Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Imagine Schools, Inc.: In the News

The internet is abuzz about the internal email from Imagine Schools, Inc. CEO Dennis Bakke about charter school board members at Imagine charter schools. David Hunn released the email in an article he wrote for the St. Louis Dispatch. The email is below.

From: Dennis Bakke
Sent: Thu 9/4/2008 10:26 AM
To: #DL All School Developers; #DL All National Principals; #DL All
Regional Directors; Alan Olkes; Barry Sharp; Eileen Bakke; Isabel Berio; Jason
Bryant; Nancy Hall; Roy Gamse; Sam Howard; Octavio Visiedo
Subject: Boards for Imagine Schools

DRAFT (for internal Imagine discussion purposes only)

This draft note includes some thoughts, observations and suggestions about our local school boards. Please feel free to opine on any of the draft comments I make in this email. This is not a legal pronouncement for Imagine Schools or an announcement of official policy. It is simply some preliminary observations and possible approaches to selecting and caring for these important people who help us educate children.

What are we learning about the selection and care of board members for our schools? Most Board members become very involved in the life of the school. Often, even before the school begins operation, the Board members have taken “ownership” of the school. Many honestly believe it is their school and that the school will not go well without them steering the school toward “excellence”. They believe they are the “governing” Board even if that adjective to describe the board has never been used by an Imagine School person. Many become involved in the daily life of the school, volunteering and “helping” teachers and and other staff to get things done. Even those who are not parents, take “ownership” of the school as if they started it. Initially, they are grateful to Imagine (especially Eileen and me) for helping them start the (their) school. I have been to 3 school openings in the last month where I was thanked for helping the local board start the(our) school. In none of these cases did the board have a major role in “starting” the school. They didn’t write the charter. They didn’t finance the start up of the school or the building. They didn’t find the principal or any of the teachers and staff. They didn’t design the curriculum.
In some cases, they did help recruit students.

Why does it matter? Don’t we want local boards to be grateful and helpful and take ownership of the school? “Yes” and “No”. I do not mind them being grateful to us for starting the school (our school,not theirs), but the gratitude and the humility that goes with it, needs to extend to the operation of the school. In all three cases of the new schools I visited this past month, I started my talks by responding to the flowery introduction thanking Eileen and me for helping to start the XYZ school, with a thank you to the Board and others for helping Imagine start ITS school. Most people probably missed the serious point I was making. Besides, it was probably too late in most cases to correct the misconception that we had given to Board members and other volunteers about the nature of governance of the school Imagine had created.

“But Dennis, I need strong Board members or the authorizer won’t give me the charter” Even though, some authorizers (or their staffs) use this threat to keep control of our schools, I do not believe it is a significant reason that will stop us from receiving a charter or be rejected. If it does, so be it. If an authorizer is using this as the excuse, it is likely about 5th on the list of real reasons for rejecting the application. Also, we need to examine our definition of “strong board member”. As much as we heard about board make-up in New York while we went after the charter, in the end it had no bearing on whether we got the charter.

I suggest that not one application granted or rejected in Florida or Indiana or DC or anywhere else had anything to do with the membership of the board, the governance approach, or the “quality” of the application. It has taken me about 4 years to convince many of you that getting the charter has almost nothing to do with what you put in the application or who your board members are. And, in the one or two cases where it did matter which board members were part of the application, it was likely a disaster for Imagine Schools just waiting to happen.

Most problems we have with Boards were not, however, caused by our developers or regional directors or executive vice presidents choosing the wrong board members. In many cases, I think we didn’t make clear their role as a board member before we selected them. Sometimes we let a self-proclaimed Board chair select the Board (Please do not do that). By “we” I start with my own lack of understanding and poor teaching on this subject. I am learning most of these things right along with the rest of you. Whether or not a person has been on a board or not (with the exception of someone who has experience on the board of a major corporation), most people believe that Boards are “governance” boards. In other words, they are “in charge” of the school.

Without you saying anything to them, they will believe that they are responsible for making big decisions about budget matters, school policies, hiring of the principal and dozens of other matters. This is the way most nonprofit boards work, so no one should be surprised by the assumptions held by the board members you select for an Imagine School.

I suggest that Imagine boards and board members have two significant roles. The first is to “affirm” (vote FOR if legally required) significant items like our selection of the Principal and the budget (if you “need” to give them veto power over our proposed principal, then that would be okay although I don’t think in most cases it is essential that they be given that power (check the State law).

