duncan’s remarks about the inclusion of teacher’s unions in the charter movement brought a cool response from many of the 3,400 plus attendees to this year’s national conference. Most charter schools have at-will employees and the states bound by restrictions favoring teacher’s unions are considered to have weaker charter school laws.

Duncan spent the majority of his speech addressing turnaround schools, his plan to improve underperforming public schools. Duncan’s options for these transformations include 1) replacing all the adults in the building and using a new curriculum; 2) becoming a charter school; or 3) replacing a portion of the adults and a portion of the curriculum. He emphasized that administrators and teachers must “move outside of their comfort zone and behave differently” in order to bring about true reform.

Additionally, Duncan encouraged the charter school movement to focus on quality instead of quality and demand excellence from individual charter schools. He said, “Don’t defend or make excuses for failing charter schools; our children have only one opportunity for a good education.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

National Charter School Conference in Washington, DC

Next week I'll be blogging from the National Charter School Conference in Washington, DC. This year, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education will be speaking at the conference.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Charter Schools Are Messy

Charter school leaders are typically entrepeneurial in nature and think outside the box. That also means sometimes charter school leaders make mistakes. Since it's human nature to make mistakes, I think the primary focus should be on how the charter school community or the charter school and authorizer's relationship corrects mistakes.

For years, in the discussion amongst charter school leaders in Colorado, there's been agreement that we should "police our own." Since all charter schools look bad when one charter school is in the media for a mistake that's been made, it behooves state leadership to meet these issues head-on.

When the League of Charter Schools released their quality standards, it generated a discussion about in what type of situation state leaders should intervene. Questions arose, such as:

* When is it the authorizer's responsibility to step in?
* What types of actions or incidents cross the line?
* Who should address the offenders? Can it be done in a manner that would produce supportive resolution?
* After addressing the wrongs, what responsibility does the cadre of state leaders have to assist the school in rebuilding and changing?
* When is a charter school worthy of saving or when should it simply be closed down?

Charter schools are a free market system, which means some will succeed and some will fail. Moreover, some schools will have leaders for a short period of time that make a mess of things. The good schools, when faced with a problem, self-correct and can end up in a better position. More of a problem is the schools that refuse to address their mistakes and try to ignore them or more often, affix blame somewhere other than with themselves.

For a host of reasons, many charter schools in Colorado have made mistakes -- some big, some small. The school leaders who gain my respect admit their mistakes, fix them, and move on. School leaders who refuse to acknowledge a mistake, typically have more issues than what's been reported in the media.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why Do Some Charter Schools Not Perform?

The recently-released Stanford study shows that across the nation, charter schools don't perform as well as their traditional public education counterparts.

The study does note, however, that Denver charter school students did better than their traditional school peers. Colorado's charter school students tend to do better. According to "The State of Charter Schools in Colorado" report out two weeks ago, charter school students outperform on CSAP in the middle school grades but are relatively similar on elementary grade level scores and underperform at the high school level. The report went on to point out that more charter schools are recognized for school achievement with the School Accountability Report scores and rankings.

What's the difference between all these charter schools in the Stanford study? Here's just a few of the notable differences that impact student academic achievement:

* Autonomy. Colorado's charter schools have greater autonomy than states that operate "quasi-charter schools" with limited freedom to operate without traditional state regulations and district policies, such as teacher licensure.
* Caps. Colorado doesn't limit the number of charter schools that can be approved.
* Priority enrollment. Some states allow only students qualifying for a free or reduced-price lunch to enroll in a charter school. Colorado's law permits any student to enroll in a charter school.
* Academics. Compared nationally, Colorado's is atypical by having almost half of its charter schools using the Core Knowledge curriculum. Most states have more "home grown" or experiential charter schools.
* Student demographics. Early in Colorado's charter school history, Denver denied many charter school applications and it wasn't until the new decade before that changed. Consequently, many of the first charter schools were in suburban areas where starting a charter school was a grassroots movement.
* Capacity. In addition to the state's largest urban area not being friendly to charter schools initially, urban areas tend to rely upon management companies to start and operate charter schools. It wasn't until the 2004 passage of the Charter School Institute law that management companies became interested in opening a charter school in Colorado.
* Authorizer quality. Some authorizers in Colorado have approved lousy charter school applications. Whether bowing to political pressure or merely wanting to allow founders the freedom to try, some charter schools should never have been approved and to date, 19 charter schools have closed. Authorizers are much more attune to focusing on increasing student academic achievement in the charter schools they approve.

It's difficult to compare charter school student achievement across the country due to the vast differences in state chartering laws. In Colorado, the philosophy has always embodied the notion that a charter school shouldn't be operating unless it's focused on increasing student academic achievement.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why Give Up a Charter?

