Saturday, August 27, 2011

When is a Charter School a Charter School?

There's been some confusion in Colorado lately, with the creation of the Douglas County School District's Choice Scholarship School (CSS). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others brought a lawsuit against the district because CSS was formed to implement the district's choice scholarship (i.e., voucher) program. The judge hearing the lawsuit ruled in favor of the plaintiff and shut down the charter school. Many have asked me what I think about this being a charter school.

First, my response has nothing to do with the school's mission to implement the district's choice scholarship program. I believe the real issues are related to "what is a charter school"?

The federal Elementary and Secondary Act defines what a charter school is.

(a) in accordance with a specific state statute authorizing the granting of charters to schools, is exempt from significant state or local rules that inhibit the flexible operation and management of public schools, but not from any rules relating to the other requirements of this paragraph;

(b) is created by a developer as a public school, or is adapted by a developer from an existing public school, and is operated under public supervision and control;

(c) operates in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives determined by the school's developer and agreed to by the authorized public chartering agency;

(d) provides a program of elementary or secondary education, or both;

(e) is nonsectarian in its programs, admissions policies, employment practices, and all other operations, and is not affiliated with a sectarian school or religious institution;

(f) does not charge tuition;

(g) complies with the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act;

(h) is a school to which parents choose to send their children, and that admits students on the basis of a lottery, if more students apply for admission than can be accommodated;

(i) agrees to comply with the same federal and state audit requirements as do other elementary and secondary schools in the state, unless such requirements are specifically waived for the purpose of this program;

(j) meets all applicable federal, state, and local health and safety requirements;

(k) operates in accordance with state law; and

(l) has a written performance contract with the authorized public chartering agency in the state that includes a description of how student performance will be measured pursuant to state assessments that are required of other schools and pursuant to any other assessments agreeable to the authorizing agency.

In addition, the Colorado Charter Schools Act explains what a charter school is. A charter school operates with financial autonomy, via a charter/contract, and with waivers from certain laws, rules or district policies. There's a line between the charter school and its authorizer, most often the local school district. This line is determined by the charter school contract.

An authorizer may have say over governance issues by reviewing bylaws in the charter application and then either approving or not approving the charter school. However, an authorizer doesn't have the authority to appoint governing board members or say that certain individuals cannot be on a charter school governing board.

Historically in the state, a handful of districts have created "charter schools" with ulterior motives to get the federal startup grant or seek some other type of incentive. Eventually these charter schools close when they don't get the grant or the incentive otherwise goes away. These could be called "ChINO's" or Charters in Name Only.

What constitutes a public charter school is defined in both federal and state law. In Colorado, because we're a "local control" state, that's left to the individual school district to determine. In other words, it's the local school board that decides IF they grant a charter to an applicant and what that school looks like. There isn't a group of individuals authorized to "police" if it's really a charter school. That determination is often played out over time or litigated based on specific characteristics.

There are numerous shades of gray between clear autonomy in charter schools and those that are more closely aligned with their school district. For example, a district requires all their charter schools to run their financials through the district whereas other charter schools get a check every month that they put into their own bank account. There are different philosophies for charter school authorizers and different perceptions of what is an acceptable relationship. Regardless of its nature, the charter contract describes if it's a ChINO or a real charter school.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Granting Opportunities to New Charter Schools

It costs a lot to open a new charter school. Congress knew this and established the Charter School Program (CSP) in the federal education code. Colorado has received a CSP grant in order to give subgrant awards to new charter schools. New schools can get a three-year grant for expenses such as curriculum development, notifying the community about a new charter school, professional development, technology, curriculum and equipment.

Today the CDE Schools of Choice Unit held a grant writers' training for all new charter schools that want to apply for funds during this fiscal year. Applicants can submit their grant application in either October or February in a two-tier process. Many of today's training haven't even gotten their charter approved yet.

School founders that demonstrate eligibility to apply for this grant get assigned a consultant who will review their application and provide comment on it before it's actually submitted. The grant program is competitive and the highest scoring application gets additional funding for each of the three years.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Glade Park Re-Opens as a Charter School

For 38 years the small community of Glade Park, which sits atop the Colorado Monument above Grand Junction, didn't have a school. Two years ago the school district opened an elementary school in Glade Park only to say they wouldn't be funding it for the 2011-12 school year. Like many of the small, rural communities in Colorado, community members didn't want their children on long bus commutes to larger schools and decided to create a charter school.

