Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jeffco Approves Two New Charter Schools

This week the Jeffco Board of Education voted to approve two new charter schools: Twin Roads High School and the Rocky Mountain Deaf High School.

Twin Roads is the high school to an existing home-based option the district has operated for many years. Many of the same families in the home school program will enroll full-time to attend the high school.

Rocky Mountain Deaf School opened as a K-8 and teaches American Sign Language. The newly approved high school portion will continue the existing program.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who Holds the Charter?

States across America have different laws regarding who can hold the charter: a network board or the individual charter school board. In California, the authorizer contracts with a network for numerous boards. If a charter applicant is deemed a charter school with statewide impact the board can have ten separate schools via a streamlined process.

Other states, such as Florida and Michigan, don't allow an authorizer to contract for multiple charter schools. Every contract is with an individual charter school board.

This is a very big issue in Colorado now where the Charter School Institute recently changed from contracting with the Cesar Chavez Network board for individual contracts with GOAL Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy-North Colo. Springs (now called Scholars to Leaders Academy). Both of the CSI charter schools created their own governing boards under a Memorandum of Understanding between the CSI board and the Network. The two schools are now operating independent of the Network.

Now that the Network only has two charter schools -- Cesar Chavez Academy-Pueblo and Dolores Huerta Academy - the Network is little more than a defunct structure. The Network CFO, Jason Guerrero, is wrapping up business affairs in consultation with the Network's legal counsel. In negotiation is which entity will assume debts and where the assets will reside. Resolving these issues could take years.

NACSA Conference in Salt Lake City

I'm in Salt Lake City for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers conference. Today I'll be attending sessions on replication, closure and accountability. The hot topic in the charter authorizer community is hot to close unperforming charter schools. Another hot topic follows the trend in the past few years of replicating successful charter schools. Many of these replications use the same nonprofit charter management organization to oversee multiple schools.

I'll be twittering today @cocharters about the conference.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Going on in Denver?

Denver Public Schools has authorized more charter schools than any of the other 177 school districts in Colorado. Presently, 21 are operating and many more have been approved to open over the next few years.

Scoring #1 and #2 in the district according to the DPS School Performance Framework is Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) and W Denver Prep. Both of these existing charter schools have been approved to replicate their existing programs in other parts of the district. Clearly, everyone in Denver sees the benefit of having independently-operated, successful charter schools. Right?

Not according to at-large Board of Education candidate, Christopher Scott, who seems to liken public charter schools to the plague. Forget that parents are flocking to these schools across the state with more than an estimated 35,000 on waiting lists for the more than 160 charter schools operating this school year.

One could think that Mr. Scott doesn't like public charter schools because he's aligned with the teacher's union, but in Denver the teacher's union has started an innovation school called Math and Science Leadership Academy.

Instead it seems that Mr. Scott is a part of the old education bureaucracy whose philosophies drove us to needing charter schools in the first place. When educrats aren't responsive to parents, parents find a way to go around them. They certainly don't elect them to the school board and trust that they know better than the parents who are raising these children.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When Schools Compete

North of the metro Denver area there is a competition for elementary school students brewing and it could end up being a free-for-all.

The St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) has announced its plans to open a new elementary school in Erie and the school will offer the Core Knowledge curriculum, popular with many parents. There are presently two charter school applications in the process and all are targeting the same group of students.

To put this into context, a little history is important to note. Twin Peaks Academy opened in Longmont in 1997 after an extensive battle of appeal hearings to the State Board of Education and numerous application attempts. Then Peak to Peak opened in Lafayette after yet more struggles, which included delaying a year due to the lack of a facility. Peak to Peak was in such high demand about five years ago that only siblings of current students could get into the Kindergarten class. Disillusioned, parents who couldn't get their children into Peak to Peak formed to start Flagstaff Academy, which was originally intended to open in Erie, but had to locate in Longmont due to facility issues. In the meantime, Imagine Classical at Firestone was approved, again after appeals and delays, with the SVVSD.

With all of these charter schools offering the Core Knowledge curriculum, you'd think it would have reached a saturation point, but quite the opposite is true. Prospect Ridge and Foundations Academy have both applied to the Adams 12 School District and are attempting to locate in the Erie area. Again, both applicants are proposing schools that will use the Core Knowledge curriculum. Further, most of the charter schools already open have extensive waiting lists, some into the thousands.

The Erie area is close to borders of the Boulder Valley School District, the St. Vrain district, and the Adams 12 district. Therefore, it's likely that any school that opens could compete for students and draw them across district boundaries.

Now the St. Vrain district Superintendent, Don Haddad, announces a new elementary school in Erie. Not taking into consideration the controversy about the district's plans to open the new school in modules, when a few years ago they criticized Imagine Classical at Firestone for opening in modules that weren't "safe," the district has apparently heard loud and clear the call from parents for more Core Knowledge schools. The district is now in the game!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Developing Charter Schools

It's that time of year again when numerous developing charter schools have applications in and are undergoing public hearings. It's also the time for tier one of the Colorado Charter School Grant Program.

Some of the new charter applicants include:
1. Manny Martinez, an Edison Learning school in Denver Public Schools
2. W Denver Prep #3 and #4, both will be in northwest Denver
3. Colorado Springs Vocational Academy has applied in Colorado Springs 11
4. Provost Academy is an online Edison Learning School authorized by the Charter School Institute
5. Rocky Mountain Deaf High School, Jeffco, an extension to the already operating K-8 ASL charter
6. Foundations Academy, a National Heritage Academies school applying in Adams 12 Five Star
7. North Star Academy-West, a replication in Highlands Ranch of the existing school in Parker
8. Mountain Middle School, applying to CSI and located in Durango
9. Denver Language School, DPS, a Mandarin Chinese and Spanish language school
10. Prospect Ridge, Adams 12, Core Knowledge K-8 in Erie
11. Mountain Career Online, applying to CSI from Pagosa Springs
12. Global Village Academy #2, applying in Denver and already operating a K-8 in Aurora

Jeffco's Board of Education votes on their four charter school applications next Thursday, the 22nd. Douglas County is going to wait until after the Nov. election results. Within the next two months numerous new charter school applications will be approved. It's that time of year again!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Teaching from Where?

A North Dakota State University economics professor is teaching from her post in Iraq. The professor is with the Minnesota Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq last August. Cheryl Wachenheim, continues to teach using her personal laptop after having chipped in on a satellite dish to make Internet connection possible.

Personally being a native of North Dakota, I find Cheryl Wachenheim's work ethic understandable. But her mentioning it was a really big deal when she found out the base had Diet Mountain Dew shows she's a typical Nodak. Mountain Dew is very popular in North Dakota!

Cheryl's legacy will be that she served her country admirably and for that I give her a huge "thank you!" It's this kind of person every parent would be proud to have teach their child. Knowing Cheryl is so passionate about teaching and interacting with students puts her on another pedestool as far as I'm concerned. Thank you, Cheryl Wachenheim!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The John Adams HBO Series

I own the John Adams HBO series on DVD and so enjoyed reading Greg Forster's summary of the movie here.

