Monday, December 17, 2012

Asking Questions

In the world of charter schools, asking questions is about the best thing anyone can do.

A sign of a good charter school governing board is that they ask good questions. A couple of months ago I was at a charter school board meeting and one of the board members had analyzed student academic achievement data that was in the board packet and some very good questions for the Principal. His questions all sent the message that good wasn't enough for their students. He wanted to know why the scores weren't even higher than "good."

It's good for a charter school authorizer to ask questions, too. Making assumptions, or being reticent to ask tough questions, doesn't help anyone, much less the students at the charter school. Questions clarify and provide for better communication.

Most of the time, getting responses to questions in writing is the most helpful. In verbal conversations, there is body language and distractions, but in writing the material can be reviewed repeatedly and serves as a record  for future reference. Oftentimes, people communicate more clearly in writing since what they write stands as record.

Asking questions in the charter school-authorizer relationship increases the transparency. Think about using questions as a way to enhance the relationship!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brighton 27J Tops the State in Market Share of Charter School Students

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' new report, "A Growing Movement: America's Largest Charter School Communities," 20% of Brighton 27J's students attend a public charter school. This is the highest market share in Colorado.

Brighton 27J routinely rates at the top of Colorado in regard to charter school market share. The district of about 16,000 students has five charter schools: Eagle Ridge Academy, Foundations Academy, Landmark Academy, Bromley East Charter School and Belle Creek Charter School.

Two districts takes the second place spot in Colorado according to the report. They are Falcon 49 and Harrison 2, both with a 19% market share. Falcon has four charter schools (The Classical Academy at Indigo Ranch, Rocky Mountain Charter Academy, Banning Lewis Academy and the Pikes Peak School of Expeditionary Learning) plus recently approved a transfer request from GOAL Academy that will begin in July 2013. Harrison 2 authorizes James Irwin Charter Schools, a K-12 system of three separate charters.

Disclaimer: The Brighton 27J School District and Falcon 49 School District are both in contracts with Charter School Solutions for charter liaison services.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Story Behind the Data: Adams School District 50 Tops Colorado for Charter School Market Share

Sometimes data tells a story. Sometimes it tells a very misleading story.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, "A Growing Movement: America's Largest Charter School Communities" reports that Colorado's Adams County School District 50 (Westminster) has the highest market share of charter schools in the state. From this, one could interpret that the district is "charter friendly and favorable to school choice.

The truth is, the state Charter School Institute (CSI) has authorized several of its schools within the boundaries of Westminster 50. Arvada Early College, GOAL Academy and Ricardo Flores Magon all sit within this district of approximately 11,000 students.

The combined enrollment of the Early College at Arvada, GOAL Academy and Ricardo Flores Magon is about 2,670 students. Westminster does have one charter school, Crown Pointe Academy, which enrolls 415 students. By counting all the CSI students, Westminster 50 reached a high market share of charter school students.

The state Charter School Institute can authorize charter schools within the district's boundaries because Westminster 50 doesn't have exclusive chartering authority. After the CSI law was passed in 2005, districts could apply for, and be granted by the State Board of Education, exclusive chartering authority if they met certain "good authorizer" criteria. Westminster 50 applied during the first year it was available and was denied by the State Board. Westminster 50 was part of the reason the CSI Act was even proposed when it refused to open a charter school after the State Board ordered the district to open it. In essence, it refused to implement an order of the State Board, one of the criteria for earning exclusive chartering authority. Westminster 50 applied again in 2009, but was again denied by the State Board.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Does the Federal SIG Program Need to be Reformed?

Much has been said about the U.S. Department of Education's School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Bloggers have said it's too early to make a judgment on the program's effectiveness and others have said it's a broken system that needs to be fixed. This is in response to a report released by the U.S. Dept. of Education earlier this month.

The SIG program provides funding for under-performing public schools in high poverty communities. Billions of dollars have poured in to this reform effort through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Now people are pondering how much money is worth it to reform education, especially when the gains are slow, or in about a third of the schools, there were declines. They are also questioning whether it's better to transform or simply start with a new school.

Many of these questions have been raised and debated for years. A little more than a decade ago, the federal government used Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) grants to fund under-performing Title I schools. Like SIG, there were mixed results.

There is at least one similar outcomes to the two federal grant programs designed to accomplish the same results: good school leaders are key to school improvement. So why does SIG fund school reform efforts and not programs to create more high quality school leaders?

In Colorado, CDE pulled SIG funding from five schools that didn't have high enough gains. There could be a number of reasons for the lack of performance, including:

  • the consultant/company leading the effort didn't have the capacity to implement the plan;
  • the staff at the school wasn't sold on the reform strategies;
  • not enough significant changes were made and sustained over time;
  • people didn't think there'd be any real accountability for performance and therefore didn't implement the plan with fidelity; or
  • the plan/strategies didn't address the school's specific needs.
Charter schools, with unique design elements, have driven reform efforts in other public schools, often without the same results. For example, having an extended day or extended year doesn't necessarily mean student achievement will increase without the necessary component of teachers knowing how to effectively use the additional time with effective instructional strategies. 

It's typical for large-scale reform efforts to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore when improvements are realized, it's difficult to ascertain if it was a particular strategy or instead a different factor, such as a top quality administrator, that made the difference. 

I have a few suggestions for improving SIG:

1. Incorporate the lessons learned from the failed Comprehensive School Reform program so that the same mistakes don't continue to happen.
2. Invest in people who have already demonstrated success; this includes not funding consultants and companies that have recently jumped in to the education reform business because that's where the money is now.
3. Err on the side of pushing harder rather than not enough. Most district or school administrators don't have the heart to push hard for reform and are unduly influenced by the adults in the system, causing the children to suffer the effects.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rick Hess on Cage-Busting Authorizing

This link is the essence of what Rick Hess spoke about at the National Association of Charter School Authorizer's conference in Memphis.

The New Normal in New Orleans

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the schools were in such deplorable condition that policy makers in the city and state were all struggling with strategies that were effective in improving student academic achievement.

But Hurricane Katrina changed everything. Now almost 80% of the city's students attend a public charter school and education leaders say that percentage will rise to 97% in future years.

A report, Born on the Bayou: A New Model for Public Education, explains the "new normal" in New Orleans.

Further, the report states that in the first year after Katrina, 23% of students tested at grade level, while five years later, 51% of students tested at grade level. That means that the New Orleans school district improved faster than any other district in the state. In fact, at the rate of three and a half times the average state increase.

That news should be all over the media! It wasn't simply the fact that there was a high percentage of public charter schools introduced into the public education system. Instead it was the tenets of public charter schools that made the difference. The report says the following strategies are making a difference in New Orleans:

  • public school choice and competition for students;
  • recruiting high quality school leaders;
  • decentralized control to the school level; 
  • change school cultures; and
  • closing schools that weren't performing well
Systems that are bureaucratic or sluggish to address problems need to be shaken up. It's unfortunate that the residents of New Orleans had to experience a hurricane in order to realize education reform for their young people, however. Fortunately leaders stepped in with the priority of focusing on what was best for the kids!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Implementing the School Leaders and Teachers Evaluation Law

There's been much discussion about how charter schools should implement SB 10-191, the Ensuring School Quality Through Educator Effectiveness law that was adopted in 2010.

Like many education laws, this one isn't a very good match for charter schools because it was intended for general public schools. The needs of charter schools are quite often different. Many public school districts are bound by collective bargaining agreements, or teacher's union contracts. Quite the opposite, charter schools utilize at-will employment and many of them also use performance pay systems.

The law requires principals and teachers to be evaluated using a system that takes in to account student academic performance for at least 50% of their performance evaluation.

This portion of the statutes, C.R.S. 22-9-106, is one of the 13 statutes automatically waived for charter schools by the State Board of Education. However, guidance from the department states that charter schools may waive this law, but they still must meet the legislative intent.