Glade Park joins small charter schools Paradox Valley Charter School, North Routt Community Charter School, Guffey Community School, Battle Rock Charter School and Crestone Charter School in providing a hub for the community and educating their young children in a charter school.

Glade Park Community School will provide Kindergarten through fifth grade classes to about 30 students. The school has a Principal and two teachers.

What a Difference a Year Makes!

Northeast Academy Charter School (NACS), in Denver, just started its second year in Turnaround status. What a difference from last year! Last year NACS had three administrators, turned over several staff positions and struggled with discipline all year. Last week I visited the school in the afternoon of its second day and the change was palpable!

The school is now led by Ms. Jere Pearcy, a former teacher and administrator, with a very strong background in Core Knowledge. NACS uses Core Knowledge, Singapore Math and Spalding. The staff had three and a half weeks of training before students arrived last week. Almost half of the staff at NACS is new this year.

It's quite common for Turnaround schools to need a year of transition that's very difficult. Some call it "implementation dip" while others consider drastic change impossible all at once. Either way, this proves to be a much better year for NACS.

Two years ago, before Turnaround, the former Principal and his Asst. Principal couldn't even name the math program used at the school. Several classroom teachers didn't even bother trying to act like they were teaching when visitors toured the school; they just sat in the back of the room.

All NACS students went through Reading level assessment before the first day of school. About 90% of last year's students were below grade level. Many of the older students are 2-3 years behind grade level when they come in to NACS. The 2011 CSAP results showed drops in many content areas, except for Science. Several of the drops were linked to classrooms where there was teacher turnover during the school year.

The NACS community has struggled many times during this Turnaround process. It's nice to see their efforts pay off with a great start to a new school year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Prospect Ridge Academy Breaks Ground!

This evening the families of Prospect Ridge Academy broke ground on their new facility just south of Highway 7 near Sheridan Blvd in Broomfield. Founders of PRA fought for almost three years to get their school. They battled both the school district, Adams 12 School District, and the City Council of Broomfield.

PRA begins school on Thursday in a temporary location in Thornton while their new facility is being built. They plan to move to their new campus during winter break.

The school will serve grades K-6 the first year and enroll about 520 students. There will be three classes per grade level. PRA will use the Core Knowledge curriculum.

PRA's new Principal is April Wilkins, the former Asst. Principal at Peak to Peak in Lafayette. This is April's first Principal job, but she brings a wealth of Core Knowledge and teaching experience.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Loveland Classical Schools Prepares to Open

Last week I visited the campus of Loveland Classical Schools, which is remodeling an existing church building and has added a whole wing of classrooms. They'll open with grades K-9 and about 650 students! That's quite an undertaking for the first year of a new charter school!

Founders Tamara Cramer and Trisha Coberly gave me a tour of the facility that's being built by Bouma Construction. They are a little more than half-way through the building project.

The volunteers in Loveland are amazing! Since the very first time I met with Trisha and Tamara they talked about the incredible people involved in starting their school and how everyone was so helpful with whatever needed to be done. The volunteers continue to take ownership in their new school by being involved!

The Principal for Loveland Classical Schools is David Yu. Last year, David taught at Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins. This will be his first administrative position. As you might imagine, David has been quite busy interviewing new staff members. Since the new facility isn't even ready for administrative office in-habitation, David has been doing what almost all new charter school Principals do: take up residence at the local Starbucks!

In a few weeks LCS will have a tour of the new facility and they will begin school the day after Labor Day. The first day of school will be a culmination of thousands of hours of volunteer time, primarily parents, who want a first-class education for their children!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

HB 1412 Committee Releases Final Report

The advisory committee established by HB 10-1412 to make recommendations for charter school and charter school authorizer standards released its final report. In addition to the standards, the committee recommends other policy changes related to Education Service Providers (ESPs), the definition of "online program," blended learning, charter school waivers, and charter school accountability.

The 13 member committee worked for for ten months and held public hearings on online education, Education Service Providers and non-discrimination issues. The final report was completed with consensus from the committee.

The State Board of Education will adopt rules for charter school authorizer and charter school standards by January 15, 2012. The State Board will also determine the direction for the other recommendations in the report.

At the Sept. 14th regular State Board meeting, members of the HB 1412 committee will present the report to the board. The board received a copy of the report this week and Commissioner Hammond gave a brief update to the board at today's meeting.

I'm Back!

After taking much of the last month off from blogging, I'm back to a regular schedule! Many of the schools are gearing up for the new school year and staff are returning for pre-service training. Thus, life is back to a regular routine!