News Release from the Charter School Institute

Charter School Institute Statement on Cesar Chavez Network

Lee Barratt, interim executive director of the Charter School Institute, today issued the following statement regarding the Cesar Chavez Network:

“The Charter School Institute welcomes the recent actions by the Cesar Chavez School Network (CCSN) to transfer the charters for Cesar Chavez North and Goal Online Academy to new independent boards, a direction set in motion with an agreement signed in August by both the institute and the CCSN boards.

“This agreement was designed to create strong, independent governance of the two schools operated by the network and authorized by the institute. The goal of the institute is to ensure quality education and continuity in the education of the students served at all CSI schools.

“The institute has no role in the decisions about individual staff and managers of the Cesar Chavez School Network. Our concerns with CCSN have centered on governance, management, finances and operations.

“The activities by the CCSN at these schools—such as repeated firings of school principals, mass firings of teachers and closing down online education services to students—raised questions about the ability of the network to continue to provide quality education to its students.

“As the CCSN leadership and board repeatedly failed to comply with our agreement, the institute prepared to initiate the process to revoke the charters from CCSN and to issue new charters for each school to the new boards, created in accordance with the August agreement.

“The goal of the CSI will be the continued operation of the schools under the oversight of newly-constituted boards at each school. Each school will have a new charter to operate that is separate from the original charter with the network.

“It remains the position of the institute that these new boards will determine whether a continuing relationship between each school and the CCSN is in the best interests of students.

“The specifics of those agreements, if they are negotiated between the schools' boards and the CCSN, will be subject to approval by the CSI.”

For more information about the Charter School Institute, contact interim director Lee Barratt at 303-866-3275 or CSI Board of Directors president Alex Medler at 720-635-8329.

Monday, October 5, 2009

CSI Wins Again!

The Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal from the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) against the Charter School Institute (CSI). A lower court had already ruled in favor of CSI, but the law firm of Caplan and Ernest told BVSD they'd do the appeal to the state pro bono and so BVSD took them up on the offer.

The lawsuit alleged CSI was unconstitional as it impeded on the local district's "local control" provision of the state constitution. Because the CSI law, part 5 of the Charter Schools Act, allows a district to retain exclusive chartering authority if they meet certain criteria, the lower court determined it was up to the local district if they retained exclusive chartering authority and it wasn't a condition imposed by the state.

This final decision is huge for the 17 CSI charter schools who want to finance their facilities and have been in limbo until now. Financial institutions were hesitant to enter into an obligation if the CSI law were determined unconstitional. It was never clear what would have happened with the existing charter schools authorized by CSI if the lawsuit would have gone the other way.

Update: Here is a press release from CSI.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Writing in Stone

The vision and mission of a charter school rest with the founders and first governing board. Charter school leaders in Colorado have had an ongoing discussion for years about how to make sure that key features of the charter school remain consistent over time and are not changed by future boards.

In the first draft of a common charter contract there is a section for "unique featuers," which should be written by the charter school's founders. This essentially "writes in stone" what matters most to the charter school's design. Examples include the use of uniforms, a longer school day and school year, a college prep curriculum, or project-based learning. Because these features are listed in the contract, changing them would constitute a "material change" and require approval by the authorizer's board.

Charter school leaders like knowing there is a way to identify unique characteristics of the school that founders advocated for when they were applying for the new charter school. In the past, some boards have written these features into their bylaws, board policies, or charter application in the hopes that they would have staying power. No one, however, had confidence in trusting the adherence to the original vision and mission to future board members without some level of accuntability to ensure the vision would remain as established.

It should be noted that some charter school applicants have difficulty in identifying what the school's key features are. In situations like this, the authorizer may need to help guide the thoughts of the founders into something that's clearly communicated and consistent with the vision and mission.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What's the Solution for Underperforming Charter Schools?

This morning about 80 people were at the Carriage House adjacent to the Governor's Mansion to discuss underperforming charter schools. The event, hosted by the Donnell-Kay Foundation, featured two speakers from the California Charter School Association, Greg Richmond from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and a host of other local presenters.

Converting to a charter school is one of the turnaround options available to failing public schools. But what happens when the school that isn't performing is a charter school already? Many agreed that a charter school should be closed, but Teresa Pena, the chair of the Denver Public Schools board noted that it's harder to close a charter school than a regular district school. She pointed out that parents are more invested in a charter school and thus attend school board meetings and are more vocal. Ms. Pena also noted, "We should focus on high performing options: period."

Numerous legislators and State Board of Education members attended this morning's seminar. They voiced questions about how charter schools impact other public schools and other state policies. A concern was raised about the appeal process and the belief that the State Board often supports the charter school. Randy DeHoff, CD 7 State Board member, stated there were 13 appeals in 2007, only one in 2008 and none this year. He noted that various changes in technical assistance and policy has changed the environment so that charter applicants are not appealing anymore.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

GOAL Academy Board Meets and Moves Forward

Yesterday the new GOAL Academy charter school board met and took steps forward with their own independence from the Cesar Chavez School Network (CCSN). The new board adopted bylaws and re-hired two administrators who had been fired earlier in the week by Lawrence Hernandez for refusing to turn over school records. Ken Crowell and Kris Enright lead the Pueblo and Colorado Springs branches of GOAL Academy, respectively.

GOAL Academy and CCA-North Colo. Springs are both operating under a transition MOU with the Charter School Institute. The current charter contract for both charter schools is with the Cesar Chavez School Network, however CSI has stated they want to contract with individual charter school governing boards instead of a network.

The legal structure for the network is unclear and it appears the nonprofit established for CCA-Pueblo may actually be the legal entity holding multiple charters. Legal experts are trying to determine if the network has its own independent legal status.

The Latest on Cesar Chavez School Network

It's hard to hear or read media reports in Pueblo or Colorado Springs without hearing about the latest in the Cesar Chavez School Network (CCSN) saga. It's been a tumultuous week for people associated with any of the five operating CCSN schools.

The week began with a CCSN takeover of GOAL Academy, located at the Pueblo mall. Individuals reported school records being shredded, teachers locked out of the technology needed to work with their online students, and the top two administrators were fired. GOAL Academy, operating under a transition Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Charter School Institute, their authorizer, seated nine charter school board members. Dr. Lawrence Hernandez, CEO of CCSN claimed the GOAL board had no authority and told the 26 GOAL employees they either had to sign a loyalty oath or they wouldn't have a job. About half signed under duress and then all 26 employees wrote a letter to the GOAL board asking for help.

Lawrence Hernandez, and his wife Annette who is the CCSN COO, have come under fire in the past few months due to their extremely high salaries. The Colo. Department of Education is investigating the CSAP scores and the network's financials after allegations brought by the Pueblo 60 school district superintendent. Two of the charter schools in the network are authorized by Pueblo 60: Dolores Huerta Prep HS and Cesar Chavez Academy-Pueblo. CSI authorized GOAL Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy-North Colo. Springs. The fifth school is chartered by Denver Public Schools. CCA-North recently organized a governing board and gained independence through a transition MOU with CSI.