It's rumored that another Colorado charter school may give up its charter to become a district-operated choice school. While this certainly wouldn't be the first time, it does raise the question about why a charter school governing board would consider this monumental decision.

Some governing boards have given up their charter in order to become a district-operated magnet school. Most often, this is a segue to completely closing down a school, but it doesn't have to be if the school district is committed to operating the school (with its original mission) for an extended period of time. As a school district's board of education changes, so can the district's mission and philosophy. Future boards may not want a particular educational program operating, especially if it's a low-performing model. Charter schools operate via contract, which district-operated choice schools do not. This means key features of the magnet school and how long it stays operational, is subject to district leadership.

Back in 2002 Rennaisance Charter School in Douglas County was the first to surrender its charter to become a district-operated magnet program using the Montessori model. Later (2005) Center for Discovery Learning, in Jeffco, was facing closure due to lack of academic performance and converted to the Kirk Brady Exploration School. Last year the Pioneer School of Expeditionary Learning in Fort Collins became a district program within a district high school.

Now reports are that the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences (PSAS) may be considering giving up its charter in favor of a magnet performing arts school. For people in the charter school community, this could be viewed as "going to the darkside." So why does this option appeal to charter school governing boards?

When the original, hard-driving founders rotate off the board or otherwise leave the school's governance, it's "easier" for board members to have the district take care of things such as financing facilities, staff professional development, administrator supervision and hiring. The charter school goes through a phase of "fatigue" where the people leading the charge no longer want to expend the incredible number of hours it takes to lead a charter school. Sometimes the district may offer to sweeten the deal in order to bring the charter school "into the fold."

Charter schools are not self-sustaining unless new people rise up to assume a leadership role over the school's lifetime. Many charter school board members keep this in mind as they recruit new board members and seat people on board subcommittees. Further, many charter schools convey their philosophy to parents and their communities through repeated newsletter articles, board town hall meetings or daily conversations. Some charter schools, more than others, have clearly defined the core principles that are essential to their charter school's vision. This clarity ensures a common purpose in the future. But more fundamentally, charter school sustainability comes from the quality of the school's leadership.

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Opinion on the Cesar Chavez Network Controversy

Since I can't say it any better, here's an opinion piece by Juan Espinoza, with the Pueblo Chieftain. Mr. Espinoza is a former employee of the Cesar Chavez Academy Network.

Charter Schools Serve Less Than State Average of Students with Disabilities

It's true that Colorado's charter schools serve less students with special needs when compared to noncharter public schools. Colorado's charter schools serve seven percent while the state average is ten percent. However, the percentage of students served by charter schools has increased over the years. But it's not where it should be.

Jeremy Meyer and Bart Hubbard, with the Denver Post, wrote about this disparity and acknowledged there were some exceptions within the charter school community. The Rocky Mountain Deaf School is 100% students with special needs as all of the students are hearing impaired and learn American Sign Language as a part of the curriculum. Vanguard Classical School in Aurora took some time to get approved because it intended to serve high-needs students and about twice the number of students with special needs as their district. To some in the realm of Special Education, this couldn't be allowed since it would not be "the least restrictive environment" (LRE) and therefore the student's wouldn't have a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE). Eventually, with assurance that the charter school would individually evaluate each student for the appropriateness of placement in the charter school, the charter was approved.

The Denver Post article inaccurately states that the Charter School Special Education Advisory Committee was established just two years ago. In fact, the committee was established in 2001 and has addressed a variety of issues over the years including online education, funding for charter schools serving students with Special Ed plans, and technical assistance for school district Special Education directors and charter school administrators.

Most recently the committee tackled the controversial subject of reports that a few districts were limiting the types of students who could attend charter schools they had authorized. This came in the form of charter contract language and verbal direction from school district staff. The committee discussed that whether incidents such as this were practiced due to the school district or the charter school, it was not an acceptable practice. The committee discussed a position paper that will eventually be distributed to the general public, school districts and charter schools.

But the issue, as a whole, balances two competing positions: 1) what is the right of the school district to economically serve students in center-based programs or with minimal services, and 2) the right of the student/parent to have a public education that best suits the student's unique needs? This issue is especially relevant to any disabled student who wants to enroll in any choice school in Colorado; not just charter schools.

