Thursday, July 29, 2010

Paul Peterson Says It Wasn't Al Shanker's Idea

Paul Peterson says that it was not Al Shanker who first advocated the charter school concept more than 20 years ago. Roy Budde came up with the original concept and Al Shanker spoke about it, but his view was very limited. Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie championed greater autonomy and for others outside of education to have the opportunity to start new charter schools. Most significantly, the Nathan/Kolderie model of charter schools proposed teachers operating outside of collective bargaining agreements established in school districts.

Al Shanker, leader of the New York City's United Federation of Teachers, couldn't tolerate the idea that charter schools would operate with anything other than union teachers at the helm. And thus it remains today, proponents of teacher's unions oppose charter schools.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Support DonorsChoose!

What's the best reason to support DonorsChoose right now? It's because after the organization invited teachers to "Waiting for Superman," a film that supports charter schools, some people have decided to boycott

I've supported DonorsChoose in the past and have personally donated to them numerous times. Via the website, teachers can explain a project they'd like to have funding for and donors can donate to all or part of the project.

Support your favorite charter school by supporting DonorsChoose!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If You Don't Like Your Boss, Just Fire 'Em!

If you don't like your boss, just fire 'em! Too good to be true? Not in Ohio where state law allows an education management company to fire a charter school's board of directors.

Typically a charter school board enters into a performance contract with a management company. The charter governing board should have the authority to terminate a contract if the management company doesn't perform adequately. Well, unless the charter school is in Ohio.

Greg Richmond, from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), wrote an article for EdWeek explaining that charter school boards need to hold their management companies responsible for performance and authorizers need to ensure charter school board members are independent of the company and operate with the best interests of the charter school in mind.

Many of Richmond's recommendations were incorporated into the Colorado sample contract language created last year in collaboration with the state Charter School Institute, Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Department of Education. The sample contract language has an attachment with "Education Service Provider" provisions to enhance the chances of a good relationship with the management company. Fortunately, with the shared expertise of Richmond and others, Colorado was able to benefit from the lessons learned in other states.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Black Eye for Core Knowledge in Colorado

There's a dirty little secret in the Colorado Core Knowledge community that people are trying to ignore. Northeast Academy Charter School (NACS) in Denver was granted official Core Knowledge status in 2008 just a year before Denver Public Schools said the charter school was performing in the bottom 5% of the school district and demanded they either turnaround or close.

Parents who were thrilled that the school received this prestigious recognition were shocked to realize they had been led along a primrose path. The former principal kept bragging about their official status and saying things weren't really as bad as DPS portrayed them to be.

Almost half of the state's charter schools use the Core Knowledge sequence and most are high performing schools. The Core Knowledge Foundation has two levels of recognition: official status and designation as a visitation school.

In order to receive official CK status, the school is visited by two consultants. The consultants' job is to verify if the school is teaching at least 80% of the CK curriculum with fidelity. So the obvious question is, how could a school become an official CK school and within a year DPS was citing the school for being in the bottom 5% of the school district based on academic achievement data? What exactly does "official CK status" mean anyway?

Today Gerald Terrell, from the CK Foundation, said that having the official CK status "label" doesn't justify poor performance.

Certainly having a particular label from the Core Knowledge Foundation is distinctly different than what's actually happening in the school classroom. Many of the CK charter schools in the state are doing well and many of those, without any recognition from the CK Foundation.

Nationally, Colorado is known for having a high percentage of Core Knowledge charter schools. In fact, the state is involved in a federal Institute of Education Sciences study on the impact of CK charter schools on literacy.

Leaders from the CK charter schools that are doing well are struggling with the Core Knowledge Foundation's decision to give official CK status to Northeast Academy Charter School. They don't understand it. And rightly so.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Northeast Academy Charter School Hires New Principal

Last year Denver Public Schools put Northeast Academy Charter School (NACS) on their turnaround list. It was one of three charter schools in Denver designated in the bottom 5% of the district. However, NACS was the only charter school on the list to undergo a significant turnaround under the direction of a management company instead of facing closure.

NACS is a K-8 charter school in the Montbello area of Denver (far northeast). The school uses the Core Knowledge curriculum.

The NACS board contracted with Ridgeview Classical Institute (a nonprofit in association with Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins) to take over the school in January. RCI made formal recommendations for changes in early February and April. These changes included school leadership, instructional practices, staffing, operations, board governance and curriculum.

The school's families had been led to believe that everything was going well for the school. Thus, the school community was shocked to learn of its poor CSAP scores and many were in denial. Several tumultuous meetings took place last spring as the families and staff struggled to comprehend the drastic changes that needed to occur at their school. The principal was terminated in mid-February and the majority of staff members were notified they wouldn't be asked to return the following school year.