Yesterday, for the second time this week, the CSI board met via the telephone to get an update on the GOAL Academy situation and hear from their legal counsel, Tony Dyl, with the Attorney General's office. Seven CSI board members gave up a portion of their Saturday to hear a synopsis of the Friday afternoon meeting at Dolores Huerta HS with network leaders, the network board and Tony Dyl.

Tony reported the following motions were unanimously adopted by the network board:
1. Terminate the legal services of Dolores Atencio.
2. CCSN will cooperate with CSI on revocation of GOAL Academy.
3. Accept the resignation of Lawrence Hernandez and Annette Hernandez from the CCSN; however, Lawrence will remain as Executive Director of CCA-Pueblo and DHPH and Annette Hernandez will have some administrative position with the schools.
4. Accept the resignation of Jason Guerrero, CFO of CCSN, with an understanding that Jason will continue to assist CDE in the financial audit. Additionally, Jason Guerrero will now report to the board instead of Dr. Hernandez.
5. All salaries will be reviewed.

CSI board members also learned the GOAL Academy student count dropped this week by about 140 students. Next week is the official, annual Oct. 1 count to determine funding. CSI board member Joyce Shuck noted she'd visited CCA-North on Friday and the principal, Mona Contreas, was sending a letter home to parents explaining that CCA-North would probably be changing its name, but that the school would stay essentially the same with different governance.

The CSI board then moved into Executive Session to hear from their legal counsel and discuss contracts. In media reports, CSI board chair Alex Medler stated the CSI board is prepared to revoke the charters granted to CCSN, if necessary, and grant new charters to GOAL Academy's board and CCA-North's board, respectively and independently. Currently, the two CSI charters operated under a contract with the CCSN board.

The situation has been contentious for many months. This week things changed when many of Lawrence's long-time friends and supporters withdrew their support. It can be assumed the change came about from either Lawrence's highly irregular actions such as threatening staff, lacking emotional decorum in public meetings and demonstrating the need to completing control people or else the supporters have learned new evidence that has raised questions in their minds. Either way, there appears to be consensus amongst school and state leaders that Lawrence and Annette Hernandez should not remain a part of school operations.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Twin Peaks Academy Enjoys New Facility

Today I attended a meeting held at Twin Peaks Academy in Longmont. The charter school is in its 14th year of operation and just this year moved into a newly renovated facility on Sunset in Longmont. The new facility is in an industrial area. The building is brightly colored, has spacious classrooms and wide hallways. There's a wood-floor gym, cafeteria, and library for the K-8 students.

The Twin Peaks Academy board is considering expanding into high school in the future. They have unused space in the back of their facility for future expansion. Principal BJ Buchmann says the school currently has three classes per grade level and has expanded in the past few years.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Charter Schools DO Make a Difference!

Stanford University's Caroline Hoxby just released, "How New York City's Charter Schools Affect Achievement," a project funded by the national Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Dept. of Education.

A few highlights of the report:
* A charter school student who attends grades K-8 will close 86% of the achievement gap in math and 66% of the achievement gap in English.
* Compared to lotteried-out students, a student who attends a charter high school has Regents examination scores that are about 3 pts higher for each year he spends in the charter school before taking the test.
* A student who attends a charter high school is about 7% more likely to earn a Regents diploma by age 20 for each year he spends in that school.

Unlike the CREDO study released earlier this summer, this Hoxby study uses the 'gold standard' of research, comparing students who made it into a charter school via a lottery and those who did not.

Of course just being in a charter school isn't a guarantee for increased student achievement. However, being in a charter school plus key features such as a longer school day, college prep mission, higher expectations and school culture do make a difference.

In the public discourse on 'turnaround' schools, converting the underperforming public school to charter status is one of the four options. Becoming a charter school is not a panacea. But charter schools have the freedom to design their own educational program and school culture. Under the pressure to perform or lose students, charter schools have often honed their curriculum to align with state standards and place an emphasis on student achievement--for every student. In urban areas, a longer school day and longer school year ensure students without a strong family background to support a quality education has the opportunity to increase learning.

Pundits are quick to rush to judgment about charter schools with each bit of research that comes out. It's important to remember the type of study that's being used when forming opinions. Data can be used to say anything. Quality studies use well-respected methodologies to ensure the outcome isn't biased. Further, research funded by the Institute for Education Sciences, for example, carries more credibility than individual institution research.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

American Academy Opens New School Building

American Academy showed off its new facility on Friday with an all-day carnival and afternoon grand opening celebration. Board members Adil Khan, Erin Kane, Jackie Santos, Denese Gardner, Chad King and David Romero and principal Roberta Harrell all put many hours into the creation of this new facility, designed to serve more than 800 students. American Academy is entering its fourth year of operation.

The project began last December when the first dirt was turned. The school will open for students on Monday. It's located in Castle Pines North, just off I-25 and Castle Pines Parkway.
The three-story structure was built for $135 per square foot; considerably less than the average $220 per square foot for other Douglas County Schools. The new charter school faciltiy has wide hallways, large classrooms, a contemporary design, and gymnasium/cafeteria/stage area. The school will increase its enrollment this year with about one-third of the student population new to the charter school.
At Friday's celebration, hundreds of families were on hand to celebrate the ribbon cutting and release balloons. Uniform-clad students sang a medley of patriotic songs. Many students brought their new school supplies to leave in their new classroom or locker. The excitement was palpable as both parents and students marveled at the new building.

Jeffco Board Hears Two Charter Applications

Jeffco received four charter school applications this year. Last Thursday night the school board heard two of the applications: Global Outreach Charter Academy (GOCA) and Twin Roads High School.

The Russian language school, GOCA, was denied last year in Jeffco and then applied last spring in Denver. They're back in Jeffco now since that's where the majority of their students live. The school plans to model after the Spanish language full immersion program already operating in the districgt. They plan to open K-6, but would begin full immersion in grades K-3 and then grow until all students are in the full immersion program. Voicing the same concern expressed last year, Jeffco school board president Sue Marinelli, stated she had concerns about the proposed school being predominantly of one ethnic minority population with little diversity.

The school would be located in the Arvada-Lakewood area and serve about 344 students. Founders said their school would be the second in the nation because the only other Russian language school is operating in Anchorage, Alaska.

The second charter school proposal heard was Twin Roads HS. Founders are associated with the Home Options Program in Jeffco. Currently there are 450 students in the Home Option Program: 150 HS and 100 MS. Terry Johns and Ronda Norma noted that most of the growth in the homeschool program is in the high school. They project managed growth and presented a conservative budget proposal. There were very few questions for the applicants as board members noted that it was a very solid application and answered many of the questions they would have otherwise had. Both charter schools will get a decision on October 22nd.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nelson Smith on Charter Schools, Part 3

The District Administration article interviewing Nelson Smith goes on to talk about U.S. Secretary of Education's Arne Duncan's address at the June 2009 National Charter Schools Conference in Washington, DC. At the conference, Arne Duncan encouraged charter school leaders to help in turning around the bottom 5,000 public schools in the nation.

