Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why Charter Schools Close in Colorado

Eddie wants to know more about charter school closures in Colorado after writing about a report from the Center for Education Reform (CER) about charter school closures. According to the report, about 15% of public charter schools have closed for a variety of reasons.

The CER report says that most charter school closures are within the first five years of existence. This brings up a number of issues:

1. Should the charter school application have been approved in the first place? Was there a solid plan in place that was led by competent individuals?

2. Was the educational model based on success in other schools or was it an experiment in process?

3. Did the school's financial situation cause failure?

Sometimes charter school authorizers approve a new charter school application for all the wrong reasons. It could be political pressure or simply wanting to give the applicant a chance. Whatever the motivation, there are two key issues to consider and that is 1) is the plan a good plan? and 2) are the founders capable of carrying off the plan?

This is why the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recommends interviewing the founders to ensure they have the capacity to start a new charter school. This includes both the passion to put in the daunting hours and the expertise to either know, or be willing to learn, what's required. Many capable parents have started charter schools in Colorado, but that doesn't mean anyone can do it. It takes a very high level of commitment and often the rewards are minimal.

The second key consideration in why charter schools fail is their educational program design. One of the most common mistakes is designing an educational program that doesn't match the needs of the students the school ultimately serves. Many founders have over-estimated what their students will be able to do upon entry and were overwhelmed with the amount of remediation that was required in order to accomplish the curriculum. Almost every new charter school teacher has been faced with the dilemma of what level to teach to and how to deal with the myriad of ability levels within a grade level classroom. Charter school authorizers need to ensure the applicant's plan is solid and covers all ability levels. Especially in the early years, the wide variety of needs is the most taxing on a charter school staff.

Third, the "death spiral" can hit a charter school at any time. This comes when enrollment slips about 10-20 students causing cut-backs in the budget and probably less programming and fewer teachers. The following year it's a little worse and at some point, either the authorizer or the charter school leaders say it's time to close the school. This is often attributed to being a financial cause for school closure, but it's more than just financial reasons. Finances and enrollment are very closely tied together since schools are funded on a per student amount.

In Colorado, 27 charter schools have closed to date. Of those, 16 have closed for financial/enrollment reasons. A handful (including Clayton, Ute Creek, and Sojourner) closed voluntarily. In other words, their governing board made the decision to close. Most are forced closures. Colorado Visionary Academy and Colorado Distance and Electronic Learning Academy are two examples of charter schools that closed after unsuccessful appeals to the State Board of Education.

Closing a school is never easy. Over the years, I've personally wrestled with when a charter school should close because I agree with the philosophy that a public school (regardless if it's a charter school or district-operated school) should close if it isn't serving students well. I've seen schools like Life Skills Center of Denver change dramatically with a little assistance. And I've watched Northeast Academy in Denver undergo major changes since it was identified in Turnaround Status.

From years of wrestling with these issues of what factors indicate a charter school should close, I've taken away two essential questions: 1) who carries the heart of the school? and 2) do they have the capacity to make the needed changes? Detailing that is a blog post in itself!

Getting back to charter school closures in Colorado, charter school contracts must be at least five years in order to see if the data supports a new charter school's closure. Many charter schools struggle in the formative years as they remediate students and coalesce around a new staff. There should be at least three consecutive years of data examined before a decision to close is made. Further, there must be a fair and transparent process. Authorizers need to have frank and honest discussions and document the process and discussions in order to ensure that everyone is effectively communicating. Annual Performance Reviews (APRs) are an "annual report" and an ideal place to document lack of academic progress.

Charter school closures need to happen in order for the charter school philosophy that "a charter school should only remain open if it's serving students well and able to operate in a fiscally sound manner" can play out.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Management Companies and the State Board of Education

You'll notice that I've always been objective in writing about charter school appeal hearings before the State Board of Education when I was an employee of CDE. Now that I'm no longer an employee, I feel compelled to write about the appeal hearing heard by the State Board earlier this month.

Disclosure: I have organized a company, Charter School Solutions, LLC, with Brad Miller, the Falcon School District attorney and Dave Martin, the former Board President of the Falcon 49 School Board. I did not participate in the appeal case, however; Brad has his own law practice.

I was at both appeal hearings. The first appeal hearing was largely about management company issues, specifically:
  • has the charter school governing board done due diligence in selecting a management company based on their merits;
  • does the charter school board have their own legal counsel, separate from the management company's legal counsel;
  • are there any "poisonous pills" in the management agreement, for example a provision that the board is left with a "charter in name only" if the two parties separated; and
  • does the charter board have say in the selection, evaluation or termination of the principal.
The second appeal wasn't heard within the statutory timeline as both parties agreed to waive the deadlines. The Falcon board didn't ever hold a public hearing and vote on the State Board's remand order because they contended there was never a party to negotiate with, meaning the charter school board wasn't credible since they didn't have their own legal counsel and were still operating under the auspices of Imagine, Inc.

I thought Ed News' Todd Engdahl, who was also at the hearing, had a shallow understanding of the dynamics of what transpired during the appeal hearing. In his article, he wondered why the Falcon school board was taking issue with Imagine, Inc. when they already had one Imagine charter school in the district and had previously approved Pioneer Imagine. What changed within that time period?

Everything! Colorado now has a Standard Application, Checklist for Completeness and Review Rubric and Sample Contract Language, both documents shed a wealth of information on management company issues that weren't available even two years ago. In particular, the sample contract language publication has an "ESP Guidelines" (Education Service Provider, the generic term for all management companies) that details what should, and should not, be in management company contracts with the charter school board. Both of these documents were created through a collaboration of the state Charter School Institute, Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Department of Education.