Legally, I believe “affirming” is the same as voting “yes”. The difference is the assumption that we have made a “recommendation” or decision and want the board to agree formally with that decision. Before selecting board members we need to go over the voting process and our expectations that they will go along with Imagine unless the board member is convinced that we are doing something illegal. Of course, we want the board member to vote “no” on any proposal that the board member believes is illegal. However, in non legal issues of judgment , we expect them to argue the issue vigorously, but if they can’t convince us to change our position, we expect them to vote for our proposal. It is our school, our money and our risk, not theirs.


The second and most important role of board members is to advise us on all matters of employment, policies, school climate, shared values, growth, building, academics and financial. We have school principals and regional directors who are not involving their boards sufficiently in this important advisory role. I think this is a big part of the problems we have had in Atlanta. Board members want to be needed (all of us do). The best way to acknowledge your need for a board member is to keep them
informed of what is happening and ask them their advice on ALL significant decisions before the school, including hiring and firing decisions. I believe that most of the problems we have with boards are caused not from taking decision making away from them, but not involving them in the advice process. Remember, the advice process shares your thinking with others and brings them into your circle. Some of you aren’t even doing an adequate job of asking your colleagues or your staff or your bosses for advice ,so including the board in that way is going to be even more challenging. I told the Pittsburgh school board that if our principal didn’t ask for advice on significant issues like hiring and firing and budget, a new building addition and school policies, that they should give me a call. Not asking advice of the appropriate people before making a decision is a good way to lose a job at Imagine Schools.

None of this will protect you from the person who starts out as an “advisor”, but
becomes a major problem, thinking he/she are crucial to the success of the school. Sometimes you can protect yourself from board members that you chose, by getting undated letters of resignation from the start that can be acted on by us at any time would also help. Some states allow “founding” boards that can be changed once the school starts. That is a good idea if we can control who stays and who goes. Maybe you make all terms one year (if legal) so that we can re-nominate who we want. Make it clear that we will propose all new board members. Again, when the legal rules seem contrary to what I have been suggesting, seek lots of advice about how to set up the board before you select members.

There are probably hundreds of other approaches to overcome the “runaway”
board problems that can arise if you are not careful.

Please take this area of Imagine life seriously. The Board of Imagine Schools meets once a year. It is made up of very secure people that I have known for a long time. They do not need to be “in control”. They are not power hungry. They are encouragers, advisers and people who want to see Imagine grow and succeed. They realize that society places a significant responsibility on them to ensure that we do not participate in illegal activity or do things that will hurt children. They trust that we will do our best to make Imagine the best for parents and students as possible. They know we can’t eliminate all the problems and mistakes, but they also trust us to correct those mistakes and overcome the problems when they arrive. They are ready with assistance and advice when we ask for that, but they are comfortable letting Imagine people do their thing.

That is the kind of board members we want for each of our schools. To get them and keep them, we need to tell potential and current board members the truth about our expectations and keep them involved in all the significant successes and problems that occur in the school. Probably the most important concept that needs to be grasped by potential and sitting board members for our new schools going forward is that Imagine Owns the school, not just the building. Obviously, there are a few legacy school boards for which this will not likely be true, but let’s not create new one if at all possible.


The subject of how management companies come into new states, identify a mock board and then open a charter school has been a hot topic in Colorado in the past few years. Many authorizers question board members extensively during the hearing procewss in order to ensure due dilligence has been done in selecting a management company and that the board members have true authority over the school. Now along comes this Bakke email exposing the company's intent to establish a mock board and keep the power with the management company.

Dean Titterington spoke with the reporter that released the memo when both were at last week's National Association of Charter School Authorizers conference in Salt Lake City. One of the workshops both were in was about the role of management companies. Titterington, the Vice President of the Colorado Charter School Institute, noted in that workshop that CSI was on the watch for management companies who want to set up shop in Colorado without a board with true authority.

Authorizers in Colorado are currently considering a draft of a common contract drafted by the CO Dept of Education, the CO League of Charter Schools and the Charter School Institute. Included with the draft is an attachment of Education Service Provider provisions that authorizers can require of charter school applicants who are using a management company. These provisions include having a performance contract that can be severed without the board ending up with a charter on paper only (all the assets belong to the management company), that the charter board have its own legal counsel separate from the management company and evidence that the board compared the management company to others and selected the company based on what was the wisest decision for the charter school board.

The Charter School Institute has already established a reputation for not being friendly to management companies. It seems as though the Bakke memo just fed more fuel to that fire.

Note: There are a couple of Imagine Schools, Inc. operating in Colorado and this posting is not meant to be a reflection of them individually. Instead, it is about the national management company.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Turnaround and More

I'm at the Office of Parental Options and Information Project Director's Conference in Washington, DC. This is all the U.S. Department of Education's programs under the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which includes the Charter School Program.