Duncan said that charter schools can help by:

1) taking away the ability of noncharter public school leaders to make excuses that "their" kids can't learn the same as "other" kids.
2) competing for students through offering high quality public charter schools in urban areas where the district-operated schools are not performing.

Across American school leaders are gearing up to Duncan's challenge to "turnaround" underperforming schools. At this time, the role of the charter school community in this endeavor isn't clear at the national or state level.

According to Nelson Smith:

The question is whether you can take a successful charter model and open it in an existing school with the conditions that will foster success. Simply taking the educational program of a successful charter and plopping it down in a school where the rules stay the same, and nothing changes in terms of the dynamics of the school is not going to work. We have to make sure that the charter folks who take on this challenge can start their programs at the new site with integrity, that they will have control over staffing, that they will have control over how money is spent and how long the day is and what the calendar looks like and all these other factors that have led to the success of their own models.

So I think the bottom line is a lot depends on what local administrators and district administrators do and whether they’re willing to provide the space and the conditions for this terrific charter schools to succeed in these school buildings that have not seen success before.

Smith goes on to talk about the problem in finding enough qualified leaders for these new schools and the professional development and support to sustain new leaders. Smith projects an additional 14,000 to 16,000 new teachers will be needed in the next decade.

With Race to the Top funds tied to states with a robust charter school system, many states are wondering how the charter school model can apply to noncharter, district-operated school systems. In other words, how to look like a charter without actually being a charter. Therein lies Nelson Smith's fundamental point about whether school districts will be willing to provide the essentials for school success.

Many charter schools have defined their mission-critical, key essentials as: 1) control over staff; 2) control over the budget; and 3) unique features such as uniforms, instructional hours and curriculum. Compromising on even one of the key essentials will adversely affect a school's performance.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nelson Smith on Charter Schools, Part 2

In the Nelson Smith interview in District Administration, Nelson talks about funding inequities charter schools face. He quantifies it by saying that charter schools get 22% less funding than non-charter public schools. He goes on to explain the challenges charter schools face in financing their facilities.
The largest single component of that is facilities financing. Charter schools, in almost all cases, are incorporated as nonprofits, and are not part of the government, if you will. So they don’t typically have access to state capital budgets for facilities needs. That means that they have to depend either on dedicated facilities financing from the state, or private lenders, or as is most typical, simply going into their operating budgets and taking money that should go into the classroom or other uses and dedicating it to bricks and mortar.
Through Amendment 23 funds, Colorado designates a minimum of $5 million in charter school capital construction money. As the number of eligible charter school students has risen exponentially, the per pupil amount has decreased. In addition, the legislature has cut the funding back to the base amount in recent years. Charter school leaders know that this is not a stable fund to include in their budgets as it's at the whim of the legislature each year.

In Colorado, charter schools receive 100% of the per pupil funding, less up to 5% retained for administrative costs, given to all public school students. However, many school districts have access to additional grants, gifts, mill levies and bonds that the charter schools do not receive. Last year's election revealed a discrepancy with several school districts refusing to include their charter schools in ballot mill levy and bond questions. The 2009 General Assembly addressed this problem, but the bill was soon watered down and nothing of significance was accomplished.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

If in Doubt: Litigate

When long-time public education leaders don't like something, their best course of action is often to litigate. In Georgia, the Gwinnett County School District is suing the Georgia Charter School Commission saying it's unconstitutional.

This is the exact same strategy used in Colorado by the Boulder Valley School District who has brought litigation, lost, appealed, lost and now is appealing to the Colorado Supreme Court. Colorado's Charter School Institute is a "virtual" school district in less than nine school districts that do not have exclusive chartering authority. BVSD contends the legislature didn't have the authority to establish CSI because it violates the "local control" provision of the Colorado Constitution.

The Poudre and Westminster 50 school districts were originally part of the suit, but dropped out after receiving exclusive chartering authority from the State Board of Education. BVSD also subsequently gained exclusive chartering authority, but their legal counsel stated they'd take the second appeal on a pro bono basis.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Atlas Prep Visit

Yesterday I visited the new Atlas Prep in the south part of Colorado Springs. The charter school is authorized by the Harrison 2 School District and will serve middle school students. This year the school has enrolled 82 fifth grade students and will grow through eighth grade. There are twice as many boys as girls enrolled this year.

School leaders, Zach McComsey and Julian Flores, have established numerous partnerships in order to best serve the targeted at-risk student population. The school focuses on preparing all students for college and as you can see by the photo, college banners line the hallways. Each of the classrooms are designated by the homeroom teacher's college banner.
Atlas Prep began school on Aug. 3rd. The school's students wear uniforms and the school is designed to focus intensely on raising student achievement in the core subject areas. The school offers a longer school day and a longer school year.
In the school's materials the question is asked, "Did you know the highest average ACT score of any high school in our area that serves more than 30% low-income students is a 17? You need, on average, a 24 to get into a four-year state school."
A previous blog about Atlas Prep is here. Ed is Watching blogged on Atlas Prep here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Nelson Smith on Charter Schools, Part 1

Nelson Smith is interviewed in the September issue of the District Administration magazine. The interview covers a wide variety of topics and so I will begin a series commenting on different aspects of the interview along with adding a Colorado perspective.

In response to a question about U.S. Secretary of Education's Arne Duncan's request for charter schools to work more closely with school districts and create more innovative options for students, Nelson Smith said,
Charter movement people have gotten a little skeptical about the big urge to cooperate more with districts and to share what we do with districts because the resistance, frankly, has usually come from the other side. I think the best quote I’ve ever heard about this is attributed to Yvonne Chan, the founder of the first conversion charter school in California, the Vaughn 21st-Century School, and she said, “I’m always asked, ‘When are we going to see ripples from your innovation?’” and she said, “‘You can’t see ripples if the lake is frozen.” I think that makes a very good point—that many districts, even those that have created charter schools, refuse to draw on any lessons learned there. And honestly, it has to work the other way too.

Nelson first pointed out that about half of the charter schools operating in the U.S. are authorized by the local school district. Many of these school districts have been adverse to acknowledging that they can learn from charter schools. While the charter schools are happy to share their lessons learned, school districts, even those that embrace the charter school philosophy, are reticent to acknowledge a change of programming due to the influence of charter schools.

This is also true for Colorado where school districts may change their philosophy about charter schools based on the beliefs espoused by the current Board of Education. For example, Denver Public Schools was anti-charter for many years, even taking an African-American educator, Cordia Booth, all the way to the State Supreme Court rather than letting her open a charter school. In the early part of this decade, DPS changed and is currently hailed as one of the best authorizers in the state. Moreover, DPS has embraced reforms used by charter schools and heartily acknowledges they've learned from the experiences of their charter schools.

Fundamental to charter school oversight and monitoring is the authorizer's philosophy about charter schools. In school districts, this comes from the top: the Board of Education. When board members turn over so can the district's philosophy about charter schools.

