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.

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