Which leads to the role of the charter school authorizer in implementing the law. It is the authorizer that submits the waiver request to the department for State Board approval and therefore needs to approve of the replacement plan and rationale for the waiver before it is submitted.

At least one authorizer in the state doesn't think SB 191 is relevant for charter schools, many of which have more sophisticated or higher standards in their performance evaluation systems, and isn't going to ensure compliance. Still other districts believe it has the obligation to ensure compliance by ensuring the charter school's replacement plan and rationale meet the legislative intent of SB 191.

This can be monitored and evaluated in a variety of ways. First, charter contract language should be updated to include annual evaluation of the lead administrator by the governing board and annual evaluation of the teaching staff by administration. Second, the Annual Performance Report (APR) should contain an item for the charter school to show their evaluation instruments and relevant board policies to the district.

It should be noted that the charter school shouldn't need to show the results of these evaluations to the district, only evidence that they were conducted according to policy.

As with most issues, charter schools should be held accountable for results. The schools already have the means to hold their staff accountable via at-will employment so if their academic achievement needs to be improved, they have the mechanism already in place to make a change.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Interviewing Potential Charter School Leaders

In authorizer vernacular it's called a "capacity interview." This means staff, representing the board that will vote on the charter school application, interviews the founding committee or board of the proposed charter school.

Typically, when district staff reviews a charter application, comments and questions are recorded for each component of the application. Many of these questions will be asked of the applicants and the applicants will be asked to either respond in writing or verbally.

Sometimes the questions stem from just needing further clarification about something that was written in the application. Sometimes the questions serve to elucidate who came up with a particular concept for the educational program or the motivation to start a new charter school. An astute authorizer will also use the interview process to get additional documentation that will eventually become an issue for contract negotiations. For example, if the plan to serve disabled students isn't comprehensive enough, additional documentation will serve to clarify roles should the application be approved.

It's considered a best practice by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to have a capacity interview. Many authorizers make decisions about whether or not a proposed charter school should be approved by the capacity of the founders to open and operate a brand new school. While many people have good ideas, not everyone has the capacity to actually make the ideas come to reality.

In a day and age when charter school applications are online, it's easy for an applicant to pull together a good application. It's quite another to do the work of recruiting students, registering them, hiring a staff, ordering furniture and equipment, training teachers before the doors open, and training the governing board.

A strong founding committee makes their charter application come to life through the passion they express during the interview. This conveys the sense that the founders will do whatever it takes to make sure their school is successful.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Four Charter Applicants Seek Same Vacant School Building

The Colorado Springs 11 School District has four charter school applications and all want to use the vacant Jefferson Elementary building for their new charter school. The four applications are in the review stage. Colorado Springs 11 is using the new CHART system to review the applications online using a standardized format in the Standard Application and Review Rubric. Charter School Solutions recently developed this online application review system for the districts it works with in Colorado.

The district Board of Education is expected to rule on the applications by mid-November.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mike Petrelli on the Chicago Teacher's Strike

I'm reposting this in its entirety because it is a good explanation of what's happening in Chicago.
Posted: 14 Sep 2012 04:38 AM PDT

I had a reporter ask me this week if I could remember a teachers’ strike as “confusing” as the one in Chicago; it was so hard, she explained, even to know over which issues the teachers were striking.

That’s not an accident. The local and national unions surely realized, after an onslaught of negative coverage, that complaining about 16 percent raises on top of $75,000 average salaries was not a winning argument during a period of 8 percent unemployment. So they changed their talking points: Now the teachers were upset about evaluations that would link their performance reviews with students’ test scores. But that position is unpopular, too—and puts the union at odds with President Obama—so now they are striking over…class sizes and air conditioning?


This is akin to the Republican defense of the dubious “Voter ID” laws: That they are necessary to protect against voter fraud. Everyone knows they are a cynical ploy to suppress the participation of poor and minority citizens—likely Democratic voters. But GOP officials can’t admit that. So they obfuscate.

So it is with the Chicago Teachers Union. It’s the meat-and-potatoes issue of pay and benefits that has been front and center during the months-long negotiations; to argue otherwise is simply dishonest.

And what about the issue of “respect”? The idea that Rahmbo is trying to steamroll the unions on his way to becoming an “imperial” mayor?

This is getting closer to the truth. The unions—in Chicago and other big cities—grew accustomed over the past four decades to holding veto power over all key education decisions. When leaders wanted reform, they needed to accept union-approved, watered-down versions—or pay up. As Rick Hess has argued, the more-money-for-more-reform bargain greased the wheels of compromise during flush times—but is unsustainable during today’s New Normal of flat-lined revenues and gaping deficits.

To be sure, many teachers (in Chicago and nationwide) feel blamed, discouraged, demoralized, and afraid; those sentiments were on display in the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. The brash rhetoric and take-no-prisoners tactics of reformers—elected and otherwise—surely contribute to this dynamic (along with watching many colleagues get pink slips as districts try to close budget holes).

But such frustrations aren’t why the teachers of the Windy City took to the streets and sent the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans into disarray. Workers in all sectors of the economy experience stress and slights; it’s part of life. But most don’t walk off the job.

No, this is ultimately about power. The unions are feeling whipsawed by tectonic shifts that have occurred within the Democratic Party in recent years, with Democrats for Education Reform creating space for political leaders—from the mayor’s office to the Oval Office—to challenge them on fundamental issues. (And of course there are the charter schools, still open for business, which challenge the union’s monopoly to boot.) As a Chicago teacher told the local news before the strike, “We didn’t start this fight. We’re only defending ourselves.”

She’s right, in a way: For decades there was no fighting, just abdicating, as Democratic city officials gave the unions pretty much everything they wanted. (That’s why there have been so few teacher strikes in the past couple of decades.) Those days are over; the unions aren’t happy about it. Yet even as this week’s organized-labor tantrum winds down, it already feels more like a reminder of a past era or a last gasp than a sign of things to come.

-Mike Petrilli

Why Parents Shouldn't Back Down

By now you've probably seen movie trailers for the soon-to-be-released movie, Don't Back Down. The movie is about two mothers who decide to start a charter school when the system isn't working for their kids and many other children in their neighborhood.

This is EXACTLY how hundreds of charter schools across the nation have begun: with an upset mother. I was one of those parents back in 1993 when I helped start Jefferson Academy. 

What tools do parents have when parents want to start a charter school? It's a very daunting challenge and not for the faint-hearted! 

First, visit to find out the resources available to founders and review the flow chart for the steps to starting a new charter school. The website explains when and where charter school applications are submitted to a potential authorizer. In Colorado, not all school districts have exclusive chartering authority, which means an applicant can also submit an application to the Colorado Charter School Institute.

Parents outside of Colorado can check out the Center for Education Reform's Parent Power Index. This website will explain how "charter friendly" states are. If a state isn't charter friendly, that means it's ripe for parents to get involved in the legislative process to make sure things change!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Difference Between Charter Schools and Union-Operated Schools?

What's the difference between public charter schools and district-operated neighborhood schools? One really big difference is at-will employment in charter schools.

There is a strike going on in Chicago where the teacher's union is leaving more than 400,000 students with no place to go. But the charter schools are open and educating students. Or in other words: putting students first.

At-will employment means that either the employer or the employee can walk away from the commitment with notice. However, most teacher's union collective bargaining agreements require tenure after as little as one year of employment, step and level increases in the salary scale regardless of the state of the economy and "the dance of the lemon" or moving bad teachers to different schools when they fail to perform their job and the Principal manages to at least move the bad teacher.

At-will employment in charter schools means the teacher must do his/her job well in order to continue working. Currently the job market favors charter schools, many of which report being able to be highly selective in who they choose to hire. Charter schools often invest heavily in professional development for their staff members as a part of their model to provide a high quality education.

Charter school teachers are the heart of a good charter school. Kudos to the teachers in Chicago Public Schools who remain on the job!