Another factor is quite simply, the people involved. In a pro-charter district, antagonist staff can make a charter school's existence miserable. Conversely, a helpful and responsive charter school liaison for the district can smooth even the most tense of relationships with the district board or superintendent.

Because Colorado is a "local control" state, there are all types of philosophies within the 52 districts that have charter schools. The Charter School Institute board was established to be a "model authorizer" for the state. However, even the philosophy of that board has changed since it was first established in 2004.

Friday, September 11, 2009

More Pictures from North Star Academy

North Star Academy Celebrates New Facility Expansion

North Star Academy in Parker celebrated their new facility expansion with a program this morning. Recognizing the anniversary of the 9/11 attach first, Civil Air Patrol cadets raised a Patriot flag given to the school by one of the families.

The Mistress of Ceremonies was a sixth grade student. She was joined by fellow students who gave out their own awards, like the Oscars, to people who were thanked for their efforts to make the new facility expansion happen.

The school's two mascots, terriers belonging to school principal Cynthia Haws, were given their own red fire hydrant just outside the school library where the ceremony was staged. In addition, Ms. Haws received a bench with an inscription recognizing her commitment to the charter school.

Student ambassadors were on hand to distribute programs, give tours of the school, and answer questions. In the cafeteria for the reception, more students were handing our snacks and soda.

North Star is beginnings its fourth year of operation and has students through seventh grade this year. Next year the school will also serve eighth grade. The school located in the building formerly occupied by Rennaisance Charter Academy, which became a district option school. The new expansion holds six new classrooms, an outdoor play area and a cafeteria.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Inching Toward Autonomy

Two charter school boards associated with the Cesar Chavez Academy School Network met yesterday. The Cesar Chavez Academy-North Colorado Springs (CCA-N) board met but tabled most of its agenda as it wasn't clear on its current legal status. CCA-N held board elections under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Charter School Institute board as a transition to operate autonomously. The authority of the charter school board is still undecided.

Currently CSI is in a contract with the Network to operate CCA-N and GOAL Academy. GOAL is an online school operated in Pueblo. After issues arose at CCA-N last spring, CSI reconsidered its decision to contract with the Network, which they defined as a management company, instead of the board of a charter school. While Colorado law doesn't dictate what type of entity can be party to a charter contract, an authorizer can make policy to only enter into contracts with charter school boards.

Stakeholders from CCA-N asked to establish their own board and operate independently from the Network. Dr. and Mrs. Lawrence Hernandez (COO and Operations Director, respectively) and Jason Guerrero, CFO of the Network contend that the charter school doesn't have the authority to operate independently.

The second CSI charter school to venture out on its own is GOAL Academy and their board met yesterday along with state officials Tony Dyl, Asst. Attorney General and Lee Barratt, Interim Executive Director of CSI. Both CSI and the Network have appointed board members for GOAL and more are slated to join.

Both charter schools are considering filing for nonprofit incorporation as many charter schools do in Colorado. However, it's still unclear when, and if, the governing boards will gain the authority to file with the Secretary of State's office for that status.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ridgeview Clasical Schools Prevails for a Second Time in Court

The State Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the Poudre School District (PSD) in their case against Ridgeview Classical Schools (RCS). The case began when RCS brought an appeal to the State Board of Education asserting the requirement of PSD to have the charter school pay the district for students who left the charter school after the statewide Oct. 1 count. The charter school said they shouldn't be subjected to funding in a manner different than all the other public schools in the state, and indeed, their authorizing district.

Back in December, the Court of Appeals stated the district was wrong in applying a different funding mechanism to the charter school. Not agreeing with this decision, PSD took an appeal to a higher court.

One might think that since this case has now gone to the highest court in the state, it'd be settled. Wrong. PSD, earlier this year when negotiating another charter school contract, stated that due to a sentence added into the 2009 School Finance Act, they have the right to charge their charter schools for a percentage of the per student funding alloted via the Oct. 1 count. It's unlikely that the outcome of this appeal will have any bearing on future contract negotiations for the charter schools in PSD.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Charter Schools as Investments

A private media company, Entertainment Properties, Inc., has purchased 22 charter schools previously owned by Imagine, Inc. Imagine operates 74 charter schools in 12 states, including two in Colorado.

Imagine Classical at Fountain Meadows has just opened in a brand new facility east of Colorado Springs after spending one year in modulars. Imagine at Firestone opened last year in a brand new facility. In order to keep costs down, both of the facilities are identical. The buildings are designed for K-8 systems holding approximately 800 students at capacity.

The demand for the Firestone and Fountain Meadows school has been incredible. In its first year of operation, Fountain Meadows third graders scored 100% on the reading CSAP. This, while holding school in temporary modular structures.

Management company-operated charter schools have the capital to invest in new buildings even before the charter school opens. The charter school typically enters into a contract for the property and assumes ownership over a long-term purchase similar to a mortgage on a house. This enables the charter school to enjoy the new facility without the up-front costs most charter schools must finance.

Schools such as Imagine at Fountain Meadows, in Colorado Springs, are able to serve a new subdivision. In a high-growth district such as Falcon 49, where the Fountain Meadows school is located, this means taxpayers don't have to approve a bond in order for the new subdivision to have its own school and avoid busing students considerable distances.

Entertainment Properties, Inc. investing in charter school facilities is actually very similar to the mechanism used by most charter schools, which is obtaining a bond through the Colorado Cultural and Educational Facilities Authority (CECFA). These CECFA bonds are purchased by private investors and paid back over time. One drawback, however, is that schools must have a three-year credit history and a solid business plan in order to obtain the private bond.

Just as the charter school philosophy to educate students in unique and innovative ways, charter school facility financing, the greatest obtacle most charter schools face, is likewise using a variety of creative methods.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

President Obama to Address Public School Students on Tuesday

The media is buzzing with varied reactions to President Obama's plan to address public school students via the Internet next Tuesday at noon, D.C. time. The question I'm hearing is, "How should charter schools respond to this?"

Since charter schools operate autonomously, the school leaders can decide if, or how, the President's address is provided. Some charter school governing boards may decide that academics will take precedence and not stop learning for the President's address. Others will use it as a learning opportunity and have discussions with students both before and after the address.

This is another situation where the uniqueness of charter schools can best address the local needs of the students and their families. There is no right or wrong way to handle the President's address. Charter schools are not compelled to follow decisions set forth by their authorizer. They're free to be make their own decisions.

Update: Check out what Ben is saying here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Charter Contract Template in Development

All summer I've been working on a project along with some others, to create a model contract template. It's a difficult project because some issues are a matter of priority and preference for the authorizer and on other issues we can make a statement about what's fair.