The world of charter schools is ever-evolving. Another important factor in the case was that the charter school board wanted to also govern the new school, Pioneer Imagine. Since they're also the governing board for Imagine Classical at Indigo Ranch (the other Imagine charter school in Falcon) the plan was to govern both simultaneously.

A number of charter school governing boards in the state have multiple charters: Denver School of Science and Technology, West Denver Prep, SOAR, KIPP, James Irwin Charter Schools, Jefferson Academy Charter Schools, and Compass Montessori, just to name a few. But during the Pioneer Imagine appeal hearing, State Board member Elaine Berman said she'd never heard of a charter school board overseeing more than one charter. Interesting question, given that Denver (her district) has numerous situations where a single governing board oversees multiple charters. Moreover, having multiple charters has become increasingly common because school district authorizers can approve a "known commodity" when they know the educational program and the charter school's leaders.

Colorado is truly in a different place in regard to charter schools. Two years ago the state was dealing with the Cesar Chavez Academy fiasco and the charter school community responded with improving its own systems. Now charter school authorizers routinely ask for information about management companies in charter school applications. Because this application component was absent in the statute, many districts had to go back and ask for information or simply do without, in making a decision on the charter school application. Now authorizers are encouraged to fully research the company's financial standing, operations and academic accomplishments before a charter school application is approved. Further, the Sample Contract Language and ESP Guidelines stipulate that the authorizer needs to approve of the management company's performance agreement before the charter contract is executed and that the provisions must be in alignment with the state-recommended ESP provisions.

Yes, Colorado is in a different place now that we have state-level model documents that establish a standard for what is acceptable in charter school applications and contracts. Since these documents were created through a variety of expertise and representing a variety of interests, it's time the State Board translates these new standards to their appeal hearing decision-making.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Charter School Management Organizations: Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts

Mathematica Policy Research and the Center on Reinventing Public Education recently published a study on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), or nonprofit management companies. The report, titled Charter School Management Organizations: Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts was written to shed more light on these companies that are replicating in record numbers. Below are some highlights from the report:

  • Attracting substantial philanthropic support, CMO schools have grown rapidly from encompassing about 6 percent of all charter schools in 2000 to about 17 percent of a much larger number of charter schools by 2009 (Miron 2010).
  • CMOs represent approximately 20 percent of the approximately 5,000 charter schools operating nationally, up from 12 percent in 1999.
  • About 80 percent of all CMO-run schools operate in Texas, California, Arizona, and Ohio.
  • About 74 percent of all CMO schools eligible for our study are located in cities.
  • Compared to their host districts, the middle school student population served by the average CMO in our study includes a greater percentage of minority and low-income students.
  • CMO charter school principals report that their teachers receive more coaching and are more likely to be paid based on performance.
  • Like public charter schools as a whole, the report finds that student achievement results are mixed with findings going both positive and negative. Keep in mind that the types of schools and educational programs also vary significantly.
The initial positive impacts of CMO-operated schools probably is more indicative of the type of program they operate rather than that they are CMO-operated. Schools with schoolwide behavioral expectations and more teacher coaching show more positive results. These findings could be generalized to all new, mission-driven schools, not just those operated with a common governing board, educational design model or back office services.

As the trend continues to be on replicating systems that have already demonstrated success, research such as this study will provide helpful information to charter school authorizers that are considering whether or not to approve new charter schools.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What Works in Replication

A new report, mapping the replication landscape in Colorado, has just been released. Dr. Dick Carpenter and Krista Kafer published, Charter School Replication in Colorado, for the CO Dept of Education.

While all sets of multiple schools under a single governing board or charter can be called replication schools, the structure for how these schools operate and share services can vary significantly. Education Service Providers (ESPs) is the term for both for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) and nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs). CMOs tend to be local, either within the same geographic region or within a single school district. Many EMOs operate in multiple states.

Colorado has both EMOs and CMOs. The recent trend has been for more CMOs, however. Particularly, this is happening in Denver where West Denver Prep, KIPP and Denver School of Science and Technology are operating multiple campuses with many more planned. These schools operate under the umbrella of a single governing board. Most have their own charter contract, but it's nearly identical to those of their other schools. Quite often, students flow between the associated schools.

But are students in these types of related structures doing any better than grassroots startup charter schools? Not yet says the Center of Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Public Policy Research report on CMOs. Future blogs will dig into this report further.

Why would policy makers and charter school authorizers favor existing charter schools that want to add additional campuses? They're a known commodity. Decision makers know what the new charter school will look like and how they perform, it's not simply someone's "vision," like a new charter school application.

Since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is encouraging more charter school replications to address the lack of quality options for students in urban areas, we'll probably be seeing many more replications in Colorado. The question will be in how these existing charter schools can bring their schools to scale and if quality remains the same in the additional schools.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ross Montessori in Carbondale

This week I visited Ross Montessori School in Carbondale. The school opened in 2005 after being one of the first two charter school applications approved by the then-new Charter School Institute.

Ross Montessori's Head of School is Sonya Hemmen who is new to the school this year, but has extensive experience in public education. The school offers preschool through 8th grade to about 240 students.

Ross Montessori applied for, and was awarded the BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) grant for capital needs. The school asked for a waiver from the $5 million matching amount that was not granted, essentially making the award unusable. Currently the school is in a series of modular building on a rented piece of land on the edge of Carbondale.