Update: Think disruption by the teacher's union couldn't happen here in Colorado? Read Ben DeGrow's post on

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Four Charter School Applications Submitted to Colorado Springs 11

The Colorado Springs 11 School District received a record number of new charter school applications this year. Four applicants have asked to open a charter school in the district's Thomas Jefferson Elementary building: Mountain Song, Adventures in Learning, James Irwin Charter Academy and Global Village Academy.

Both James Irwin and Global Village operate charter schools elsewhere in the state. James Irwin has three charters with the Harrison 2 School District offering a Core Knowledge/Direct Instruction model. Global Village has charters in Thornton and Aurora. Global Villages delivers a dual language model.

Colorado Springs 11 is using CSS's new CHART (CHarter school Application Review Tool), an online evaluation system utilizing the Standard Application and Review Rubric. The district has four individuals reviewing the entire application and another 7-14 individuals reviewing components of the application. CHART quantifies scores selected by evaluators and compiles a summary report for groups of evaluators.

According to state law, the district has 75 days to review the application and for the Board of Education to hold two public hearings and then rule by resolution.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Online Charter School Application Now Available in Colorado!

Charter School Solutions has developed a web-based system to review charter school applications that is based on the Colorado Standard Application and Review Rubric. This is the first time charter school authorizers can use an online system to evaluate and summarize evaluations. The new system is called CHART: CHarter school Application Review Tool.

The online system allows both CSS experts or district staff to evaluate using the detailed rubric. Each line of the rubric is scored (a 4-part rubric) and there are text box sections for strengths, concerns and comments/questions. A district authorizer can contract with CSS either to have a CSS expert review the application and/or their own staff use the system.

CHART can be programmed to either generate a single report from an evaluator, or to summarize up to 5 evaluators. For example, a single charter school application could have three reports from evaluators: 1) a report from the CSS expert/s evaluation; 2) a summary report from district staff reviewing the entire application; and 3) a summary report from district staff reviewing only certain components of the application.

Each summary report shows how each evaluator scored each line of the rubric and then quantifies the score and provides an average. At the end of each evaluation, the evaluator is prompted to give a whole number evaluation score to the charter school application. For example, the quantified score of the evaluation could be 2.45 and it would up to the evaluator's discretion to either assign an overall score of 2 or 3.

The State Board of Education's rules for charter school authorizers stipulate authorizers should use external experts for charter school application review. In fact, for years State Board members have asked how the application process could be standardized and provide more objective information for appeal purposes. The new CHART system provides that objective review.

Contact Charter School Solutions for more information on CHART or to see what it looks like.

Friday, August 24, 2012

COVA Seeks to Transfer Charter

The Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), operated by K12 Inc., has submitted an application to the state Charter School Institute to transfer its charter beginning in 2013.

COVA began in Colorado as a program of The Academy Charter School in Westminster. It later obtained its own charter through the Adams 12 School District.

The charter school serves more than 5,000 students virtually across the state. Currently the school is a K-12, but in the transfer application the school requests two separate charters, one for K-8 and a second for the high school.

The Charter School Institute board will have a hearing on the transfer application in October before making a decision on the COVA transfer application at its Nov. 20th board meeting.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Should Management Companies Take Over Failing Schools?

The answer is YES! Management companies have the systems in place to start a new charter schools with most of the burden borne by the central office and a proven educational program that has already been known to demonstrate success with particular student populations.

There are a few key elements in that statement above about management companies. For example, a "proven educational program" is an essential component to predicting success in a failing school takeover. The management company should have already demonstrated that they can take a particular student demographic and significantly raise student achievement scores. Takeovers or turnarounds are exponentially more difficult than a regular charter school and shouldn't be attempted by any but the most hardy of people and organizations. It certainly isn't the time to experiment.

Management companies typically have gone through all the growth phases of a new company and know what works and what doesn't work. This means they're less likely to compromise on their values, even under intense pressure from the authorizer. If a company values student/teacher ratios as a key component of why their model is successful, they're not going to increase that ratio simply to make the budget easier to work with.

Management companies also typically have the financial resources to pad some of the impact associated with opening a new charter school. They can temporarily cover the initial startup costs and even make the initial myriad of purchases less burdensome. New charter school Principals should be concerned about purchasing desks when they have an entirely new staff to hire and a curriculum to implement.

Charter management organizations (CMO) tend to have ties to the local community that provide the human element. A CMO is going to make sure the endeavor is successful because they feel a responsibility to the students and families in the area. It's not just about turning a profit or developing a takeover/turnover reputation. It's about improving the future for students in their schools because they are their neighbors.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Dealing with Bad Board Behavior: Advice, Part 7

Most everyone who joins a charter school board either has an ego or an agenda. OK, maybe I'm being a little bit cynical, but it's rare to find the board member who just wants what is best for the students and has an attitude of servitude. However, I have met many of those board members in Colorado!

But what can be done if board members are doing their own thing or simply crossing the line into management instead of maintaining a governance role?

First, every board should have a Board Agreement that they have adopted and sign annually. This serves as the foundation when problems arise. The agreement details expected behaviors and outlines the values the board uses to govern. An errant board member should be addressed by the Board President using this agreement. Ensuring signatures each year increases the likelihood the board members will review the document again and try to adhere to its principles.

Of course, not everyone will readily admit to mistakes and became an effective team member after a conversation with the President. But it is the first step. There's no provision in the Open Meetings law to allow a board to discuss their differences in Executive Session. That means that unless the behavior warrants a discussion at the board table (in public), the matter must be addressed outside the board room. This implies no more than two board members can be present since having three board members requires a posted meeting notice.

If the errant behavior continues, the board President should document the matter whenever possible. Sometimes putting things in writing is more clear. The board President should take the time to refer to founding documents (e.g., board agreement, bylaws, board policies) that have been accepted by previous boards.

Another potential strategy is to use the Governing Board Administrator Roles worksheet. The worksheet is a discussion tool for a board workshop. By using this, the board, as a whole, can have a discussion about what is the proper role of the board without it being focused on one individual. If only one board member disagrees during these discussions, it becomes apparent that the norm is quite different.

During a time of board member misbehavior, it's especially important for the Board President to repeatedly draw a very strong line for what is right and wrong. The rest of the board is looking to the President for this type of leadership. Moreover, the staff needs this type of leadership to ensure stability and job satisfaction. The degree that the organization is impacted by an individual board member's misbehavior is directly related to the leadership of the Board President.

Sequentially, if the above strategies haven't worked, another idea is to plan a meeting with additional people. Ideally, others would include respected individuals in the charter school community or from the school. This might include a former administrator, the school's founder or a consultant. It should be someone with objectivity and experience. This allows the situation to become more objective and more focused on what's best for the school as a whole, rather than the individual. This meeting should be focused on solutions and commitments to better behavior. The meeting should be memorialized, in writing, and any commitments agreed to included.

Knowing that even after all these attempts to deal with a rogue board member, there still could be a need for further intervention, the next step is probably a discussion with the full board. This should be placed on the meeting agenda under something like "Discussion on the proper role of board members." All board members should be willing to engage the errant board member in expectations for proper behavior. At this point it's no longer just the role of the Board President to intervene.

As a last resort, some state nonprofit corporation law permits board members to be voted off by a majority of the remaining board members. Consult an attorney before attempting this. In this scenario, the board would vote on a written resolution that details specific behaviors, written documents (emails), statements, and actions. The resolution should be fact-based and objective. Take the high road. This includes noting the previous attempts to deal with the board member in other settings.

The importance of regular board training cannot be stressed enough when it comes to dealing with bad behavior. Most people get caught up in something when they don't fully understand what's expected of them. A gentle nudge to get back in line is much easier to deal with than addressing a situation that's hurting others within the school system. Colorado's charter schools can use the online board training modules at: to provide fundamental training. The website also includes discussion questions for boards to use. Take advantage of this beneficial free resource!