Some of the hot topics include:

* How should a charter school be held accountable for improving academic achievement and how should that accountability be enforced?
* What constitutes a "material change" to the contract, or an issue that should be submitted to the authorizer for acceptance? Notice I didn't use the word "approval" and instead used "acceptance." The authorizer doesn't need to necessarily agree with everything the charter school does, but it should be informed.
* What is the proper level of oversight for an authorizer? How can the relationship between the charter school and authorizer be more transparent?
* What is a fair corrective action plan if the charter school fails to meet its stated outcomes or submit reports on time?
* When should a charter school be subject to revocation?
* How much should the authorizer be involved in the contract a charter board executes with an education service provider? Can the authorizer require certain provisions be included in that contract?
* How can an authorizer ensure diversity amongst the charter school's student population without weighting the lottery and therefore making the charter school ineligible for federal charter school startup funds?
* How can an authorizer fairly compare charter school academic performance to its other schools?
* Should an authorizer automatically waive some district policies without requiring a charter school to request them if the policies don't pertain to the charter school at all?

The contract template is predicated on the following four beliefs:

1. Transparency between the parties is key to a good relationship.
2. The relationship should be clearly established in the beginning.
3. The contract should promote success of the charter school.
4. The outcome is more important than the process.

We've also been continually reminding ourselves that "less is more" and the key issues need to receive priority. It's especially important for an authorizer to define their own philosophies and priorities about chartering schools. This guiding philosophy will permeate monitoring and oversight and also what ends up in the charter contract.

Monday, August 31, 2009

School Board Elections This Fall

The deadline has passed for board of education candidates across Colorado to have turned in their petition signatures in order to get their name on the ballot this November. Several school districts could see a majority of new board members seated.

It's common for charter school parents to get involved in board of education races. Many charter schools host candidate forums in order to hear candidate's views on charter school issues.

Parents are hosting a candidate forum in Douglas County on Thursday, Sept. 17th, 7:00 p.m. at Platte River Academy in Highlands Ranch. Since Douglas County was one of the school districts discussed during legislative hearings last winter because of their neglecting to include charter schools in their bond question, there are likely to be tough questions posed of the candidates.

In other districts where a significant number of board of education seats are open and the district is reviewing charter school applications, the outcome of the election could have direct bearing on the possible opening of a new charter school. Moreover, some of these districts are asking their charter school applicants to waive the 75 days required by statute to review charter school applications since the deadline falls around the same time as election day. Newly seated board members may be voting on a charter school application at their first board meeting.

Throughout Colorado, many charter school parents have aligned through the League of Charter School's CAN (Charter Advocacy Network). This parent network was involved during the legislative session when they inundated legislator's with phone calls about charter school capital construction.

Charter school founders and parents are becoming increasingly savvy about school board elections. The school board candidate may ultimately become one of the people voting for or against a new charter school application or a charter school renewal application.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Charter School Grant Program

No Child Left Behind contains a provision that gives new charter schools grant funding to cover startup and initial implementation costs. Typically the cost of outfitting new classrooms, purchasing curriculum materials, training new teachers and informing the community about a new charter school are all costs in addition to regular operating costs and many new charter schools have no other way to pay for these expenses.

Colorado is in its last year of administering a three-year charter school startup and implementation grant. This means CDE will apply for another grant in 2010. President Obama has recommended another $40 million be added to the next Charter School Program budget. Currently $200 million is provided for CSP funding. CDE's annual grant award is around $7 million dollars, which goes directly to startup and implementation costs in the state's charter schools.

Developers of new charter schools met today at the Adams 12 Training Center in Thornton in order to learn about the Colorado CSP grant process. About 40 people heard from speakers explaining the goals of the grant program, the details of how to request funds and how to write the plans required for the grant application. The grant program is competitive. Recipients will get somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000 for each of three years.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Starting a New Charter School

Back in 1993 when the Colorado Charter Schools Act passed people ventured into the unknown to write a charter school application. Back then applications were sketchy and were rarely supported by research. The sophistication level has risen dramatically since that tenuous beginning.

There's a new website to help charter school founders to navigate the sometimes complex path to getting a new charter school approved by an authorizer. The website is The first item to review should be the process flowchart. Many people ask what are the different roles of the CO Dept of Education, the CO League of Charter Schools and the CO Charter School Institute. This flowchart explains which entity is best suited for each step.

At almost every step, the charter school founders should re-examine if they should continue to move forward on the project. Many founders have been exhausted by the rigor of getting a charter school application written and the hearing process. But once the charter school gets approved, the work BEGINS!

Earlier this year, CDE, CLCS and CSI created a common application and review rubric. This document is also available on the website. Both founders and charter school authorizers use this document to determine if a charter school application contains sufficient information to make a decision on whether it should be approved or not.

Additional secondary pages will be added over the next several weeks to the website. But already the website offers a wealth of information never available to charter school founders before!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What's the Difference Between Pueblo and Denver?

For the Cesar Chavez Academy of Denver there are many differences with the rest of the schools operated by the Cesar Chavez School Network. According to Jeremy Meyer at the Denver Post, Denver Pulic Schools (DPS) has welcomed the new charter school and its being very well received by the community.

One thing about DPS -- they're quick to learn from others and employ those best practices. There are some fundamental differences between the Denver and Pueblo charter schools that will increase the likelihood of success for the Denver school.

DPS required CCA-Denver to form its own governing board, without any overlap with the Network board. The Denver school operates with autonomy, not just from DPS, but also from the rest of the schools within the CCA Network. Network charter schools all share business services, which is more cost effective, but CCA-Denver operates with significantly more autonomy than the other Network schools.

DPS will only execute charter contracts with a governing board and not a management company. The state Charter School Institute (CSI) executed a contract with the Network (a management company) and not the individual school boards. In fact, the individual schools don't have their own boards at all. CSI had to backtrack and they're now in the process of negotiating a charter contract with governing boards. Just last week the CSI board approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the CCA-North/Colorado Springs school, which is a segue to being able to execute a charter contract with a newly formed board. Currently the CCA-North school is not its own legal entity and couldn't enter into a traditional charter contract. The school is in the process of formulating its own governing board.

DPS is also ahead of the curve on having clear and precise charter contracts when it comes to academic achievement. They use a district-wide system of measuring academic performance and it applies to all schools, not just public charter schools. The School Performance Framework (SPF) is a one page "dashboard" of key performance indicators. DPS charter contracts detail specific actions should a charter school fail to make progress.

Finally, DPS won't tolerate a charter school with problems, as evidenced by the recent closure of Challenges, Choices and Images. When that charter school had financial and governance problems, the school closed.

So what's the difference between Pueblo and Denver? There's a vast difference between the experience level and philosophy of the charter authorizers. DPS has embraced its role as a charter authorizer by defining its philosophy of monitoring and oversight while at the same time establishing the district as the manager of a portfolio of choice options. The district details its academic and choice needs within the district in a Request for Proposals and then allows the community to create those choice options. DPS has charter schools, contract (district-operated autonomous) schools, private schools contracted for specific grade levels, innovation schools and an array of choice programs within its traditional school system.

When is a School a School?

Students at an alternative school in Aurora are attending classes, but have recently been told they won't be getting any credit fot attending the school. When a school looks like a school and purports to be a school, isn't it a school?