This morning a panel of speakers addressed the topic of turnaround schools and how charter schools fit into the turnaround of failing public schools. Justin Cohen, of Mass Insights, said that in order to determine if a turnaround is working there should be demonstrable academic results within two years. If there isn't, another turnaround plan should be used. He also said it's impossible to over-communicate change in a turnaround school.

Later in the morning, during a workshop session, Cohen and his colleague, Meredith Liu, spoke about Lead Partners and Partnership Zones. Both of these dynamics are used by Mass Insights when the organization considers working with a school or district in turnaround efforts. Lead Partners work with a school, or a cluster of schools within one district, to handle all of the partnerships, district bureaucracy and other time-consuming activities that distract the school's principal from the essential responsibility to focus on improving academic achievement. Partnership Clusters are a group of schools undergoing turnaround.

When asked what was different about the decade-old federal program, Comprehensive School Reform (CSR), Cohen said two things: 1) the partner is accountable for student achievement and 2) the partner has management over people in the building. With the old CSR program, the only accountability for partners (then called service providers) was that the professional development was delivered, but the partner could blame the school for lack of academic achievement rather than owning the outcome of its work.

Cohen was formerly involved in the turnaround of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and said there were lessons learned from that work, including:
* elementary and middle schools are vital for reforming high schools
* it doesn't work to do stand-alone school reform, they need to be in clusters
* turnaround schools need to be carved out of the collective bargaining agreement

In the afternoon there was another panel discussion, this time about recommendations for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), called No Child Left Behind by the previous administration. It's anticipated that the ESEA will be reauthorized sometime in 2010.

Panelists stated recommendations for reauthorization of the ESEA include:
* taking the charter school credit enhancement program off pilot status and decoupling it from the Charter School Program
* funding networks and nonprofits with CSP funds
* prioritizing high-need communities
* defining highly "effective" teachers (currently called Highly Qualified Teachers in NCLB)
* delineating priorities for charter school authorizer quality
* easing restrictions and simplifying the process for charter schools that are replicating and having already demonstrated academic success

The hot topic throughout today's program was turnaround efforts for the bottom 5% of public schools. Throughout the rest of the nation, management companies play a significant role in the charter landscape and so much of the discussion was about how management companies are stepping up their efforts to work with these schools. Most of Colorado's charter schools are considered "grassroots" startups and the state has significantly less management company-operated charter schools than other states.

Another tidbit of information, the hotel where we're having the conference is also hosting the Philadelphia Eagles football team. I've seen several of the players and there are numerous fans in the lobby waiting to get autographs. The Eagles play the Washington Redskins tonight on Monday Night Football.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jeffco Approves Two New Charter Schools

This week the Jeffco Board of Education voted to approve two new charter schools: Twin Roads High School and the Rocky Mountain Deaf High School.

Twin Roads is the high school to an existing home-based option the district has operated for many years. Many of the same families in the home school program will enroll full-time to attend the high school.

Rocky Mountain Deaf School opened as a K-8 and teaches American Sign Language. The newly approved high school portion will continue the existing program.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who Holds the Charter?

States across America have different laws regarding who can hold the charter: a network board or the individual charter school board. In California, the authorizer contracts with a network for numerous boards. If a charter applicant is deemed a charter school with statewide impact the board can have ten separate schools via a streamlined process.

Other states, such as Florida and Michigan, don't allow an authorizer to contract for multiple charter schools. Every contract is with an individual charter school board.

This is a very big issue in Colorado now where the Charter School Institute recently changed from contracting with the Cesar Chavez Network board for individual contracts with GOAL Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy-North Colo. Springs (now called Scholars to Leaders Academy). Both of the CSI charter schools created their own governing boards under a Memorandum of Understanding between the CSI board and the Network. The two schools are now operating independent of the Network.

Now that the Network only has two charter schools -- Cesar Chavez Academy-Pueblo and Dolores Huerta Academy - the Network is little more than a defunct structure. The Network CFO, Jason Guerrero, is wrapping up business affairs in consultation with the Network's legal counsel. In negotiation is which entity will assume debts and where the assets will reside. Resolving these issues could take years.

NACSA Conference in Salt Lake City

I'm in Salt Lake City for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers conference. Today I'll be attending sessions on replication, closure and accountability. The hot topic in the charter authorizer community is hot to close unperforming charter schools. Another hot topic follows the trend in the past few years of replicating successful charter schools. Many of these replications use the same nonprofit charter management organization to oversee multiple schools.