Note: The online board training modules are beneficial for anyone on a charter school board, not just in Colorado. Although pieces of the training content are Colorado-specific, the vast majority is not. Further, most states have comparable laws for things such as Open Meetings.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What Authorizers Should Do to Renew a Charter School

Charter school authorizers require fair and transparent renewal practices. This includes a documented process and timeline for charter school renewal. Charter school contracts should not be for less than five year terms. Authorizers should give each of their charter schools an Annual Performance Report (APR) that rolls into the five-year renewal.

Renewal should include a body of evidence such as the APR, annual accountability reports (in Colorado these are called UIPs), annual financial budgets and audits, and other records that the district and/or charter school have used to discuss accountability.

In addition, the charter school should submit a renewal application. Many districts define what they want in such an application. Primarily, this is an opportunity for charter schools to present their school in a way they want their authorizer to view it. This application is a collection of achievement data, financial records and governance documents. It's a time to make sure both parties have accurate records and are using the same information in their decision-making.

New contracts should be based on the state's model contract language. The financial addendum of charter contracts may be updated each year. The main part of the contract should define roles and responsibilities of the parties; financial arrangements for items such as Special Education, ELL and Gifted and Talented; governance; waivers; and the educational program.

The renewal process is a great opportunity to improve communication between the authorizer and the charter school. It can be a way to enhance the relationship through transparent communication.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Watch for It! An Online Charter School Application Review Tool

CCS is developing an online system to review Colorado charter school applications called CHART (CHarter school Application Review Tool). This will allow selected experts to review applications using the Standard Application and Review Rubric and print out their individual scores and comments in addition to a summary of the external reviewers.

For years, state level charter school leaders and authorizers have been talking about developing a cadre of expert reviewers. When CHART becomes available in early September, this will be the fruition of years of work. First the Standard Application was developed and then it was improved with the addition of a detailed rubric. With the development of CHART the entire rubric can be scored by experts in charter school application review. A district can get a report of the score for each line of the rubric and the comments written by each reviewer. In addition, there is a summary report with aggregated scores.

The new charter school authorizer Standards and Principles require the use of external experts. Using CHART, districts will be able to quickly and easily access state-level expertise. Moreover, district staff or District Accountability Committee members can use the online system for their scoring process.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Crisis Management in Charter Schools

For years, leaders in Colorado's charter school community dreamed of having a team of experts who were available to deal with severe problems in a charter school whether the issues stemmed from administration, governance or financial issues. This discussion has arisen numerous times over the years as charter school leaders find themselves in situations that usually land them in the news and the result is that charter schools get a negative image by the general public.

The key to dealing with a problem in a charter school is not as easy as walking in to a school and completing a checklist. Most often, the problems are broad and complex. Problems with administration typically mean problems with the governing board, too. To further exacerbate the facts of the situation, emotions typically run high and there are clear differences of opinion.

The first step is to get the facts. This is usually uncovered by reading documents such as board minutes, financial records, emails, newsletters, or anything else that provides an understanding of what has transpired and why. For most charter schools, this means mistakes were made along the way by well-meaning people.

The most important thing to remember is to focus on what's best for the students in the school. The adults in any emotionally charged situation need to remember that the kids come first. And that isn't just jargon! It needs to be REAL!

Charter School Solutions has a team of respected charter school leaders with a great deal of expertise in handling situations that arise and for which there seems to be little hope. The team that's available has administrative, governance, financial, and mentoring/coaching experience. Moreover, the team rises above the emotionally-charged situation and focuses on diagnosing the situation and then putting together a broad strategy for resolution. The team is effective for two reasons: a great deal of experience to draw upon and they communicate effectively to ensure quick resolution.

Every situation is unique. The team of people needed to remedy a situation should match those unique needs.  But everyone involved, should remember to focus on the students!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

State Board Unanimously Supports Swallows Charter Academy

In a rare display of unanimous support for a charter school, the State Board of Education voted to remand the Swallows Charter Academy appeal back to Pueblo 70 for further consideration. Two board members did not vote: Paul Lundeen recused himself from the vote and Debbe Scheffel was on the phone for part of the hearing, but then dropped off.

The case was about Swallows' request to expand Kindergarten and first grade by one class each, eventually filling the gap existent in the school now until sixth grade. Sixth through twelfth grades have 44 students per grade level while K-5 only has 22 students per grade level.

The district's contention was lackluster academic performance by the charter school after several years of outstanding academic performance. They stated the trend was indicating a downward line. Both parties agreed that the charter school was still in the middle of performance for the district, however. 

Before voting board members noted the strong parental demand for Swallows and the wisdom in starting with Kindergarten to add students so that they would be more prepared for secondary school. 

What's Important to Remember When Writing a Charter School Application: Advice, Part 6

There's one piece of advice that's the most important for people writing a charter school application. That is to have the school's vision and mission fully developed and convey that, consistently, throughout the entire application. Everything, even the budget, should be aligned.

Oftentimes, a team of people write the charter school application. Unfortunately, quite often it LOOKS like a team of people wrote the application. In other words, there isn't consistency with terms, vision/mission, philosophy, and anticipated outcomes. This most often happens when it's obvious that the applicant has taken bits and pieces of other charter school applications to make their own. A little bit of STEM, Core Knowledge and character education might seem like a great idea to the novice applicant, but experienced charter school application reviewers can sometimes even recognize the language from other applications.

There needs to be a final edit of the application for flow and consistency. Although many would think it obvious that someone should run spell check, but it's amazing how many applications make a person wonder if these people are capable of running a school due to the poor grammar and the typos.

What does it mean to be consistent with the vision and mission? For example, a Direct Instruction/Core Knowledge school might not have much in the technology line in their budget because teaching technology isn't a priority, especially in the early grades. Or a school that plans to focus on serving pregnant or parenting teens needs to have a flexible schedule and individual-based education plans in order to accommodate the student's unique learning and scheduling needs.

Another aspect to the lack of focus in some applications, is the applicant who wants to "do it all!" These applications make the reader wonder how school leaders could possibly squeeze everything into a school day/year and still manage to teach reading and math. Great ideas to be sure, but overly ambitious. But even overly ambitious applicants can be viewed as not having a clear understanding of what they want their charter school to be known for. It's important to remember that at the end of the day, it's about raising student academic achievement. After all, that's why public charter schools exist.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

BEST Grants for Charter Schools Gets Preliminary Approval

Five Colorado charter schools were given preliminary approval for BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) grants from the state Capital Construction Board. In the past, charter schools have had to relinquish their award when they couldn't raise the match required for the grant competition. It's quite possible both of the schools making it through the first round of application review will be in the same situation again this year.

Both Aspen Community School and Ross Montessori received preliminary approval for $4.2 million and $11.8 million, respectively. Now, raising the required matching funds without access to voters to raise this money will be a challenge! Twelve of the 18 projects passing this first hurdle must ask the school district's voters for approval to raise the match through property tax funds. Public charter schools don't have the same opportunity according to Colorado state law.

Three charter schools also received preliminary approval for small project funding. These were: James Irwin Charter Schools (Harrison 2 School District), Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy (Cheyenne Mtn School District) and Lotus School for Excellence (Aurora Public Schools).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Alpha Authorizing

Jim Goenner is an excellent speaker, regardless of the topic he's presenting on. True to his nature, Jim Goenner presented an excellent workshop on Alpha Authorizing. Goenner started by talking about Ted Kolderie's July 1990 paper called "The States Will Have to Withdraw the Exclusive." Kolderie spoke about the system's need to change the incentives in public education. Kolderie's goal was to improve public education for ALL students. He proposed these goals be met through choice (empower families to choose their schools) and diversification (empower someone other than the district to create new public schools).

Goenner said that authorizers can either be change agents, market makers, forces for quality, and catalysts for excellence or they can be gatekeepers, monitors and evaluators. Goenner encouraged authorizers to think innovatively and challenge the "givens." Instead to foster an environment that attracts talent, capital and entrepreneurship. Authorizers should provide leadership and ideas for improving education, rather than being reactive to policies and practices that stimulate mediocrity.

Geonner stressed that public charter schools are "chartered" (a verb) and not "charter" (a noun). They are dynamic and evolving. Charter schools should foster an environment that attracts the can-do people who can strategize creative solutions.