There needs to be some authorization for classes to earn credits or a diploma to be meaningful. This means if the school isn't a district school, parents should ask how the school is accredited.

In the case of New Directions Prep in Aurora, school leaders believed they had a contract to operate under the auspices of Vilas Online. Vilas Online is the online program out of the Vilas School District on the southeast border of the state and the district that previously authorized Hope Online. Hope had established contracts with "learning centers" throughout the state.

In order for New Directions to operate through the Aurora School District the school would need to go through an online certification process at the Colorado Department of Education. This online certification was required in new legislation a couple of years ago as a method to regulate online schools such as Hope Online, which was highlighted in a state auditor's report.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Charter School Boards and Email

The single biggest issue to trip up charter school governing board members is discussing school business on email. Charter schools are public entities in Colorado and therefore the school's governing board is subject to Open Meetings law the same as school district boards of education.

According to the statute, three people constitute a discussion and therefore the individuals cannot meet without properly noticing the meeting. The same applies for email discussions. A board president can send out an informative email such as giving the dates for Back to School Night, but when a recipient on that email hits "reply all" he/she has violated the Open Meetings law.

Two individual charter school board members can communicate in email, on the phone, or in person. Open Meetings law kicks in when the third person is involved.

The ease of communicating via email is very tempting for most charter school boards. It's especially convenient for the school's administrator to send out information to the board that doesn't require a response. This is perfectly acceptable.

The question has arisen how to handle an emergency situation where a letter needs to be drafted and sent out to parents within hours. The board president should draft the letter and send it out to the entire board. Individual board members may respond directly to the board president with suggested edits. The board president then has the responsibility to incorporate edits based on his/her best judgment and make the decision on what is the final draft of the letter.

The fundamental reason for the Open Meetings law is so that public business is discussed in public. Likewise, charter school boards should strive for transparency in all their actions.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Charter Schools in the Works

There is another very healthy crop of new charter school applicants in development. Most of these schools will seek approval to open their doors in 2010. Here are a few of the new applicants:

Prospect Ridge Academy in Erie. This is a proposed K-12 Core Knowledge/Liberal Arts school. It'll start with an elementary school and grow through 12th grade. The school is designed to alleviate some of the waiting list at Peak to Peak and Flagstaff Academy. Flagstaff was initially approved to be in Erie, but ended up in Longmont due to an available facility. Several individuals from established Core Knowledge charter schools are on the Prospect Ridge design team.

Stagecoach Charter School in the South Routt School District. is K-6 charter school plans to use the Core Knowledge curriculum along with Montessori and Waldorf methodologies to create an individualized education. The founding group of parents came together after the school district declined to open a new elementary school in Stagecoach and thus young students were being transported to Steamboat Springs and other areas.

STEM High School and Middle School in the south metro Denver area. This will be a 6-12 grade school with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and modeled after California's successful High Tech High and Denver's School of Science and Technology. Students will be encouraged to take at least two Advanced Placement courses and 4.5 years of science will be required for graduation. Many of the Core Knowledge K-8 charter schools in Douglas County have become involved in this project.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pikes Peak Prep: A New Identity

The former 21st Century Charter School @ Colorado Springs changed its name to Pikes Peak Prep last spring. This change came not long after the new principal, Patricia Arnold, started in January 2009. The school now boasts all highly qualified and experienced teachers, a different educational program and a focus on high quality.

Last year Pikes Peak Prep added a middle college program that offers dual credit for college courses receiving high school credit. These college courses are paid for by the charter school.

The charter school originally opened in 2005 as a Colorado Springs 11 charter school. In 2007 the school's transfer charter application was approved by the state Charter School Institute (CSI). The initial relationship with CSI was rocky when the school continued to experience tumult and had to defend itself against tough questions asked by CSI board members.

Since that time numerous changes at Pikes Peak Prep have created a different school environment and the school has demonstrated growth on the NWEA, an assessment comparable to CSAP but given 2-3 times a year. Pikes Peak Prep is associated with the GEO Foundation out of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"This is a Job Where You Need to Earn Your Keep"

New Orleans School Superintendent Paul Vallas says, "People want lifelong job security. But this is a system where you have to earn your keep." In a nutshell, this is the fundamental difference between traditional public school educational systems and public charter schools.

This year the New Orleans Supt. gave principals the authority to hire whomever they wanted to teach at their schools. Makes sense?

Not according to the New Orleans teacher's union and they're complaining.

Ever since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the city was rebuilding--and in a different way--a focus on academic achievement of students has begun. New Orleans now has by far the highest percentage of students in public charter schools when compared to other regions of the country.

It didn't take long for Denver Public Schools administration to realize their charter schools were having a competitive advantage because they were hiring teachers in January and February, months before the traditional schools were able to select teachers. Moreover, founders of the two new Innovation schools in Denver realized that having wavier from certain statutes provides a greater likelihood that they will be able to achieve academic success with their students.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CSI Board Votes to Approve Cesar Chavez Academy Contract Changes--with a Catch

This afternoon the Charter School Institute (CSI) board met for its regular monthly meeting at the CSI offices downtown Denver. The board considered the proposed Memorandum of Understanding, which is designed to modify the Cesar Chavez Academy-North (Colorado Springs) contract. The MOU outlines a transition by Sept. 15th for the CCA-North parent community to elect parent representatives to the governing board. Currently the charter school is governed by the Cesar Chavez School Network, out of Pueblo.

The board voted unanimously to approve the MOU with the condition that information that had been requested by staff in order to conduct a financial audit be provided before the MOU is executed. CSI staff noted a list of items that had been requested, but not yet received.

In other business, the board created three subcommittees: two standing committees and the other an ad hoc committee. Standing committees are Finance and Policies and Priorities. In addition, an Executive Director Search committee was established.

The board discussed a possible timeline for screening and then interviewing potential Exec. Director candidates. They will narrow the search down to about three candidates by paper screening and phone interviews. The entire board will conduct public interviews of the finalists. Board members noted the Council of Schools (representatives of each of the schools authorized by CSI) should be included in the process and their input should be received prior to a final decision.

Wyoming Legislator Considers Improving Charter School Law

It's well-known that Wyoming has a very weak charter school law. The local union has to approve the charter application and charter teachers are a part of the district's collective bargaining agreement. It's a wonder any charter schools are open given this archaic law. But then, maybe that's the point.

The Center for Education Reform gives Wyoming's charter school law a low D.

Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Gillette) wants to improve the law after hearing Bill Gates speak at the National Conference of State Legislators conference this summer. Rep. Wallis is also the chair of the Wyoming charter school association so she knows first-hand the obstacles faced by charter applicants in the state.

The Wyoming Board of Education recently denied a charter high school's waiver request to offer teachers an annual contract. In comparison, charter school teachers operate on at-will contracts without any guarantee of continued employment at all.

