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).