I'll be twittering today @cocharters about the conference.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Going on in Denver?

Denver Public Schools has authorized more charter schools than any of the other 177 school districts in Colorado. Presently, 21 are operating and many more have been approved to open over the next few years.

Scoring #1 and #2 in the district according to the DPS School Performance Framework is Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) and W Denver Prep. Both of these existing charter schools have been approved to replicate their existing programs in other parts of the district. Clearly, everyone in Denver sees the benefit of having independently-operated, successful charter schools. Right?

Not according to at-large Board of Education candidate, Christopher Scott, who seems to liken public charter schools to the plague. Forget that parents are flocking to these schools across the state with more than an estimated 35,000 on waiting lists for the more than 160 charter schools operating this school year.

One could think that Mr. Scott doesn't like public charter schools because he's aligned with the teacher's union, but in Denver the teacher's union has started an innovation school called Math and Science Leadership Academy.

Instead it seems that Mr. Scott is a part of the old education bureaucracy whose philosophies drove us to needing charter schools in the first place. When educrats aren't responsive to parents, parents find a way to go around them. They certainly don't elect them to the school board and trust that they know better than the parents who are raising these children.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When Schools Compete

North of the metro Denver area there is a competition for elementary school students brewing and it could end up being a free-for-all.

The St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) has announced its plans to open a new elementary school in Erie and the school will offer the Core Knowledge curriculum, popular with many parents. There are presently two charter school applications in the process and all are targeting the same group of students.

To put this into context, a little history is important to note. Twin Peaks Academy opened in Longmont in 1997 after an extensive battle of appeal hearings to the State Board of Education and numerous application attempts. Then Peak to Peak opened in Lafayette after yet more struggles, which included delaying a year due to the lack of a facility. Peak to Peak was in such high demand about five years ago that only siblings of current students could get into the Kindergarten class. Disillusioned, parents who couldn't get their children into Peak to Peak formed to start Flagstaff Academy, which was originally intended to open in Erie, but had to locate in Longmont due to facility issues. In the meantime, Imagine Classical at Firestone was approved, again after appeals and delays, with the SVVSD.

With all of these charter schools offering the Core Knowledge curriculum, you'd think it would have reached a saturation point, but quite the opposite is true. Prospect Ridge and Foundations Academy have both applied to the Adams 12 School District and are attempting to locate in the Erie area. Again, both applicants are proposing schools that will use the Core Knowledge curriculum. Further, most of the charter schools already open have extensive waiting lists, some into the thousands.

The Erie area is close to borders of the Boulder Valley School District, the St. Vrain district, and the Adams 12 district. Therefore, it's likely that any school that opens could compete for students and draw them across district boundaries.

Now the St. Vrain district Superintendent, Don Haddad, announces a new elementary school in Erie. Not taking into consideration the controversy about the district's plans to open the new school in modules, when a few years ago they criticized Imagine Classical at Firestone for opening in modules that weren't "safe," the district has apparently heard loud and clear the call from parents for more Core Knowledge schools. The district is now in the game!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Developing Charter Schools

It's that time of year again when numerous developing charter schools have applications in and are undergoing public hearings. It's also the time for tier one of the Colorado Charter School Grant Program.

Some of the new charter applicants include:
1. Manny Martinez, an Edison Learning school in Denver Public Schools
2. W Denver Prep #3 and #4, both will be in northwest Denver
3. Colorado Springs Vocational Academy has applied in Colorado Springs 11
4. Provost Academy is an online Edison Learning School authorized by the Charter School Institute
5. Rocky Mountain Deaf High School, Jeffco, an extension to the already operating K-8 ASL charter
6. Foundations Academy, a National Heritage Academies school applying in Adams 12 Five Star
7. North Star Academy-West, a replication in Highlands Ranch of the existing school in Parker
8. Mountain Middle School, applying to CSI and located in Durango
9. Denver Language School, DPS, a Mandarin Chinese and Spanish language school
10. Prospect Ridge, Adams 12, Core Knowledge K-8 in Erie
11. Mountain Career Online, applying to CSI from Pagosa Springs
12. Global Village Academy #2, applying in Denver and already operating a K-8 in Aurora

Jeffco's Board of Education votes on their four charter school applications next Thursday, the 22nd. Douglas County is going to wait until after the Nov. election results. Within the next two months numerous new charter school applications will be approved. It's that time of year again!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Teaching from Where?