I've heard all of the issues from both sides. As a parent of two sons who were on Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) my opinion is probably skewed by personal experiences. In the early years of Jefferson Academy, the board dealt with this issue when the administrator posed a question to the board about where to draw the line with individual students with significant needs. The district had an opinion, but the administrator wanted to know the school's philosophy. Of the seven original JA board members, five of us had students with IEPs. Further, one of the primary factors driving our starting the charter school was so that parents could have a meaningful role in their child's education. Therefore, we drafted a policy stating that ultimately the decision would rest with the parents of the affected student.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Top 100 High Schools Includes 17 Charter Schools

Even though charter schools account for 5.5% of the national public school population, 17% have received recognition by Newsweek as a top 100 public high school. Number 61 on the list is Colorado's Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools are overrepresented in the list due to a greater amount of accountability and innovation.

At Peak to Peak the continual message that's reinforced at all levels, is if it isn't about making kids smarter, it isn't something we focus on. Every decision is focused on "making kids smarter."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sometimes Ya Just Gotta Have Fun!

After two and a half days of intense "drinking from a fire hose" information, sometimes it's good to just relax a little. This afternoon, the last of three days of Charter School Boot Camp, participants got to see authorizers and technical assistance providers role play a charter school applicant's hearing. These were not actors!

Left to right: Peg McMillen, CDE; Jen Dauzvardis, CDE; Lee Barratt, CSI; Tisha Bouwmeester, CLCS and Kelly Grable, CLCS.

It was helpful for Boot Camp attendees to better understand what a charter school hearing is like. Especially the different types of reactions that can be anticipated and tips on "what not to do." Sometimes it's the practical knowledge that's the most intimidating to charter applicants.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What's Happening at the Charter School Boot Camp?

Participants, people contemplating a new charter school and learning about how to write a charter school application and all of the other nuances related to opening a new charter school, are overwhelmed with the amount of new information they're getting at this week's Boot Camp.

Some of the things discussed so far are:

* There are three state-approved assessments for the CO Basic Literacy Act: DRA 2, PALS and DIBELS.
* Use at-will employee agreements that specifically state the conditions cannot be amended without charter school board approval.
* A founding group becomes a "public entity" when their charter is approved and then are immediately subject to Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
* No personally identifiable prospective student information should be included in the charter school application.
* The application should include both district policies and state laws that the charter school plans to waive from.
* Parent contracts and "mandatory" parent volunteer hours cannot be enforced, with consequences. They're strictly voluntary.
* Every charter school application should articulate why the curriculum was selected to match the needs of the intended student population.
* Charter schools cannot give any priorities in the lottery as long as they're receiving the federal charter school grant. This means even priorities for Free and Reduced Lunch-qualifying students.
* An attorney should be consulted any time a charter school is considering expelling a student with an IEP (Special Ed. plan).
* Management companies typically take 8-12% for their services.
* CSI recommends the charter school board having money for an independent financial audit and legal counsel if they're using a management company.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Defining "The Ridgeview Way"

I had the pleasure of hanging out with the Ridgeview Classical Schools governing board and administration this weekend. What a great group of people! I should first note that their stamina for long meetings was greater than mine and I arrived home exhausted! These people are all like the Energizer bunny!

In addition to being able to participate in several very thoughtful, interesting discussions I walked away with a greater respect for this school, which has been ranked 15th best in the nation by the U.S. News and World Report. By its fourth year of operation, Ridgeview Classical Schools (RCS) was the top-scoring high school in Colorado, according to the School Accountability Report. Clearly the school established quickly what it takes to have a successful high school educational program. Unlike almost every school in the state, Ridgeview doesn't base its curriculum on model content standards. Instead it focuses on a classical-liberal approach to education that takes students beyond the content standards.

Much of the weekend's discussion was about defining "the Ridgeview way." Several schools have asked RCS to explain their educational program and express a desire to replicate it. A few of RCS's unique characteristics are:
1. Teachers are hired for their capabilities instead of their credentials.
2. The school values moving all students forward, regardless of their ability level.
3. RCS classrooms may be observed at any time, simply by checking in at the front office.
4. RCS resists grade inflation and social promotion.
5. The school culture is close-knit, based on character pillars and the school maintains a closed campus.
6. The school uses original texts whenever possible.

But if I had to identify a single characteristic of the school, the governing board, administrators and staff, I'd say it's that they all hold "high expectations." The board demonstrated their own personal high expectations by the efficient and thoughtful manner they worked together this weekend. I've always found the Principal, Florian Hild, and the Asst. Principal, Dom Carpine, to be extremely interesting to visit with. I learned this weekend that Florian used to run the steeplechase and still regularly runs incredible distances.

Several participants this weekend expressed their commitment to holding a high standard for all students, even if the students periodically fail to meet that expectation. There was never an indication that the student wouldn't be accepted for not meeting high expectations, instead different people expounded on various ways they could help students reach better decisions in the future.

