Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rural Charter Schools for Nebraska?

The Nebraska General Assembly is considering a bill to permit charter schools in rural parts of the state that are at least seven miles from another elementary school and will serve at least five students. LB 1028, by Sen. LeRoy Louden, would provide for the first charter school law in Nebraska, one of the 10 states without charter school law.

Colorado's rural communities have already benefited from the Charter Schools Act. Several small towns have been able to keep their community school alive by using the charter school law. Places such as Clark, Paradox, Crestone, and the four corners area have charter schools. In fact, they have established a "Rural Charter School Network" to share professional development, seek grants and discuss best practices. At one such meeting years ago, the lunch topic was, "How far are you from a grocery store?" No one had less than a half hour drive. That conversation is also when I heard that if you can get goat milk past your nose, it's actually quite good.

It's very challenging for small rural school districts to continue to keep schools open with budget cuts. They simply aren't cost effective. However, by changing the administrative structure and having greater budget flexibility, many small schools are still viable. Several of the other plains states without charter school laws, should follow Nebraska's lead by at least allowing the law to mitigate some of the state's greatest need.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

HB 10-1345 - Powers for Charter School Emergencies

HB 1035, Powers for Charter School Emergency Situations, is a result of the takeover of Brighton College HS this school year by the Brighton School District 27J. This situation marked the first time in the state's 16-year charter school history that a district took control of one of its charter schools.

Brighton Collegiate has had a tumultuous past with several cases of inappropriate contact between a staff member and a student. The most recent situation resulted in the Dec. 2009 resolution by the district Board of Education to assume operations at Brighton Collegiate.

A couple of years ago the district nearly revoked the school's charter. Ultimately, the charter school was put on a corrective action plan, which among a number of things, meant the school adopted policies and conducted professional development training to ensure all staff knew there was zero tolerance on inappropriate contact with students. In November, the Brighton Collegiate principal terminated the staff member in question and adhered to the policies. But it wasn't enough for the Brighton school board that had lost its tolerance for problems at the charter school.

In early December the charter school board went to court to regain their right to operate the school. The judge ruled in favor of the district.

Which leads to the impetus for HB 1345. Without there being an understanding of what constitutes a good enough reason to take over a charter school, many want to see clear and specific criteria along with an outside party to objectively determine the validity of such action. This bill provides for the Commissioner of Education to appoint a fiduciary representative to take over the school upon request of the authorizer.

The bill details under what situations there will be intervention, including excessively high administrator salaries. Further, the bill explains the process for review and a timeline for how long the charter school will be taken over prior to another review.

The 14-page bill creates a new section of the Charter Schools Act: Part 6. The bill has been assigned to the House Education committee.

HB 10-1344 - Charter School Authorizer Standards

HB 1344 defines the word "authorizer" for the first time in the Charter Schools Act, which was originally adopted in 1993. In this bill, another sponsored by Rep. Terrence Carroll, charter school authorizers are required to certify to the State Board of Education that they meet the standards adopted by the State Board. These standards are very similar to those recommended for authorizers by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

HB 10-1343, Standards for Charter School Boards

Rep. Terrence Carroll, Speaker of the House and long-time charter advocate, introduced HB 1343, Effective Governance of Charter Schools. The bill appears to be in response to the Cesar Chavez Network situation of last summer and fall.

The bill requires the State Board of Education to adopt standards for good charter school governance. It defines these standards as, at a minimum, addressing excess benefits, executive compensation, nepotism, and conflicts of interest in governance.

Recently, the Schools of Choice Unit within the CO Dept of Education released its administrator survey results. Eighty-four percent of charter school administrators responded. The majority of top charter school administrators make either in the $90,000's or $70,000's. The second charter school administrator makes in the $60,000's. These salaries are less than administrator peers in noncharter, district schools.

HB 1343 also suggests that charter school governing boards won't have complete authority over their budgets if they fail to meet or exceed standards adopted by the State Board. The bill doesn't clarify who will decide if they don't meet the standards, but it does say that the governing board will have authority to set their budget "so long as its operations are consistent with applicable operations, finance, and governance standards.

The bill has been assigned to the House Education committee.

