Tuesday, January 29, 2013

We're Number Four!

That's actually better than it sounds since it's rare for someone to aspire to the number four ranking. The National Association of Public Charter Schools ranks the Colorado Charter Schools Act as number four in the country. This is up from #7 in the previous year. Only Minnesota, Main and Washington state ranked higher than Colorado's law.

Criteria to determine the ranking of state charter school laws is based on 20 components such as there not being any cap on the number of charter schools that can open, alternative authorizers, equitable access to capital funding, and clear processes for renewal/revocation.

Colorado has always had a relatively strong law, which was originally adopted by the General Assembly in 1993. The change this year are quality standards for authorizers and clarity about the authorizer's role in charter school oversight and monitoring.

Colorado ranked the lowest on student enrollment processes. The state law allows charter schools to determine their own enrollment process and doesn't require the use of a lottery. Further, the statute doesn't provide for multiple charter schools established under one charter contract, which also lowers the state's ranking.

Almost 10% of the states public school students are in a public charter school. Most charter schools are in a city, primarily Denver and Colorado Springs. About 85% of the state's charter schools are independent, grassroots schools rather than being operated by a management company. This is an unusually high percentage in comparison to other states where management companies operate more charter schools.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pikes Peak School of Expeditionary Learning

The Pikes Peak School of Expeditionary Learning (PPSEL) opened in 2001. It was originally chartered by the Academy 20 School District, but then moved to the Falcon 49 School District a few years later. In 2008 the school built a brand new facility just east of Falcon where it now serves 400 students in grades K-8.

Principal Don Knapp has been with the school almost since the beginning, first starting as a teacher. The school uses the Expeditionary Learning program. In the past three years the school has raised its ranking on the state School Performance Framework (SPF) two performance levels. It is now in the Performance category. 

When asked how the school was able to raise performance levels so quickly, Knapp explained that the staff aligned their curriculum to the content standards and that they use data to make further modifications and to address individual student needs. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's Charter School Renewal?

Charter schools exist by contract, or charter. Each contract is for a specified time, usually three to five years. However, some charter schools have longer contracts (30 yrs or more) for facility financing reasons. Every time the charter contract is up for renewal, the school goes through an evaluation process to determine if the school should continue.

Before moving on, I just have to say, wouldn't it be nice if EVERY public school in the country went through a regular close examination and the local Board of Education had to vote to either renew or non-renew?

Good charter school authorizers begin building the "body of evidence" for the next renewal when the first contract is executed. A school shouldn't be able to operate in a vacuum for five years and then suddenly undergo close scrutiny by the authorizer in order to get another contract signed. There should be regular, transparent communication between the charter school and the authorizer. This includes regular documentation such as the Annual Performance Report (APR). The authorizer compiles data and findings every year, in cooperation with the charter school, that is then part of the renewal body of evidence. There is ongoing conversations about the APR, such as what should be included and the school should be asked to verify all of the data and information before the APR becomes final.

The Colorado Charter Schools Act requires a charter school to submit a "renewal application" by December 1 of the year prior to their charter contract expiring. In the early years of charter schools in Colorado, these renewal applications took on all forms. Everything from a full charter school application (updated), along with current information for the authorizer and the charter school just renegotiating the charter contract without there being any other paperwork. In other words, the process is driven by each authorizer and can vary significantly.

It's a best practice for authorizers to provide a Renewal Request for Proposals (RFP) that details what the authorizer needs from the charter school in order to consider renewal. This also provides school leaders the opportunity to tell their story to the authorizer. Anything they want to highlight can be included. In the renewal RFP, there is no need for the authorizer to ask for data they already have. Instead, the charter school should comment on what their data shows, strategies for improving data, comprehensive school planning goals, and how gaps will be addressed.

Once the authorizer receives a charter school's renewal application, it should be reviewed by district staff and the charter school subcommittee of the District Accountability Committee. Further, it's considered a best practice for authorizers to have a team of charter school experts, not associated with the charter school or district, to evaluate the charter school. Charter School Solutions does a District Site Review that uses ten standards and 127 indicators within those ten standards. This is an objective, outside analysis of school-wide performance.

All of this information is synthesized into an executive summary for the Board of Education to consider during the charter school's renewal hearing. By law, this must be completed by February 1. The board rules, by resolution, on the charter renewal application. If the school will be renewed, the two parties have 75 days in which to negotiate the new charter contract.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


At the end of each calendar year the lists of over-used words and phrases is in the news. This year's banished list includes "spoiler alert," "trending," "kicking the can down the road," and "bucket list."

Every subculture has their own idiosyncrasies with language. We certainly do in the world of education. In Denver Public Schools everyone starts their sentences with "Sooo..." A few years ago "push back" was so overly used that I thought it impossible for most people to express a complete thought without using the term.   And heaven knows that in education, "accountability" is used for everything imaginable under the sun.

Now out with the old and in with the new. No longer should we be using the terms "reformers" or "reform." Instead, "innovators" and "innovation" are the new black.

In Colorado, we even have an "Innovation Schools Act." To do what you ask? Well, to reduce the bureaucracy we previously created. The law allows schools and school districts to operate differently.

Teachers are expected to be innovators. They should be able to innovatively differentiate instruction for the varied needs of their students, based on data. In fact, it could be said that teachers who cannot innovate are...old. Their practices are stale and unappealing. After all, who wouldn't want a teacher to be an innovator? School is supposed to be fresh and exciting for students every day. The teachers who are innovators do this with the glitzy use of technology and "authentic" or "real world" content.

School district Board's of Education and administrators should also be innovators. Never mind that the people previously fulfilling these roles for the district are probably the individuals who ceded their innovation in previous years when they bought into a collective bargaining agreement or created a new district policy (probably in response to a single event that happened).

And of course policy makers such as the State Board of Education and lawmakers are expected to be innovators. Everyone expects the avant-garde of education to rest with policy makers. Surely every new idea, regardless of its effectiveness over time, is innovative. But the label is only effective with the most recent idea, not the previous ideas. Otherwise, it wouldn't be "innovative."

Being innovative is more than simply tossing around the latest (over-used) word. Moreover, true innovation is often very hard to replicate because it's more complicated than simply instituting a prescriptive formula. It's often the unsung heroes who are the true innovators. But then you don't hear much about the people who put in hundreds of volunteer hours every year going above and beyond their job description because students needed extra help or the administrators who make themselves available to their staff during the day so that instruction is optimal in every classroom and then stays up late each night completing mundane administrative tasks. Many of these individuals wouldn't even call themselves "innovators." They say they were only doing what was right. That is, what was right for the students in their care.