Friday, June 24, 2011

Light Blogging Ahead

I won't be posting very much in the next few weeks. I hope you are enjoying your summer!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Where the Charter School Board Should Focus

Most charter school governing boards spend the bulk of their meeting time discussing budgets, facilities, logistics and policies--the "business" side of a charter school. But the focus should be on student academic achievement. A good barometer for how well a governing board is doing with implementing its vision and mission is to consider how much meeting time it focuses on student achievement.

Oftentimes a governing board will be focused on the immediate needs of a charter school such as calming parent concerns or addressing facility limitations. But the most important reason to have a charter school is to make sure students are learning and able to move to the next grade level or graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary for a successful future.

Almost all of Colorado's charter schools have student academic achievement in their vision and mission statements. However, the amount of time boards spend on discussing or implementing this aspect of the school's purpose can vary significantly.

At each year's strategic planning session, the entire board should discuss the vision and mission statements. Each board member could talk about what word or phrase stands out to them the most and why. Each board member should explain what their personal vision is for the school and how it does or doesn't match with the school's vision statement. Another useful approach is to have the board distill the vision statement down to a slogan or phrase that best describes their school. For example, some schools use the slogan, "First Comes Learning" to communicate the school's primary purpose and to use as a filter for all decision-making.

It's wise for charter school board members to periodically reflect on what unspoken messages they're sending to school staff and stakeholders. If verbally board members say they prioritize academics as number one, but then don't reflect that in their work, it means little.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Denver Justice: A Charter School to be Proud Of

Denver Justice Charter School is led by two men who personify what a great school is about. Gary Losh is the Principal and Jimmy Monaghan is the Asst. Principal. Both will go to whatever length necessary for their students. For them, school is more than a job--it's a passion.

In the several times I've been at the school I've observed Gary taking students to court appointments, Jimmy getting students back into class and both of them going the extra mile with their students. Both men talk about their students in a way that shows they have the belief that these students can make it to be successful--if they will just try.

Denver Justice recently graduated a class of 12, many of whom had difficulties in reaching graduation day. The school is small, which allows for all students to be known as individuals.

Denver Justice is at I-70 and Shoshone St. in Denver and just completed its second year of operation. Denver Justice is modeled after Boulder Justice, which has been open since 2006. Both schools focus on serving adjudicated and high-risk students.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Boot Camp Pics

Charter School Boot Camp 2011

The CO Department of Education, in conjunction with the state Charter School Institute and the League of Charter Schools, hosted the annual Charter School Boot Camp. This is an intense, three-day workshop on how to write a charter school application. Some say it's like drinking from a fire hose. In fact, at the close of the first day, one of this year's participants said she walked in thinking she knew quite a bit about charter schools and was then feeling overwhelmed with all she didn't know.

The topics covered at Boot Camp are broad: vision/mission, curriculum, assessment, governance, employee relations, finance and budgeting, literacy, accountability, and lots of resources that are available for brand new charter applicants.

The website,, is the place to start. There are numerous links, via a flow chart, of all the different steps to starting a charter school. In addition, there are a number of best practice resources on the CDE website.

The purpose of the Boot Camp is also to give applicants an idea of who to contact with different questions. Presenters include staff from CDE, the League and the Charter School Institute (CSI). Additionally, leaders in the charter school community donate their time to help train these new charter applicants.

Boot Camp is designed to be overwhelming. But then starting a new charter school is also very overwhelming and it's only meant for the best prepared applicant. Not everyone who attends Boot Camp actually submits a charter school application. Boot Camp is designed to weed out the faint-hearted charter applicant.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Prospect Ridge Wraps Up Plans for Their New Home

Prospect Ridge Academy (PRA) is finally wrapping up a historical struggle to get a charter school facility approved. Prospect Ridge initially fought the Adams 12 School District to get a charter approved and then the battle turned in to a problem getting the district and the City of Broomfield, to agree to a site plan for their new facility. School leaders have been struggling with these obstacles for years, but it looks like their heroic efforts will finally result in a new charter school.