Monday, February 22, 2010

SB 10-161, Authorizing Charter Schools to Enter Into Contracts

Some aspects of a charter school being an "LEA" or Local Education Agency are good; others not so much. Sen. Keith King, in SB 161 wants to allow charter schools to have some of the beneficial aspects of being an LEA by permitting them to join a BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) board for services or facilities.

The bill would also allow charter schools to apply for federal or state grants as an LEA if they get permission from their authorizing school districts. Currently, charter schools cannot apply for these grants or occasionally can participate through their authorizing school district. Charter school collaboratives could apply for some federal and state grants, even without authorizer permission, if SB 161 were to pass as introduced.

This bill has been assigned to the Senate Education committee.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

SB 10-111, Charter School Institute

It seems every year there is a need for legislation to update the Charter School Institute law (CRS 22-30.5-500 et seq.) to address different issues that crop up. Last fall was the first time many of the CSI schools realized there wasn't any liability protection for them if there were a costly Special Education case at their school. Charter schools authorized by a school district often participate in risk insurance through their long-established, well-protected district. CSI schools don't have that opportunity.

SB 10-111, sponsored by Sen. Keith King, co-founder of three charter schools and currently an administrator at Colorado Springs Early College, a CSI school, addresses these CSI school concerns.

The bill would permit CSI schools to form a collaborative, or join an existing BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) for the purposes of administering special education.

Further, the bill would allow CSI to hold moneys received as a "school food authority." This year was the first that individual charter schools could serve as a school food authority (SFA) and it resulted in significant debt for many of the charter schools that entered the cooperative agreement administered by the League of Charter Schools.

Lastly the bill addresses a couple of clean-up things such as giving the CSI board 75 days to consider a charter school application rather than the 60 days in the original Act. School districts have 75 days to consider an application and CSI staff found the 60 days too restrictive. Likewise, a provision in the original Act that didn't work is in the bill to address providing certain student information to school districts, upon request. CSI found this provision unnecessary.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Education committee for consideration.

New Legislation Regarding Charter Schools

The Colorado General Assembly is hard at work addressing bills on tax increases, transparency by governmental entities, and yes, charter schools.

Here is a list of the bill currently under consideration and subsequent posts will detail each of the bills.

SB 10-111, K King & Massey, Charter School Institute Charter Schools
SB 10-161, K King & Massey, Charter Schools Entering Contractual Agreements
HB 10-1343, T Carroll, Standards for Effective Governance of Charter Schools
HB 10-1344, T Carroll, Standards for Chartering Authorities of Charter Schools
HB 10-1345, T Carroll, Granting Emergency Powers During Emergency Situations at Charter Schools

As typically happens with legislation to amend current law, these bills are in response to situations that have happened over the past year in the state. The widely publicized Cesar Chavez Network governance and administrative issues certainly caught the attention of Colorado lawmakers. As did the recent school district takeover of Brighton College HS. Likewise, the discussion related to how to be a good authorizer resulted in a bill.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can Thinking be Taught?

Today several administrators from charter schools in the northern part of the state met at Carbon Valley Academy for the monthly administrator's meeting. Among other things, the group is discussing the book by Daniel Willingham, "Why Student's Don't Like School."

Several people noted that the title of the book didn't match what the book was actually about. The book discusses how students learn and how to teach them more effectively. In small group discussion, administrators talked about how teachers could model thinking for their students. Oftentimes, people (and students) get frustrated when they don't learn something quickly or easily. It's a valuable skill for students to learn how to work through that frustration with perseverance. But that doesn't come easily to Generation Y students more familiar with video games than reading a book.

Teachers need to ask the right questions, and teach students how to identify which are the right questions. Rather than simply teaching facts, effective teachers lead their students through a series of questions that cause them to think and dig deeper, or further explore the material.

Administrators talked about how this applied to staff meetings and if they were modeling effective instruction in how they lead staff meetings. Different people gave examples of how understanding which are the right questions to ask impacted their teacher evaluation process. How could teachers be encouraged to think about the decisions they make in the classroom and the resultant effect? One principal said that the average teachers makes 800 to 1,000 decisions each day. These decisions all impact the students and their learning.