RCS recently esgtablished a foundation to deal with the numerous contacts they've received to find out what makes the school successful and replicate it in other parts of the country. George Sanker, the recent principal at Imagine Classical at Firestone, will be leading the foundation's work, along with RCS board member Rob Pait and Principal Florian Hild.

Friday, June 5, 2009

More Charter Schools in Denver's Future

Last night the Denver Public School District staff recommended another ten charter schools for approval by the Board of Education. All of these schools are for at least a 2010 opening. Many are replication schools, meaning they're based on an existing, successful model. Two of the schools, Global Village Academy-Denver and the Denver Language School will both teach Mandarin Chinese in grades K-8. There is already a Global Village Academy operating in Aurora, near the Buckley Air Force Base.

Several years ago DPS turned the corner and is now not only accepting of charter schools, the district solicits charter schools to serve unique student populations. The district has taken the "portfolio" approach to addressing student learning needs. Already the district has 20 charter schools; the highest number of charter schools for any district in the state.

I heard that DPS was calling charter school applicants that would not be recommended for approval and many withdrew their applications rather than accepting a denial. Although this relinquishes their right to an appeal before the State Board of Education, many of these applicants will return with another application that is even stronger.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Congressional Committee Hears What Makes Charter Schools Successful

Today the U.S. House of Representative's Education Committee heard testimony on what makes charter schools successful. Colorado's Lt. Governor, Barbara O'Brien, was one of the people testifying. Barbara O'Brien lobbied for the Colorado Charter Schools Act in 1993 when she was with the Colorado Children's Campaign.

“Charter schools offered a way to stimulate innovation within public education by giving educators greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability,” said Barbara O'Brien. Charter schools create opportunities and open doors for kids who would otherwise be left behind. They do it by using the best of the American spirit -- entrepreneurship, innovation, and hard work. They are an asset, not a threat, to our public education system.”

O'Brien went on to note the following characteristics of successful charter schools:

* They welcome accountability.
* They have found ways to have more hours per school day and more days per school year so that their students can catch up -- with the support of their teachers and parents.
* They welcome data.
* They foster a culture of achievement.
* They have demonstrated the importance of the leadership of a good principal.
* They welcome high performance standards.
* They attract principals and teachers who want the challenge of overcoming great odds to boost their stuents' achievement.
* They innovate with every component of a school from curriculum to assessment to schedule.

Lt. Gov. O'Brien was introduced at the hearing by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a founder of the three New America Schools and the Academy of Urban Learning, all charter schools.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

State Charter School Report: Charters Continue to do Well

In a report released by the Colorado Department of Education, the number of new charter schools continue to increase while the quality remains high. The report examines student academic achievement using CSAP scores, characteristics of charter schools and their students, and information on demographics and average teacher and administrator salaries. Further, this report highlights five successful charter schools in Colorado, including Georgetown Community Charter School, James Irwin Elementary, Life Skills Center of Colorado Springs, West Denver Prep and Ridgeview Classical Schools.

The state report is authored by Dr. Dick Carpenter, a professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and Krista Kafer, an independent contractor. They found over 38,000 students are on waiting lists for charter schools with the average wait list size being 462 students. The average sized charter school enrolls less than 300 students. The largest brick-and-mortar school in the state is The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs. The largest charter school in the state is Colorado Virtual Academy with 2,366 students.

Sixty percent of charter schools do not conform to the traditional elementary, middle and high school grade level configuration. More than 41% served elementary and middle school grades together.

The study highlights another recent report released by the same authors, A Typology of Charter Schools, which determined what type of educational program best suits the needs of specific student populations.

While state charter schools still serve less than the state average of students from ethnical minorities, the gap has decreased. Currently 37% of students in charter schools are minorities while the state average if 39%.

Watch for more on this state report in future postings.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

High Point Academy Fit 4 Colorado

Academy at High Point, authorized by the Charter School Institute, recently received a $1,000 check from Fit 4 Colorado. The school has a policy for students to bring only nutritious snacks to school and offers a health education class.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Another New Charter School Gets a Facility

It's been said that charter schools are incentuous. Charter schools share leaders, teachers, and modular facilities. Atlas Prep, which is slated to open in August in the Harrison 2 portion of Colorado Springs has just signed a lease for the facility vacated last year by James Irwin Charter Elementary school.

It's a great facility for a new charter school. It's already been renovated for education and it's in reasonable proximity for prospective families. Most brand new charter schools must operate at least three years before they qualify for a bond through the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority. During this time a new charter school must build up a reserve for a down payment and demonstrate a sound financial history.

I just hope that Atlas Prep leaders get good signage for this location. I once was in the parking lot of the school and didn't realize the school was there.