Now the school is on the verge of a new start with a new princpal, assistant principal and the vast majority of the staff. There's also been turnover on the board as original school founders came back on the board to reignite the school's original vision.

The NACS board recently hired Troy Wathen to lead their school. Troy comes from Houston where he started and led a private school for the past ten years. Before that he taught and was an administrator in southern California.

Several of the new teachers at NACS come from the Teach for America program. Further, at least one teacher is returning after having left the school a couple of years ago. About eight teachers are returning from last year's staff. Many of the former and new staff spent two weeks in an academy in Fort Collins at Ridgeview Classical Schools in early June.

The classroom instructional approach to the Core Knowledge curriculum will be infused with the Classical approach, which embodies the Socratic method and discussion to drive deeper understanding. Mr. Wathen's previous school was a Classical school and as a teacher, he understands how to monitor student progress with this approach to ensure student academic achievement.

There's an enthusiasm building at Northeast Academy for the new opportunity for students to learn more and to become a quality school. The change hasn't been easy, however.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lee Barratt Retires from the Charter School Institute

The retirement of Lee Barratt, Deputy Director of the Charter School Institute was recently announced. Lee plans to retire at the end of this month.

Lee was one of the first people hired after the formation of the Charter School Institute in 2005. At that point, he'd already created and was the director for the Colorado School Resource Center, a nonprofit that provided technical assistance to new and developing charter schools. Lee has been associated with the development of several charter schools, primarily in Jefferson County where his daughter attended a charter school.

Lee has a Masters in Economics, which he used to provide consultation to schools in regard to their finances. He also established business operations for the CSI. Lee served as the Interim Director of CSI between the resignation of Randy DeHoff and the hire of Mark Hyatt as Executive Director.

It's unclear at this time what Lee plans to do in the future. Knowing Lee, however, and his passion for charter schools it's highly likely he'll be volunteering his services for new charter schools.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Letter to Sec of Education Arne Duncan

A group of us were having lunch yesterday and the discussion turned to Arne Duncan's comments at the National Charter School Conference in Chicago last week. Dr. Jody Ernst, from the Colorado League of Charter Schools, was at the conference and standing in line to ask the Secretary a question, when time ran out. Jody posed her question to the Secretary in the letter below.

Dear Education Secretary Duncan,

I am writing to point out a contradiction you posed to the nation's charter school movement in your address to us at the National Charter Schools Conference on July 1st, 2010. You began your address by issuing a clarion call to the charter movement to increase the number of schools that target a) low income and minority students, b) special education students, and c) students that have dropped out of the traditional education system. While I strongly believe that the movement is already doing this, I think they are also up for this challenge.

But here is the rub.

You followed up this set of statements by berating the leaders of the charter movement for not being bold enough to close the lowest performing schools. While I whole heartedly agree that chronically poor performing charter schools do need to be closed, I think you fail to see a contradiction between these two statements.

I pose you this question to help clarify my point; of the 200 charter schools on the bottom 5% of each states list, how many of those ARE the schools with missions to recover prior dropouts and serve predominantly special education students?

Unfortunately, I cannot answer for the nation but I do know that in Colorado there are 48 such campuses (including, charters, district run, and state schools). Of these 48 campuses, approximately 95% of them are either on Tier 1 or Tier 2 improvement status.

This, I believe, is not due to the effectiveness of the schools but is an artifact of the accountability systems that are in place. According to the 2008 data, Colorado's alternative education campuses (AECs)-including both charter and non-charter schools-averaged 13 percent proficiency in writing, 26 percent proficiency in reading, and 4 percent proficiency in mathematics (compared to the state averages of 53, 68, and 53 in writing, reading, and math, respectively). While this makes me sad to report, I am not terribly surprised given that the average student attending one of our AECs comes to the school between 2 and 6 years behind grade level.. Even if a school is successful at growing their students the equivalent of 2 academic years in one year's time, a great majority will not be able to pass a grade level standardized test.

Colorado appears to understand this, and has recently adopted an alternative accountability framework. This framework focuses a bulk of the accountability for these alternative schools on academic growth and on students' preparedness for postsecondary options, including workforce entry, military enlistment, and enrollment in a certificate program or postsecondary institution. The new framework also gives AECs the ability to report on measures that suit their students, allowing them to provide evidence based on formative assessments that can be given multiple times per year. This is extremely valuable as these high-risk students tend also to be highly mobile.