How can young students learn to think effectively? Is it helpful for teachers to explain the process for thinking through a problem to check how students are thinking? Or can students explain to each other how they worked through the thinking process to reach a particular conclusion? Do teachers expect students to think about the content or do they simply want them to remember what information?

In Dan Willingham's book, he points out the importance of students learning the discipline to continue working on something even when they don't figure it out easily or quickly. The question for today was, "How can students be taught to think?"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Jefferson Academy Remains Undefeated

The Jefferson Academy boys varsity team hasn't lost a game this season. Last night was their last home game of the season and seniors were recognized before teh game started.

First, the girls varsity team played and soundly beat The Academy. It was 30-19 at the half and the final was JA 71 and The Academy 36. Most of the bench played the fourth quarter. Freshman Sayde Anderson started her second game of the year and contributed both offensively and defensively.

The boys game was another walk-away, but the very beginning of the game, The Academy was ahead for a little while. By half it was 28-15, however. The final score was 62-41 in a game that was very competitive with numerous fouls. The JA gym was packed with standing room only and the fans were very loud.

Senior Isaac Lewis, who had torn his Achilles tendon earlier in the year and was benched for most of the season, played a little at the end of the game and contributed to the score with two separate free throw attempts. The crowd cheered Isaac's return to the game by shouting his nickname, Bruce. Apparently someone asked his name several years ago, and he responded with "Bruce."

Varsity coach, Mark Sharpley, consistently uses the same strategies for producing excellent players and winning games. Conditioning is a key part of the regime. His players play the entire game, right up until the end, when they've obtained a significant lead. But he rotates those players to give them a break. Many times the team picks up steam in the second half because they're conditioned to do so and they've had multiple breaks throughout the game.

Watch as the team heads into the post season and will likely be in the finals.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Unsung Charter Hero, Ken Garcia

Oftentimes when I'm doing charter school board training, I encourage board members to take the time to recognize the people in their school who are going about their job, working at a high quality level, and getting very little recognition. In fact, I explain the story of Ken Garcia when I ask these board members to recognize their unsung heroes.

Ken Garcia was the first building engineer at Jefferson Academy. I didn't think about Ken's impact on the new charter school for quite some time. Then when I was out visiting other schools, I realized that JA's campus was always impeccably maintained. That's when I began to realize that Ken was a perfectionist about keeping equipment running properly, ensuring everything was shining each fall, and thinking ahead to what projects needed to be addressed. In short, someone could walk the hallways of JA and see the impact Ken made on the school environment.

Now Ken is working at the new Cesar Chavez Academy of Denver. I visited the school earlier this week and got to see Ken. Just last year the building was occupied by DATA, which closed at the end of the school year. The difference in the building this year was palpable. The atmosphere was one of focusing on high academic achievement and high expectations for all students. It's clear that Ken is an important part of this vision. He holds high expectations for himself and the building and grounds he maintains.

Ken is one of those guys who always has a smile on his face and a kind word for someone. It's no wonder that many of the students at Jefferson Academy loved talking with him and held a great deal of respect for him. Likewise, when the JA board was discussing merit pay with the teaching staff the first year, they were insistent that the staff works as a team and specifically included Ken.

Every school has an unsung hero. Take the time to acknowledge their contribution to your school!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

State Board Fails to Remand Charter School Appeal

For only the third time in its history of charter school appeals, the State Board of Education failed to gain a majority of votes to either affirm or remand a charter school appeal. The charter appellant was Lotus II appealing the denial of a new charter school application in the Jefferson County School District. The first motion was to affirm the decision of the local board and it failed 3-3. Then a motion was made to remand and that also failed 3-3.

The main issues of the case were poor academic achievement by the Lotus I school in Aurora, governance being all professionals without parent representation, and the experience with Lotus I being 6-11th grade and the Jeffco proposal being to begin with a K-5 grade.

Both sides presented growth and status CSAP data to support their arguments. They also argued which grade level comparisons were the most important--6th grade or 7th and 8th. Jeffco has almost all parent-governed charter schools whereas other districts in the state have a larger number of professional, or community professionals, serving on their charter boards. Jeffco claimed having parents on the governing board was an issue for them.