A North Dakota State University economics professor is teaching from her post in Iraq. The professor is with the Minnesota Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq last August. Cheryl Wachenheim, continues to teach using her personal laptop after having chipped in on a satellite dish to make Internet connection possible.

Personally being a native of North Dakota, I find Cheryl Wachenheim's work ethic understandable. But her mentioning it was a really big deal when she found out the base had Diet Mountain Dew shows she's a typical Nodak. Mountain Dew is very popular in North Dakota!

Cheryl's legacy will be that she served her country admirably and for that I give her a huge "thank you!" It's this kind of person every parent would be proud to have teach their child. Knowing Cheryl is so passionate about teaching and interacting with students puts her on another pedestool as far as I'm concerned. Thank you, Cheryl Wachenheim!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The John Adams HBO Series

I own the John Adams HBO series on DVD and so enjoyed reading Greg Forster's summary of the movie here.

News Release from the Charter School Institute

Charter School Institute Statement on Cesar Chavez Network

Lee Barratt, interim executive director of the Charter School Institute, today issued the following statement regarding the Cesar Chavez Network:

“The Charter School Institute welcomes the recent actions by the Cesar Chavez School Network (CCSN) to transfer the charters for Cesar Chavez North and Goal Online Academy to new independent boards, a direction set in motion with an agreement signed in August by both the institute and the CCSN boards.

“This agreement was designed to create strong, independent governance of the two schools operated by the network and authorized by the institute. The goal of the institute is to ensure quality education and continuity in the education of the students served at all CSI schools.

“The institute has no role in the decisions about individual staff and managers of the Cesar Chavez School Network. Our concerns with CCSN have centered on governance, management, finances and operations.

“The activities by the CCSN at these schools—such as repeated firings of school principals, mass firings of teachers and closing down online education services to students—raised questions about the ability of the network to continue to provide quality education to its students.

“As the CCSN leadership and board repeatedly failed to comply with our agreement, the institute prepared to initiate the process to revoke the charters from CCSN and to issue new charters for each school to the new boards, created in accordance with the August agreement.

“The goal of the CSI will be the continued operation of the schools under the oversight of newly-constituted boards at each school. Each school will have a new charter to operate that is separate from the original charter with the network.

“It remains the position of the institute that these new boards will determine whether a continuing relationship between each school and the CCSN is in the best interests of students.

“The specifics of those agreements, if they are negotiated between the schools' boards and the CCSN, will be subject to approval by the CSI.”

For more information about the Charter School Institute, contact interim director Lee Barratt at 303-866-3275 or CSI Board of Directors president Alex Medler at 720-635-8329.

Monday, October 5, 2009

CSI Wins Again!

The Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal from the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) against the Charter School Institute (CSI). A lower court had already ruled in favor of CSI, but the law firm of Caplan and Ernest told BVSD they'd do the appeal to the state pro bono and so BVSD took them up on the offer.

The lawsuit alleged CSI was unconstitional as it impeded on the local district's "local control" provision of the state constitution. Because the CSI law, part 5 of the Charter Schools Act, allows a district to retain exclusive chartering authority if they meet certain criteria, the lower court determined it was up to the local district if they retained exclusive chartering authority and it wasn't a condition imposed by the state.

This final decision is huge for the 17 CSI charter schools who want to finance their facilities and have been in limbo until now. Financial institutions were hesitant to enter into an obligation if the CSI law were determined unconstitional. It was never clear what would have happened with the existing charter schools authorized by CSI if the lawsuit would have gone the other way.

Update: Here is a press release from CSI.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Writing in Stone

The vision and mission of a charter school rest with the founders and first governing board. Charter school leaders in Colorado have had an ongoing discussion for years about how to make sure that key features of the charter school remain consistent over time and are not changed by future boards.

In the first draft of a common charter contract there is a section for "unique featuers," which should be written by the charter school's founders. This essentially "writes in stone" what matters most to the charter school's design. Examples include the use of uniforms, a longer school day and school year, a college prep curriculum, or project-based learning. Because these features are listed in the contract, changing them would constitute a "material change" and require approval by the authorizer's board.

Charter school leaders like knowing there is a way to identify unique characteristics of the school that founders advocated for when they were applying for the new charter school. In the past, some boards have written these features into their bylaws, board policies, or charter application in the hopes that they would have staying power. No one, however, had confidence in trusting the adherence to the original vision and mission to future board members without some level of accuntability to ensure the vision would remain as established.

It should be noted that some charter school applicants have difficulty in identifying what the school's key features are. In situations like this, the authorizer may need to help guide the thoughts of the founders into something that's clearly communicated and consistent with the vision and mission.