By focusing on quality, charter school authorizers should:
*Thoroughly screen applicants and their applications.
* Measure and evaluate performance.
* Preserve discretionary judgement; in other words, be able to make wise decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than being locked in to policy restraints that aren't what's best for students.
* Protect school autonomy.
* Appropriately intervene when people fail. Don't be afraid to step in to close a charter school that doesn't perform well academically.

By being a catalyst for excellence, a charter school authorizer should
* Recognize and reward performance.
* Encourage the replication and expansion of successful charter schools.
* Create new performance-based paths for authorizing, overseeing and renewing charter contracts.
* Relentlessly pursue excellence (at all levels).
* Protect, preserve and advance the idea behind chartering. This is in regard to Kolderie's assertion that "someone other than" districts should be able to create new public schools.

Goenner also highlighted several statistics from the National Alliance for Public Charter School's website. He noted that every authorizer should have established key performance indicators for their schools collectively and individually. These indicators can fall into the broad categories of academic achievement/growth, fiscal performance and sustainability, organizational performance and student engagement.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Federal Programs and Their Impact on Charter Schools

Vic Klatt, Ursula Wright and Lisa Grover presented a workshop on federal programs at the 2012 National Charter School Conference.

Here are a few points that were made:
* There is complete gridlock in Washington. The ESEA was originally intended for reauthorization in 2007, but it still hasn't been done. The House put the ESEA in five chunks; only one passed and that includes the Charter School Program.
* NCLB is totally done. AYP is done. Teacher accountability is on the rise and there is general support for charter schools.
* The new waivers policy under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is huge. In essence, every state with waivers has their own ESEA in 2-3 year segments. Waiver requests contains lots of jargon and confusing language; it's possible the ED doesn't even know what's in some of the approved requests.
* It will probably hold off until after the November elections, but there is a "fiscal Armageddon" coming between election day and January when the newly-elected members of Congress are seated. There will be an automatic 9% cut and cuts to military spending; the debt limit and unemployment tax needs to be addressed; and Bush tax cuts are still in place but will be revisited.
* Obama and Romney are fairly similar on education issues.
* There was no competition for SEAs to get CSP money in 2012 and probably won't be again in 2013. In 2010 funds were overcommitted and so states awarded in that year that are on 5 year grant cycles are probably the only states that are safe. The CSP grant is much more competitive.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Legislation Workshop at National Charter School Conference

Todd Ziebarth and Lisa Grover, both with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools presented a workshop about updates on state and federal legislation in the past 18 months.

Maine adopted a charter law last year, reducing the number of "hold out" states to 10. Montana passed a law out of the House in 2011, but then it died in the Senate.

Negative trends
* Requiring fiscal impact reports for anything related to charter schools.
* Mandating teacher evaluations; or in other words, not explicitly waiving charter school teachers from legislation supposed by teacher unions. This is seen as a way to chip away at charter school autonomy.
* Limiting enrollment boundaries in only urban areas. This is a part of the urban-only agenda. The Feb.12th NAPCS report shows 16%of charter schools are in rural areas.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Panel Discussion in the Opening Session

John Merrow of the PBS NewsHour moderated a panel of charter school leaders, including:

  • Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
  • Howard Fuller, Black Alliance for Educational Options and Founder and Director of the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University
  • Don Shalvey, Deputy Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • John Darrow, CEO and Co-founder of Rocketship Education
The panel discussion was largely about where the charter school movement has come in its 20 year history and what the next 20 years will hold.The highlight of the comments was Howard Fuller's assertion that, "You collaborate when you can, cooperate when you can, but you've got to be ready to fight!" John Darrow noted that oftentimes school districts don't want to admit they can learn from their charter schools, but that the Superintendent in San Jose said he was glad to have the leverage with his district-school Principals. In San Jose, Rocketship has 30 schools, but there are 90 schools failing.

Panelists speculated that the next 20 years will include:
  • continuing to advocate for equal funding
  • lifting the caps on the number of charter schools
  • identifying more leaders of color and providing them with the same opportunities others had
  • and according to Don Shalvey, "Quit acting like charter schools need to live in warehouses! Get them regular school buildings."
John Darrow also said that charter schools are just beginning to realize that we're in a highly political system and he talked about the importance of influencing state and federal policy.

The recent trend toward replicating successful schools was discussed when John Merrow asked panelists if they thought mostly Charter Management Organization (CMO) schools should be approved rather than grassroots startups. Nina Rees was quick to point out that it was primarily quality that should be considered and not the association with a CMO or EMO (Education Management Organization). Don Shalvey said it's not "an either/or." Howard Fuller addressed the importance of grassroots startups to the movement and the importance of giving parents quality educational options.

2012 Charter School Hall of Fame Inductees

This morning's opening session of the National Charter School Conference gave recognition to charter school leaders that were instrumental in the early years of charter schools in the early 1990's. Colorado's own Jim Griffin, President of the Colorado League of Charter Schools was inducted in to the Hall of Fame for his work, which includes starting the first charter support organization in the country. The video clip of Jim's work also featured the North Routt Community Charter School outside of Steamboat Springs.

Also inducted into the Hall of Fame were several leaders from Minnesota, the first state to pass a charter schools law in 1991. Jon Schroeder, Eric Mahmoud and City Academy were all honored. City Academy, started by Milo Cutter, was the first charter school in the country. Alums of City Academy were featured in a video clip and also personally addressed the audience.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Attending the National Charter School Conference

People attending the National Charter School Conference for the first time may feel overwhelmed. There are a couple of strategies that may be helpful, including picking a strand (e.g., governance, facilities, etc.) and just going to workshops in that strand. Another strategy is to pick a variety of workshops, on different topics, to get a little bit of everything.

Almost everyone who attends a conference with a group of people makes sure that they are all in different workshops so they can report back and discuss what they've learned. This is a great strategy because it's one thing to hear about a new or innovative idea, but it's totally different for it to be instituted back at your charter school. Further, it's often the side conversations, with other people in the workshop, where real nuggets are unearthed.

I've always liked when new charter school leaders attend the national conference and then come back appreciating how great we have it in Colorado! We have a wealth of resources available for charter schools and a comprehensive support system in place. Most states don't have that level of support.

The best part of the conference, however, is in getting to catch up with old friends and meet new friends. Attendees are typically very eager to learn and so are eager to engage in conversations. Everyone likes to talk about their charter school and it's fun to hear about the variety of models in use around the country.

I went to the very first National Charter School Conference in 1997 in Washington, DC. There were maybe 150 people there. Now we have more charter schools than that in just the state of Colorado!

Lots of great memories are made during the conference each year! I hope to see you at this week's conference!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Governing Boards: Advice, Part 6

I've heard numerous stories in the past few weeks about charter school governing boards behaving badly. I was recently asked what's better: a board of parents or a board of professionals from the community? Colorado has always been unique in that the charter school movement has been driven by grassroots involvement of parents. It wasn't until about 2004 when the state Charter School Institute formed that we really had any significant presence from the management company sector of the market.

Whereas the early charter schools to open in Colorado all had parent governing boards, that has changed over time. Management companies often don't want to deal with the instability of having parent representation on the board and so choose non-parents from the community. These are often professionals or elected officials that don't want to get involved in the day-to-day operations, as parents tend to do when their own child is involved.

What's ideal? Probably a blend. Parents should have a meaningful role in their child's education, but oftentimes parents cannot separate their role of parent from their role on a governing board. That said, there have been numerous parents in the state who have done that very well. They don't make a decision for the school based on their individual child. They realize they don't wear their charter school board member hat unless they're in the board room. Many of these parents have made incredible sacrifices in order to see their charter school get opened and off to a successful footing.

There's also a lot to be said for involving community leaders in a public charter school. Other states even require this type of board member. These types of board members represent their school well in the community and oftentimes are successful fundraisers. It's not uncommon for "professional" boards to meet only quarterly and not the monthly or semi-monthly typical for parent governing boards.