When a motion fails on a tie vote, there is no action taken by the State Board. Since the case needs to be made by the party bringing the appeal, the appeal is now done.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Middle School Debate Competition

Five charter schools are in the midst of a series of debate competition for middle school students. The schools are Flagstaff Academy, Excel Academy, Jefferson Academy, Crown Pointe Academy and Woodrow Wilson Academy.

I've been serving as a judge for the competition and really enjoying it. The reasoning of middle schoolers is priceless!

Students have debated numerous topics, including medical marijuana, hunting, oil exploration, and banning books. The competitions are every other Saturday and so the students have time to research and prepare in the interim.

The students are learning skills such as oral presentation, strategies for debate, research credibility, and cogent arguments. Some are naturally gifted in certain debate skills. Several times a student has either made a great argument or demonstrated a great strategy. Already by the second debate I could see improvement in several of the teams.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Charter School Hero Karen Prichard

Yesterday I attended the funeral services for a dear friend, Karen Prichard, who was the first teacher hired at Jefferson Academy back in 1994. Karen was the Special Ed teacher until she retired in 2003. Five of the seven founding board members at JA had students with special needs. I was one of those. I had two children with special needs.

Karen Prichard was someone who had true compassion for each of the students she served and always saw the possibilities in them. Many times, I remember her talking about one of the students with a gleam in her eye as she told about how they'd progressed. She astutely noticed when my own son's file was transferred to the brand new charter school, that he hadn't been tested for Special Ed services, even though I'd requested it the two previous years.

Karen had all sorts of tricks up her sleeve. Whether it was grids of letters to teach students proper tracking, to eye exercises with a tennis ball on a string, to tantalizing board games that she kept in her office. Karen not only knew all the tried and true tricks to help students learn, she also kept up on the latest research. Karen used a visograph, connected to a laptop, to measure reading comprehension, tracking and other skills important in reading.

The philosophy that every child matters and can learn and that it's up to the adults to figure out how to get them to learn, is Karen's lasting legacy at Jefferson Academy. As the elementary principal, Mike Munier, said yesterday at the service, "Karen was the cornerstone of Jefferson Academy's philosophy."

It was Karen's compassion that was contagious. She often stayed late in order to finish up her work because she was busy with students during school hours.

Did I mention that Karen did all of this while dealing with her own medical issues? No one I know ever heard her complain. At the beginning of JA she was on crutches and later she had a scooter. None of this slowed her down until she eventually retired.

Rest in peace, Karen Prichard. You have the thanks of hundreds of students, whose lives you changed forever.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Elementary School in Rhode Islands Learns from its Local Charter School

In Central Falls, Rhode Island about 40% of students were behind in reading. But the charter school in the neighborhood, Learning Community, was seeing much better results by doing frequent assessment and teaching students in skill-based groups.

Kudos to the leaders from Central Falls Elementary for acknowledging that there was something to be learned from the charter school where success was already evident. Across the country, this is a huge hurdle for many noncharter public schools that have negative perceptions of charter schools. Oftentimes, this negativity stems from an acrimonious charter school hearing process or simply the at-will nature of charter school employment practices.

It's always nice to hear about a community that prioritizes the academic success of students over the barriers established by adults!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cesar Chavez School Network Board President Steps Down

Dennis Feuerstein, the controversial figure on the Cesar Chavez School Network board, resigned this week. Feuerstein was a long-time supporter of the school's CEO, Lawrence Hernandez, until very late in the turmoil of last year.

Last summer high administrator salaries for Dr. Lawrence Hernandez and his wife, Annette Hernandez, came to light. In the fall, two network schools, GOAL Academy and Scholars to Leaders Academy (f.k.a. Cesar Chavez Academy-North) separated from the network by establishing their own boards and ending the management contract. This step was taken after Dr. Hernandez took over the two schools, terminated administrators and threatened to terminate other staff.