PRA will use a retail space formerly used by The Pinnacle Charter School in Thornton while their new facility is prepared. PRA plans to relocate their school over winter break.

April Wilkins, the former Asst. Principal at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette will be PRA's new principal. Student demand for the new charter school in the Erie area has been very heavy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Creep (Yet Again!)

In 1994 when we were starting one of the first charter schools in Colorado, the district tried to say that we needed to use a lottery for enrollment. We vehemently objected to this. We contacted our State Senator who ran an amendment to the Charter Schools Act that says, "Enrollment decisions shall be made in a nondiscriminatory manner specified by the charter school applicant in the charter school application." Thus, the charter school used a waiting list for enrollment.

In about 1997 the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the federal Charter School Grant Program, began requiring the use of a lottery in order to get the startup and implementation grant most of the charter schools are dependent upon. The charter schools in Colorado that used a waiting list met with a representative of the U.S. department and explained why it didn't want to switch and couldn't be required to by state law. The feds were undaunted by their arguments and began requiring a lottery for all public charter schools receiving the grant. At first it was just a requirement and monitoring for enforcement was not required. It's now required for state's who provide subgrants to ensure that an equitable lottery process is in place for enrollment.

Not long ago the charter school governing board, at the school where the founders fought for the right to do a waiting list, decided to have the district do their enrollment. Parents selecting a school in the district list their options, ranked by priority. The district tells the charter schools which students they will be able to enroll the following year.

How does creep happen? By others becoming involved who don't understand the history or the philosophy of charter schools. They don't know what battles are worth fighting. And quite simply, they may have a different viewpoint. Many new charter school governing board members don't even know what the essential charter school philosophies are. Although many can identify choice or parental involvement, rarely do charter school board members understand the critical need for autonomy or complete control over finances and employees.

Creep doesn't happen by leaps and bounds. Instead it happens gradually--over time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Creep (Again)

A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting of charter school business managers and an attorney was speaking about charter school employment issues. It happens that this attorney has been involved in the charter school movement since the very beginning in Colorado. He made the assertion that charter schools have an obligation to put the interests of their school before that of individual employees. This ruffled some feathers in the room.

The charter school movement was started by people who believed in at-will employment, the polar opposite of general public education, which is largely influenced by the teacher's union and their interests. In fact, many district administrators don't know a world that's any different. Everything they do is influenced by the collective bargaining agreement. They can't change the school calendar without getting approval from the teacher's union. They can't ask a teacher to do detention after school without it being a teacher's union issue.

But the exact opposite is true in charter schools where all employees are at-will in nature. Principals serve "at the pleasure" of the Board and can be terminated with a simple, "your skills are no longer needed at our charter school." There are no guaranteed terms, such as a year-long contract that would require a "buy-out" if the employee is terminated early.

So why were some of these business managers reacting to the attorney's statement that the needs of the charter school should take precedence over the needs of teachers? Because 18 years after the first charter school in Colorado, a vast majority of people who now work in charter schools COME from traditional public education. The union philosophy is embedded in their thought processes. And they can't see life being any different.

To be clear, the discussion was not about the value of classroom teachers, the appropriateness of their salaries nor the attribution of salary to the number of days worked.

The questions posed by the attorney were:
1. should the charter school knowingly generously, possibly over-compensate, an employee upon departure (voluntary or forced); does this meet the fiduciary responsibility required of charter school leaders?
2. have charter schools stayed true to the original charter school philosophy based on at-will employment?

For years I've talked about bureaucratic or regulation creep, meaning top-down requirements to in some ways have charter schools conform to traditional public schools. This is probably most evident in the vastly-more-sophisticated charter school application process that has developed over the years. The difference between what is required of a charter school applicant today is night and day different from 1993 when the Charter Schools Act passed.

One can wonder if this "creep" is improving the process or simply hindering it. Are charter schools going to gradually become the same as any district-operated public school system? Using the metaphor of the frog placed in a pot of water that gradually gets hotter until the frog is boiled, will charter school leaders even notice when they no longer operate with autonomy?