Regardless of the composition of the governing board, training is imperative! Even individuals that have already served on numerous boards, need to learn about issues relevant to charter schools. Colorado is the only state with online board training modules specific to charter school governance. The website,, is invaluable in providing the foundation for solid governance. Check it out!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

National Charter School Conference, June 19-22

The annual National Charter School Conference will be in Minneapolis this year and starts June 19th. Bill Cosby will be one of the keynote speakers. Additionally, Dr. Deborah Kenney, founder of the Harlem Village Academies will speak about her new book, "Born to Rise."

I will be attending the conference and be blogging and tweeting. You can follow me on Twitter @cocharters.

Monday, June 4, 2012

How to Write a Grant Application: Advice, Part 5

There are some things about writing grant applications that are universal for any type of grant application. I've both administered a federal grant program and also reviewed federal and state grants on a number of occasions. Some applicants know how to tell their story, including the use of data, and others make the reviewer wonder if they even read the instructions. Thus, here are a few tips:

  • Don't assume the reader knows anything about your school or plans. As much as the applicant may think everyone knows about the great things they're doing at their school, and believe their school has a national reputation, it isn't so. 
  • Don't use acronyms or jargon, especially without explaining them. Every state has their own acronyms and while they're commonly used locally, they're meaningless for reviewers. Further, if for example, the state assessment system allows schools to qualify for alternative status if they serve a very high percentage of at-risk students, explain what that means as far as qualification and accountability.
  • Be succinct. Reviewers don't want to dig through data to determine the accomplishments of students on state assessments. Tell them your story: simply and forthrightly. 
  • Have someone, not associated with your program, read your grant application and give you feedback. Did you address all of the criteria in the instructions? Does it make sense to a novice? 
  • Follow instructions. They're included for a reason. Nothing screams, "I don't care about your instructions! Just give me the money!" more than using binder clips if they're prohibited or using a 9 point font when 12 point is required.
  • Don't submit an application with grammatical errors. Sounds like common sense, doesn't it? I've never read a grant application that didn't have errors. It's the ones with numerous grammatical or spelling errors that raise the question, "How can these people possibly operate a school?"
That said, there are numerous grant applications that I've read over the years that I still remember. One of the best was written by a mother who started a charter school in a remote region of Colorado. She poured her heart into the application and everyone who read it commented on how they felt like they needed to visit the school because they could almost picture it when reading the application. 

A challenge for many applicants is how to tell their story with data. Oftentimes data is provided, but there isn't anything to compare it to. For example, a Proficient/Advanced figure is provided, but it's impossible to determine if that's "good enough" when there isn't a district or state figure to compare it with. This also applies to demographic data. 

Many federal and state grant programs are very competitive. Further, there is a great deal of accountability to ensure the funds (tax revenue) is being spent wisely. Applicants should have key leaders meet to discuss the proposed application, the expected outcomes and how effectiveness will be evaluated--before even starting the application.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Look

After a few years of using the same look for my blog, I decided it was time for an update. Hope you like the new look!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

U.S. News & World Report: Best High Schools

The U.S. News and World Report came out with their rankings of the best high schools.
Four of the top ten high schools in Colorado are charter schools: Peak to Peak Charter School, Ridgeview Classical Schools, The Classical Academy and The Vanguard School. Congratulations to each of these fine schools!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Peak to Peak is #1 in Colorado and #29 in the Nation!

Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette is the best high school in Colorado according to Newsweek's ranking system this year. No other Colorado high school made it in to the top 100 nationwide, but Peak to Peak came in at #29!

One might consider this old hat for the people from Peak to Peak who every year get ranked among the best in the nation by various measures. Believe me, they're very happy to get this recognition and accolades for their student's achievements!  But the culture at Peak to Peak is different than the neighborhood high school.

At P2P the mantra is, "it's about getting a little bit smarter every day!" There is an intense focus on student academic achievement. Yes, the school offers extracurricular sports and clubs, but the real competition is in the classroom. In the classroom there is learning from bell to bell. The expectation is that teachers start their clas period with an activity that preps the students for the lesson that day. Students should be in their seats and ready to engage when the bell rings--or else they're late.

P2P has a culture of continuous improvement. This doesn't stop with the students' learning. This is also about the adults. P2P started a Center for Professional Development because their value for improving the adults in their school system is very high. Everyone should be improving!

The culture among the leaders at P2P is that new leaders are always in the making. In addition to growing up their own from within, the school raises up leaders to go to other schools and also works with other schools to raise up their own leaders. This is done through a combination of coaching and training. The clear message is: when you get better, your students will also get better.

P2P started in about 2000 with a handful of parents who wanted a better education for their own children. Even back then, state charter school leaders affectionately referred to the founding group at P2P as the "overachievers" because they were at every event, learning as much as they could and asking lots of good questions. P2P doesn't do things the easy way and they don't rest on their laurels. That's probably a key to their success! And well-deserved recognition for the hard work and dedication they put in to their student's academic achievement!

Put the School First: Advice, Part 4

I've seen it hundreds of times and it never quits! People who step into leadership at a charter school to satisfy their own personal agendas or bolster their egos. Worst of all, in almost every situation, it's the students that lose.

These are the people who get on a governing board and immediately start making significant changes to the charter school in order to put their mark on it. Or the administrator who thinks that he/she is irreplaceable and stirs up parents to help reinstate him/her as administrator. Or the administrator that develops factions among the staff and pits the entire staff against the governing board. Or the parent that gets recognition for leading a parent revolt against the governing board and attempts to recall board members. I could give countless examples--all without resorting to a fictitious scenario. These are all true situations. In the end, it all boils down to someone's ego getting fed.

What's the right thing to do? Focus on what the students of the school needs. Pretty simple, right? Not for a lot of adults, sad to say.

First and foremost, a public charter school should make sure it's providing the best education possible for students. This means not only a focused, rigorous curriculum, but also exemplary teachers and a culture of continuous improvement where everyone realizes they can do better.

People become complacent. They rationalize why test scores are falling each year. If parents like the teacher or lead administrator, they make excuses and justify their belief that as long as their child is happy and safe, slipping academics is acceptable. Even worse is when the administrator clearly doesn't understand how to raise student achievement through high expectations, staff training and instructional coaching, but instead makes excuses, or worst of all--blames the students, or a group of students.

When a governing board member or an administrator is faced with a tumultuous situation, he/she should do some soul-searching about what is the best for the students in the long run. That may require that board member of administrator to resign and let someone else step in to lead the school. But ultimately, everyone, should put the needs of the school first--in front of personal agendas.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Use Data: Advice,Part 3

Data should drive everything in a school. Too often school leaders react to a comment or a small group of parents who are complaining about something when they make decisions. Instead, facts should drive decision making.

The governing board should use a "data dashboard" to monitor the key indicators they watch to determine if the school is on track and performance is at the level they expect. This might include student academic data, financial figures and student enrollment. There are several key indicators that show when a charter school is entering what is commonly referred to as the "death spiral." This is a decline in student enrollment that eventually causes the school severe financial hardship and/or closure.

As a public school, it's important for school leaders to constantly monitor student academic achievement data. This means not only the CSAP/TCAP data, but assessments that are given more frequently throughout the school year such as NWEA/MAPS, DIBELs, or formative assessments developed by the school or district to measure subjects not tested by CSAP/TCAP. Usually the school administrator monitors this data and uses it to drive discussions with staff, but it's also important for the governing board to completely understand trends that are occurring or if certain subgroups of students are struggling. It's wise for school staff to do an annual workshop on student achievement data for the board. This could be done in conjunction with the development of the annual Unified Improvement Plan before it's submitted to the authorizer.

Having the actual per student revenue on the dashboard is important because it explains why public schools are all tightening their belts over the past several years when the State Assembly is making budget cuts. Showing the Per Pupil Revenue over the past several years is a very powerful tool to explain the school's financial situation to parents.