Until the federal government is prepared to acknowledge the needs of these students, as well as the efforts put forth by the schools whose missions are to serve them, there will not likely be an increase in the number of schools serving drop outs and special education students, charter or otherwise.

Authorizers grow leery of opening new alternative campuses because, under current accountability models, they so often fail. Districts, too, limit the number of alternative programs or schools they open for the same reason.

I encourage you to explore this further, perhaps calling for a survey of the alternative education landscape to help identify quality alternative school models and relevant accountability metrics, and not be so quick to point fingers and issue catch 22s to the charter movement. As a researcher who has dedicated much of the past four years on this topic, I would be delighted to share my findings with you.


Jody L. Ernst, Ph.D.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Was Duncan Right to Scold Charter School Leaders?

After taking a few days to mull over U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's remarks at last week's National Charter School Conference, I have a few comments to make. First, Duncan's tone made people in the audience feel like they were being scolded. People I spoke with said if Duncan would have made his chastising remarks only once, it would have appeared appropriate. As it was, after about the fifth time, it was viewed as Duncan's excuse for failing to come out as a strong charter school advocate and instead bowing to pressure from the teacher's unions.

To be clear, Colorado's charter school movement is vastly different than charter schools in most other states. Our charter schools tend to do better and we tend to have more grassroots startup schools rather than charter schools run by management companies. Further, as a state, we've always focused on quality rather than quantity unlike states like California and Arizona.

The climate around accountability and performance in charter schools has changed over the years. Having been involved in charter schools since 1993, I've seen a shift from an excitement over a new way to do things to a more sophisticated look at how to make sure charter schools are doing well.

I was involved in starting new charter schools in 1994, 1996, and 1999. What's required in a charter school application today is completely different than back in the 1990's. In fact, when the Charter School Institute began in 2004, I was a primary author of their original Request for Applications and my boss and I wrestled with the question, "Are we raising the bar so high that concerned parents will no longer have the capacity to start a charter school?" You see, we both believe that average people, not necessarily professional educators, should be able to start and run a public charter school. Albeit with a lot of time, effort and a steep learning curve!

Additionally, charter school authorizers have dramatically increased their sophistication in reviewing new charter school applications, monitoring/oversight of operating charter schools and the fortitude to know when a charter school needs to be closed. The availability of information through the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has changed the landscape for authorizers. In Colorado, where in the past two years there's been a Model Charter School Application developed and sample contract language available now to improve authorizing practices, the capacity of authorizers to do their job well has increased exponentially.

I've only missed one authorizer's meeting since they began about four years ago and can honestly say that authorizers attending the meetings want to be fair and not play any tricks with their schools. But they also want to see their charter schools doing better than their average district-operated schools. It's a fair trade to assume that if a group of people want control of public funds in order to provide a quality education for students, they should do that better than others in the marketplace.

Colorado has seen 21 charter school closures. Although at first many closures were due to financial reasons, the past five years have brought at least four charter schools to close their doors. Most charter schools that close are in what's called the "death spiral": they're not doing well academically, so their attendance goes down, which means they can't meet budget.

Clearly charter schools that do not educate their students well should close. The same should be true of noncharter public schools, operated by school districts. Further, charter schools should be held to a high standard. The same standard applied to noncharter public schools. Singling out poor performing charter schools while ignoring the poor performance of district-operated schools is hypocritical.

In his remarks last week, Duncan said that the charter school movement was losing its influence on the national scene because it wasn't policing its own. His remarks seemed aimed at both academically low-performing charter schools and also the many charter school scandals in the headlines across the country in the past year (of which Colorado contributed plenty!).

Last year when Duncan spoke at the same conference, he said that he viewed charter schools as one of the four turnaround strategies he intended for the bottom 5% of public schools in the nation. That particular option is rarely used by districts in their turnaround efforts. Hmm, wonder why? Now the Secretary says charter schools themselves are to blame for not being more appealing. Really?

Or has the Secretary of Education simply run into opposition he is having trouble surmounting? Maybe when Duncan stepped into his new role as Secretary, he didn't anticipate the resistence from teacher's unions and education establishment who don't like the status quo being altered. Many educators voiced their displeasure with No Child Left Behind and with a change in national leadership were hopeful that things would go back to the way they were before. But they didn't.

Instead Pres. Obama and Secretary Duncan voiced support for charter schools by incentivizing states to be charter friendly in order to compete for Race to the Top dollars. But while taking that stand, they failed to put anything into the grant program for charter schools so instead, states are able to use RttT money without including their charter schools.