Recently the Cesar Chavez School Network went through an academic audit related to CSAP scores and they're still working through a financial audit. It was found that the network was never its own legal entity, but instead operated under the legal status of the first charter school in the network: Cesar Chavez Academy-Pueblo. Now the network no longer exists. Cesar Chavez Academy-Pueblo and Dolores Huerta Preparatory High along with the Denver CCA campus are all managed under the CCA board. This is the same board Feuerstein resigned from yesterday.

The schools are about $350,000 in the red for this school year, reported Jason Guererro, the Chief Financial Officer who resigned last September, but agreed to stay on until the financial audit was complete.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Utah's Senate Approves Bill to Allow Universities to Charter

A state senate committee in Utah has unanimously approved a bill to allow colleges and universities to charter schools.

Several states in the nation allow universities to charter K-12 public schools. Many years ago there was a similar bill in the Colorado legislature, sponsored by then-Senator John Evans. But the bill died an early death and even though several Colorado charter schools have partnerships with institutions of higher education, universities cannot charter schools. Partnerships are especially popular with early college charter schools such as Colorado Springs Early College and Early College HS of Arvada.

Utah already permits school districts and a state charter board to authorize charter schools. Allowing universities to do the same only makes sense. It's especially relevant for universities that produce teachers and that would be natural connections for student teachers.

Many teaching colleges created "laboratory" schools to complement their teacher preparation programs. The university in Greeley opened the University School on the campus of the University of Northern Colorado in the early 1900s for this very reason. After a hundred years of operating as a lab school, the school converted to a charter school and still operates in Greeley, although it's no longer located on campus.

Some of the best charter school authorizers in the nation are universities. The Central Michigan University Charter School Office is considered one such leader. Led by Jim Goenner, CMU has focused on high quality charter schools. Jim is one of the original founders of the National Alliance for Charter School Authorizers.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Northstar Academy-West to Open Sept. 7th

The new Northstar Academy-West will open this fall in Highlands Ranch near C-470 & Quebec. The new campus will be modeled after the already successful Parker campus started six years ago by many of the same founders. The school will serve grades K-8.

When the first Northstar Academy tried to open in Highlands Ranch they were unable to identify a building and a building in Parker that had already been used by a charter school became available the decision was made to open in Parker. Founders never gave up their dream to be located in Highlands Ranch, however.

This Saturday, Feb. 6, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony at the new site. People interested in the school can also meet board members and see architectural drawings of the proposed school.

The Douglas County School District made history in Colorado in December when they issued securities on behalf of this new charter school. This allowed the charter school to get about half the rate for interest on their capital construction loan. Most charter schools go through the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority after three years of developing a credit history.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Charter School Institute Legislation Introduced

State Senator Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) introduced SB 111, Charter School Institute legislation. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Massey (R-Poncho Springs) in the House. In addition to containing several clean-up items, the bill asks the CSI to study the feasibility of each of its schools becoming their own Local Education Agency (LEA). LEA is a federal legal term that is primarily given to school districts. However, in some states, charter schools are their own LEAs.

There are numerous pros and cons to charter schools being their own LEA. Most significantly is the distinction of having complete responsibility for Special Education services. Many charter schools like providing their own Special Education services, but in a "worst case scenario" where serving a student with special needs could bankrupt a small charter school there is also a great deal of risk.

SB 111 also creates a new fund for CSI to keep revenue generated via their being a School Food Authority. Last year the General Assembly allowed up to three charter schools to serve as a School Food Authority, or a federally-recognized hot lunch program. While CSI operates as a school district in many regards, their statutorily-defined designation is that of a state agency. This means they're subject to rules that are more applicable to large state agencies and cannot carry over SFA funds without special approval from the legislature.

The bill also asks for an extension to the number of days CSI has to consider new charter school applications. Currently CSI has 60 days while school districts have always had 75 days. SB 111 proposes CSI be given 75 days to consider new charter school applications, also.

SB 111 also contains a provision to allow CSI schools to join a Board of Cooperative Education Services, or BOCES. This mechanism is currently used by small school districts in order to provide Special Education services.

Finally, the bill proposes opening up the restrictions currently on the state reserve fund that right now is for charter school capital construction to also include the use of funds for extraordinary Special Education services.