It's important to align the board's dashboard with their strategic plan. Because the strategic plan is the board's way to implement the school's vision and mission, everything should reflect the same focus and direction. The strategic plan should should progress based on specific measures. It's also a good idea to communicate once or twice a year about the strategic plan and board dashboard to the school community so that others understand how the board monitors progress. It also conveys what the board deems important to monitor.

Making decisions based on data is a solid way to make decisions. That means it's important to have enough data to make decisions. This data might be in an annual survey of parents or staff or even students. But data doesn't lie, even if the message isn't what was expected. Every charter school should have a broad set of data that they examine at different levels and to different degrees. Having the discussions about what is important to monitor and how that data should be obtained and analyzed is vital!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Principal Reports to the Board: Advice, Part 2

Principals should provide a written report for the board at each regular board meeting, usually once a month. In between those regular reports, the Principal may choose to email the board with important information that needs to be provided in a timely manner.

The written Principal's report should be brief, not more than a page or two, and focus on board level information. Delving in to too much detail leads to a natural tendency for board members to get involved in day-to-day operations and so care should be used to keep the report high level.

The report should have standard categories such as academics, highlights and upcoming events. Because these reports are public information, and generally provided to the public via a board packet link on the school's website, there should never be confidential information included. If the administrator needs the board to get involved in a particular issue or situation, this monthly report is a great to place to bring that to their attention. This could be anything from needing board members to participate in graduation ceremonies to something that's come up with the school's charter authorizer that is the responsibility of the governing board to address.

Each regular monthly board meeting should include a section of the agenda for reports. These should generally be in writing and the board only asks questions. The individual presenting a written report, either from the administrator or a committee, should never have to verbally present the same report to the board. Meetings are much more efficient when board members only ask questions about a written report. Because written reports are usually submitted to the board a week prior to the board meeting, the Principal should always be able to bring additional information to the board's attention during this portion of the agenda.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Selecting a Charter School Attorney: Advice, Part 1

When I'm visiting charter schools I often get asked for advice. This includes everything from how to handle a particular situation, where to find specific information or how to improve school governance. There are some things I regularly repeat such as get good legal counsel with charter school experience. It's important to find an attorney with knowledge about education laws and charter schools specifically. But beyond that, you want someone who will be an advocate for your charter school and is willing to step in on your behalf. This is especially important when negotiating the charter contract, but it also applies to student discipline issues and disagreements with the authorizer.

Some charter school attorneys have strengths with particular issues such as Special Education, facility financing or negotiations. It's important for charter school leaders to check out attorneys before making a commitment to hire. In addition, get several recommendations from others within the charter school community before making a decision. People have different experiences with their legal counsel and so it's important to hear a variety of perspectives. This way you can make a decision based on what's best for your particular public charter school and your particular situation.

Note: This is the first of a new series I'll be doing about the standard advice I give to charter school leaders. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Green Schools

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced their first Green Schools awards. Seventy-eight public schools were honored for their environmental impact, sustainability and "innovative school reforms."

It should be noted that the presumably now-healthy students in these Green Schools could be destined for a life of low achievement, underemployment and possibly even incarceration, but will undoubtedly have the satisfaction and peace of knowing they attended school in an environment that promoted recycling and a minimal impact on the environment.

As is the case with almost all education initiatives, there was data used to make the determination for which schools deserved this incredible distinction. For example, schools that now use rain barrels, previously-used pavement or off-grid solar power measured rainfall, tire pressure and iPad charge time, respectively. In the case of districts using school buses powered by used cooking oil for fuel, students who could correctly guess what type of food was made in the cooking oil were given a  higher score.

The department's press release described the academic benefits for rope climbing, kayaking and other activities in their outdoor classrooms. In fact, reading "on the green" was used to enhance wilderness adventures. To ensure that school parents and communities were also involved in the green initiative, some schools posted "no idling" signs in parking lots and distributed garden produce to local shelters.

Students were prepared for growing up in the 21st Century by caring for bunnies, chickens, goats, fish and ducks. However, there was no mention of students learning about the anatomy and physiology of these animals in their Biology classes. One can only imagine these animals will also benefit from the enhanced green environment and live forever in their nurturing environment.

The one glaring omission from this press release was the hundreds of public schools deemed failing by the department and the hundreds of thousands of students attending these schools who cannot read or write on grade level. The effort put in to determining Green Schools meant that even less was being done for the students who have been failed by the public education system. Further, the message that everything is blissful as long as schools are recycling and minimizing their impact on the environment and therefore, focusing on getting students smarter isn't important, is part of the reason our nation is where it is today: performing significantly below countries that have clearly established the importance of a good education.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's a Million Dollars?

The current version of the School Finance Act, HB 1345, has an additional million dollars for charter school capital construction. The base of $5 million was all that was left in 2004 when a new administration cut funding previously added by then-Governor Bill Owens, the original Senate sponsor of the state's Charter Schools Act.

After all these years of the funding being whittled away by an increasing number of charter school students who all share in the finite amount, there is a plan to restore a small portion of the pot, which at one time was over $8 million.

Charter schools use this fund, Charter School Capital Construction, to pay for their capital needs. For most of the state's charter schools, it's the only money available for charter schools to use outside of their Per Pupil Revenue (PPR). Unlike school district operated schools, charter schools don't have access to bond funds obtained through ballot questions. If districts choose to include their charter schools in mill or bond questions, a charter school can receive these funds, but it is at the discretion of the local district if the charter school is included.

A million dollars is a small portion of what charter schools need to cover their capital needs in a manner comparable to their non-charter public school counterparts. However, it is certainly a step in the right direction!

Monday, April 9, 2012

New America School Expands In New Mexico

Colorado-based New America Schools is opening a new charter school in Las Cruces, New Mexico in the fall. The school, which targets new immigrants and at-risk youth, operates schools in Lakewood, Thornton and Aurora. There is already a New America School in Albuquerque, making the Las Cruces site the second in the state.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Charter School Management Organizations in Colorado

The Colorado Charter Schools Act (C.R.S. 22-30.5 et seq) doesn't specify what type of an entity can be party to a charter school contract. Although it's never happened in the state, a for-profit company would be permitted to charter with a school district authorizer.

SB12-067 requires that only nonprofits can charter. This could either be a founding board that has incorporated in order to start a new charter school or a charter management organization (CMO). CMOs are generally defined as nonprofit, differentiating themselves from for-profit, education management organizations or EMOs.

There are currently CMOs that have chartered directly with an authorizer in Colorado. While it's permissible for a CMO to hold individual charters, it's also possible for a CMO to oversee independent governing boards that hold the charter. There is no predetermined structure that's best. It's totally up to the authorizer and the charter school applicant.

SB 067 grandfathers in schools established before August 6, 1997 to accommodate charter schools that never incorporated and therefore became nonprofits. Some of the earlier charter schools considered themselves a public school and therefore getting separate nonprofit status was redundant. There has been differing legal opinions about this over the years. In recent years almost all of the newly established charter schools became nonprofits. In fact, the state Charter School Institute law requires nonprofit status for its schools.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Slow and Steady Still Wins the Race

While reading a very interesting blog post by Robert Pondisco at the Core Knowledge site, a portion of the text struck me as being all too true! He writes that the greatest casualty of the education reform era has been patience. In the race to raise test scores and demonstrate growth, some educators have pushed students too hard or skipped some of the essential skills that are necessary for future reading potential. It's like the metaphor of building the foundation correctly in order to create a stable house.

There are several good points in the post, which was also in the Washington Post's education blog, The Answer Sheet. It will be well worth your time to read the entire blog.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Charter School Appeals in Colorado

I've been going through the list of charter school appeals to the State Board of Education and came across some interesting findings.

First, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has the most appeal cases with 19. To put that into context, Jeffco has 17, Aurora seven, and Adams 12 five. This is out of 132 appeal cases.