It appears as though the current administration wants to be identified as supporting reforms, such as charter schools, but is hesitant to take a strong, effective stand. Thus, charter schools are still the "little guy" and are getting kicked around by a system strongly in favor of the status quo.

So when I hear Arne Duncan's attack on charter school leaders for not policing their own, it sounds like an excuse. Something to hide behind. And I thought that last year, Duncan made bold claims about reforming the bottom 5% of the nation's public schools. I guess he found out that task is harder than he thought.

Monday, July 5, 2010

BEST Capital Construction Grants Go to Five Charter Schools

The Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant program's board is recommending 35 cash grant awards, including five charter school projects. To be eligible for the grant program, the project needs to have a local match. Lake George, N Routt and Vista are all being recommended for the lease-purchase funding portion of the BEST program.

The five charter schools recommended for funding include:
1. James Irwin Charter Middle School: $655,280 for a roof replacement
2. Marble Charter School: $177,768 for a walkway between school buildings
3. Lake George Charter School: $6,488,532 for a new P-6 school
4. North Routt Charter School: $3,186,671 for a new K-8 building
5. Vista Charter High School: $4,595,063 for a high school facility replacement

Having been at most of these facilities, it's easy to say that these schools are very deserving of this financial assistance. Small, rural schools such as Marble, N Routt and Lake George are the lifeblood of these small communities and have very few options for facilities. Marble and N Routt are at least partially in facilities that are listed as a historical building. Translated this means lots of charm and minimal functionality.
Update: Lake George article

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Boasberg Addresses National Charter School Conference

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg was on a panel moderated by Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe this morning at the closing day of the National Charter School Conference.

Boasberg said that charter schools have brought competition to the monopoly and that DPS was trying to embrace all high quality schools. He said there should be no distinction between charter schools and non charter schools.

Boasberg spoke about the Innovative Schools Act in Colorado and noted that seven DPS schools have selected that option. He also said that when DPS “stack ranked” all their public schools, two clearly rose to the top: Denver School of Science and Technology and W Denver Prep.

US Sec of Ed, Arne Duncan, Address National Charter School Conference

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education addressed the charter school conference today through a web link. In his opening remarks, Duncan repeatedly chastised charter school leaders for not taking a firmer stance against low-performing public charter schools. Duncan reminded attendees that at last year’s conference in Washington, D.C. he issued a challenge to charter school leaders to vocally oppose bad charter schools. He said that charter schools are vulnerable to criticisms when it is not policing itself and warned that if the charter school movement didn’t police itself, others would step in. Duncan said, “I strongly, strongly urge this movement to step in and close that void.”

Duncan also reiterated several of the common misperceptions about public charter schools and challenged the charter school community to address the criticisms that charter schools cream the best students, don’t serve the same percentage of special needs students and are seen as the problem instead of the solution.

The Secretary responded to questions posed by audience members. Duncan was pointedly asked what his administration’s response would be to the proposed cuts to charter school funds that Rep. Obey introduced yesterday. He vaguely stated that “this ball game isn’t over yet” and said they were in “an active conversation with Congress.” Duncan said there were other options without sacrificing their reform agenda.

Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ board president, Caprice Young, told Sec. Duncan that they would provide him with a list of the low-performing charter schools state charter school associations worked to close during the past year. Duncan contended that the charter school community needed to do more than just verbally agree with the principle that only good charter schools should be open. He said that the charter school community has not been policing its own. He pointed out that of the lowest performing public schools being targeted for turnaround, 200 of the 5,000 lowest schools are public charter schools.

Congress Considers $100 Million Cut to Charter Schools Program

People attending the National Charter School Conference were eager to get an update on the cuts to the Charter School Program funds in Congress. Yesterday, Rep. Obey (D-WI) amended the War Supplemental bill to provide for 10 billion for education jobs while making this funding available by cutting 200 million from the teacher incentive program, 500 million from Race to the Top and 100 million from the Charter School Program. Those hit hardest by the proposed cuts would be new charter schools that rely heavily upon federal startup and implementation funds to open their doors and successful charter schools that seek to replicate.

The proposed cuts are aimed at the Obama administration’s education reform projects. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has incentivized states wanting Race to the Top funds by saying the state needed to be “charter friendly.” Many states have either increased their caps on the number of new charter schools or else considered legislation that was not passed.

Charter school lobbyists are eager to apply pressure on Congress today, before they break for the July 4th holiday. One U.S. Representative said charter school folks had generated more than 10 million email messages to Congress and asked the Alliance for Public Charter Schools to “call off the dogs.” Rep. Obey took action in the Rules Committee yesterday and further action could happen as early as today.