Second, there were two years, 1994 and 2006, when there were the highest number of appeals: 14. The high number of appeal hearings in 1994 makes sense because that's the first year the Charter Schools Act was in effect and there were numerous charter school applications that year. The high number in 2006 is harder to explain. It was the year after the Legislature adopted the Charter School Institute Act, which created the state's alternative authorizer. However, probably the most noteworthy piece in the data is that the number of appeal hearings dropped precipitously after that so that in 2008 there were only three hearings and in 2009 only one. This can easily be explained by the state's development of the standard application and model contract language. Both of these documents, for the first time, explained what was acceptable practice for charter school applications and charter contracts.

Another interesting point is the number of charter schools that never open even after a successful appeal to the State Board. The vast majority of appeal hearings are from brand new charter applicants; however, the law also allows an existing charter school to appeal "gross imposition of conditions" or issues with which the two parties disagree. Further, the vast majority of appeals are only heard once by the State Board. Even if the charter school wins a remand, most of the time the parties settle their differences and it doesn't go to the State Board for a second appeal. But when there is a second appeal and the State Board orders a local district to open a charter school, only a small number of those schools actually open.

It's also interesting to note that in 1994 there were more appeal hearings than charter schools that were approved to open. There were 14 appeals, but only 11 charter schools opened. Again in 1995, when there were 10 appeals, only 10 charter schools opened. In the early years of the Charter Schools Act, there was a high number of appeals and not many schools opening. But the law was also under pilot status until 1998 when the sunset provision was lifted.

This year there have been four charter school appeal hearings and none others scheduled for hearing at this time. Of the four, three of the cases are from Denver. The State Board ruled in favor of Northeast Academy and Monarch Montessori in February. However, the March hearing of Life Skills High School went in favor of the district on a 4-3 vote.

The appeal provision of the Charter Schools Act is one of the tenets that makes Colorado's law rank strong on national studies of charter school laws. It allows any applicant that has been denied, to bring their case to the State Board of Education for a quasi-judicial proceeding. In Colorado, the State Board has historically ruled with the district about half of the time and with the charter school half the time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

DPS Gives Green Light to Two Charter Schools After Appeals to the State Board

The Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education voted 4-3 to let Monarch Montessori open this fall after every board member expressed their distaste for the State Board of Education ruling against them at the February charter school appeal hearings. The board met in Executive Session for almost an hour before coming out and receiving public comment on the appeal remands and then voting.

Monarch Montessori plans to open K-2 in the old Samsonite building along I-70 in northeast Denver. The school is already open as a preschool and will add a grade level until they serve grades K-5.

The DPS board also approved Northeast Academy to operate as a K-5 next year, this after an appeal to the State Board when the DPS board voted to take away K and 6th grade for the 2012-2013 school year. The Superintendent said earlier in the day that his board would be voting to close Northeast Academy entirely and the charter school responded with a counter proposal.

Northeast Academy was deemed a Turnaround school in 2009 after several years of poor test scores. They operated under a management company for the 2010-2011 school year and test scores fell even further. In May 2011 the governing board hired Jere Pearcy, with a strong Core Knowledge background to lead the school. While significant changes have been made at the school this year, the DPS board continued to express doubt that the school could improve. Northeast Academy faces renewal in the fall.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Peak to Peak Job Fair 2012

Peak to Peak Charter School held its annual Charter School Job Fair on Saturday with over 800 participants and 37 charter schools. As usual, the job fair ran very smoothly with a host of volunteers from Peak to Peak taking care of everything from meals to water bottle distribution.

The job fair, the only one of its kind in Colorado, is THE place to learn about openings in the state's charter schools. One teacher candidate even flew in from England to attend. In addition to numerous new, or soon-to-be, graduates there were also many experienced candidates looking for a different position.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Life Skills of Denver Loses Appeal to State

Yesterday the State Board of Education on a split vote, 4-3, decided to affirm the Denver Public Schools' refusal to renew the contract for Life Skills of Denver. Life Skills serves 100% at-risk students qualifying for an Alternative Education Campus (AEC) designation. There are 160 students in Life Skills at present and the average student has attended 5 other schools before choosing Life Skills.

Life Skills also appealed a DPS decision to close them back in 2007. At that time, the State Board voted to remand the decision and DPS allowed the charter school to remain open. Numerous changes were made at the school, including a wide array of wrap-around services for students, many of whom were over age and under credit.

At yesterday's hearing the primary point of disagreement was whether or not Life Skills' contract required them to make "reasonable progress" or, as Supt. Tom Boasgberg asserted the contract stated if they committed a material breach of ANY provision the contract could be terminated. The Life Skills contract had 12 provisions in the contract and the school contended they made 9 of those provisions. Legal counsel for the State Board, Nick Stancil, responded to a question from Board member Paul Lundeen by pointing out that "makes reasonable progress" is language in the Charter Schools Act, and in the Life Skills contract. He disagreed with the claim that any breech of contract provisions was enough reason to revoke a charter school, however.

Students, teachers and family members attending the hearing were visibly upset with the Board's decision. The school, operated by White Hat Management out of Ohio, has not decided their initial next steps.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why You Should Join a Charter School Board

There aren't enough good charter school board members out there! Repeatedly, I hear stories from charter schools that don't get enough candidates for open board positions and there are also endless stories about board members who have ulterior motives.

Being on a charter school governing board is difficult, especially if you're a parent of a student in the school. That means you'll have to remember to represent what's best for the school as a whole and not your own individual child. Further, you'll need to differentiate what "hat" you're wearing--and keep the roles separate--especially when you're dealing with school administration. Being upset about how your son was disciplined should never become part of how a board member evaluates the Principal.

In the past several years, there has been a trend in Colorado for more community members and business professionals to sit on charter school boards. This is very helpful, especially when they bring needed expertise such as legal or financial expertise.

A good charter school board member volunteers a lot of his/her time. It's obvious that an individual serving as President or Secretary would have additional time commitments, but all good board members should plan on attending the annual Board Visit day, assisting in writing reports or communications with the authorizer, promoting the school through networking and attendance at public events and periodically attending the authorizer's board meetings. All board members should monitor their authorizer's board meeting agendas to keep abreast of issues they are dealing with that may impact the charter school.

The types of board members that charter schools DON'T need are those who want to change something. Having change as the primary motivator will probably become very frustrating when change takes longer than intended or others within the system don't want the same type of change.

It's common for new board members to report that the first year they just feel like they're on a perpetual learning curve and they don't get comfortable with board responsibilities until the second year of their service. This is why having two to three years terms is wise. Moreover, terms should be staggered so that not all of the school's knowledge leaves the board at the same time.

Being on a charter school board can be very rewarding! It's great to watch a school system improve and to get to know individual students for whom the charter school has made a huge impact on their lives. Check out your neighborhood charter school to see if they have any openings or if they need a committee volunteer.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Monarch Montessori Wins Appeal

The founders of Monarch Montessori won their appeal before the State Board of Education on a 6 to 1 vote. Only Elaine Gantz Berman, from Denver, voted against the charter school. Monarch Montessori applied for a charter from Denver Public Schools and were denied.

Monarch Montessori is also a private preschool that's been in operation for two years. Now they want to add an elementary school as a charter school. Some of the issues of the appeal were if they would be able to operate a private preschool in conjunction with the charter school. Legal counsel assured the State Board that all the details had been worked out.

This case was argued by Denver Public Schools (DPS) by the head of the Office of School Reform and Innovation (OSRI) Alyssa Whitehead-Bust. Supt. Tom Boasberg also spent a considerable amount of time at the microphone responding to questions. Both Tom and Alyssa said the Monarch Montessori application was deficient, but weren't able to provide specific examples. State Board Chairman Bob Schaffer said that the application was required to provide a description of, for example, their governance, but not a particular type of governance model. Schaffer asserted that the district had gone outside of their statutory responsibilities in having a higher standard for charter school applications.

In addition to the two charter appeal hearings in February, another DPS charter school is bringing an appeal to the March State Board meeting. Life Skills was not renewed by the DPS board and is appealing that decision.