In reporting the possibility of new legislation, the Billing Gazette exposed its bias by stating:
When 100 students or so leave a traditional school for a charter school, the district loses state money for those students.
The article's author failed to note that the district authorizing a new charter school of 100 students no longer has the responsibility to educate those students. Colorado's charter school law permits authorizers to retain up to 5% of the per student funding to cover administrative costs for charter school oversight.

In Wyoming, charter school founders must persevere through intense opposition and stigmatization and yet often end up without a charter school. That could be why there are only two charter schools currently operating in Wyoming.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thomas MacLaren State Charter School Ribbon Cutting

Yesterday the founders of Thomas MacLaren State Charter School cut the ribbon and opened their new school. Eric and Mary Faith Hall and Katherine Brophy spent two years and thousands of hours making their new school a reality.

Thomas MacLaren will open with about 90 students in grades 6 through 9. They have a full-time faculty of six and part-time three. All of the faculty has at least a Master's degree in their content area.

In June the MacLaren board voted to hire founder Mary Faith Hall as their first Head of School. Mary Faith taught humanities, Latin and drama for eight years at the Trinity School in Minnesota and Indiana. Mary Faith interned at AXL Academy in Aurora and James Irwin Charter Schools in Colorado Springs in order to gain practical experience for opening her own school.

The school will be sharing a facility with Pulpit Rock Church for at least the first three years of operation. The facility was formerly a private school and so little renovation needed to be done in order to use it as a public school facility.

MacLaren is authorized by the Colorado Charter School Institute. Executive Director, Randy DeHoff, spoke at the ribbon cutting ceremony and praised the school for its hard work and promised to attend the class of 2013's graduation ceremony.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Westgate Community Charter School Opens Its Door

Westgate Community Charter School starts tomorrow with 125 students in grades K-6. The school, led by Chris Johnson was authorized by the Adams 12 School District earlier this year. After an extensive search for a facility, the school found a private school/church building that is ideal for their new school. The facility is at 117th and Irma in Thornton. The school's vision is to serve twice exception students in multi-aged classrooms.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

CSI to Change Leaders

Randy DeHoff, Executive Director of the Charter School Institute, has announced his resignation. The CSI is the state's alternative authorizer with a mission to charter school serving students identified as at-risk and to serve as a model authorizer.

DeHoff also serves on the State Board of Education as a representative from the 6th Congressional District. He has served in that capacity since 1999. In 1993 was a part of a group of parents who started Sci-Tech Academy, which later changes its name to Collegiate Academy, a Jefferson County Public Schools charter.

DeHoff became the Institute's first staff member in February 2005, soon after the CSI board met for the first time in September 2004. The role of the Executive Director is comparable to a school district superintendent. The CSI board meets again next Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Who Has Sovereignty Over Charter School's Location?

There are a few issues inherent to charter schools that have differing legal opinions. Sovereignty over school district boundaries is one of them.

Global Village Academy, unable to get a charter approved by Denver Public Schools this year, wants to open a second campus in the old Challenges, Choices and Images/Amandla building at I-70 and Peoria. The building is just inside the Denver borders. The Colorado Constitution and state law give a school district jurisdiction over K-12 education within their geographical borders.

But what happens when a charter school cannot find a facility within the boundaries of the district that authorized them? Historically in Colorado, this has been handled in a myriad of ways. Some charter schools have obtained a waiver from state charter school law saying the school should be within its authorizing district or a contiguous district, some have just located in the other district without anything being said by anyone, and others are told by their district, or the district they intend to locate in, that they must have Board of Education approval.

There is no right or wrong answer on how school districts should handle this since it's a gray area of the law. Each district receives its own legal counsel and is not bound by what other districts do.

However, it's interesting when a district wants to have it both ways and when convenient, locate one of their charter schools in a different district and then later say that same district cannot locate a charter school within their boundaries. This is what Denver Public Schools has done by chartering New America Schools-Lowry and Ridge View Academy which are in the Aurora Public School District. Now that Global Village Academy-2nd Campus wants to locate in DPS, there is a "different" legal opinion. DPS didn't ask permission of APS to establish two of their charter schools within APS boundaries. But now DPS says GVA must get the permission of DPS' board--and acknowledges that permission won't be granted.

Unfortunately, questions and issues such as these are not easily resolved. In the past when issues have been interpreted differently the issue has been driven to ligitation. Let's hope in this situation that isn't at the cost of the hundreds of students purportedly on the waiting list at Global Village Academy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

SchoolView Now Available for Parents

There's a new tool available for parents to find out how their child's school is doing compared to other schools of comparable size and demographics. SchoolView was launched to allow parents to explore the state's Growth Model Data.

In announcing the launch of SchoolView, Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones said,

“The combination of SchoolView and the Colorado Growth Model provide a much
clearer understanding of school performance than we have had in the past and
invites public involvement in the urgency for improvement,” said Commissioner
Jones. “We strongly encourage everyone who cares about how well our education
system is doing in Colorado to take a look.”

On the website parents can select specific schools, different levels of schools (elementary, middle or high), districts or numeorus other groups. The opportunities to compare schools and monitor one's own children's growth is almost limitless. Watch for more options to be available on this site in the future. Plus, watch how schools begin to use this new growth model as a means of communicating with parents how their students are doing.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Early College HS of Arvada Offers New Program

In its second year of operation, Early College HS of Arvada is expanding its programming to target 15 to 17 year-olds in need of credit recovery or college credits. The school, located at 60th and Sheridan in Arvada, offers a small school environment with specialized attention for students performing below grade level.

Sarah Brock, the school's principal, started the school based on Southwest Early College in Denver. The school uses the Sylvan Learning system to remediate students, beginning at the point they're at and then moving them forward incrementally.

The new program, Excel, is designed for students with at least 20 high school credits. The first year in the program is focused on credit recovery with the use of computer and online classes. The curriculum is designed to match the student's needs.

Director of student services, Mr. Chris Gerboth, started Southwest Early College and has vast experience with the early college model. He also teaches at Early College HS of Arvada.

Unique characteristics of the early college model, producing results at Early College HS, are a small school atmosphere where all students are known by a caring adult and a workshop-type delivery model where students are more engaged in their learning. Students needing extra support get that either through one-on-one time with teachers or else using the Sylvan Learning system on computers.

Early College HS starts on August 17th. It will enroll about 100 students in the 2009-10 school year, up from about 45 students last year.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New Requirements for Charter Schools

Charter school leaders must now comply with new immigration law by documenting citizenship of employees and independent contractors. Information is online, including sample forms.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kentucky Coming Out of the Dark Ages?

Kentucky is one of ten states without a charter school law, but that may change because a state representative has filed a bill request. A recent survey found that more than 80% of Kentucky's voters would choose a type of choice education, if they could. Choice was defined as private, charter, virtual or home schools.

Rep. Stan Lee of Kentucky said:

“In this time of ‘economic crisis’ and ‘great fiscal pain’, it seems to me the General Assembly might want to explore this avenue for additional funding for education,” said Lee. “It’s actually very simple: Are we really all for education, or are we only for education as long as it satisfies some political agenda? We need to stop using our school children as pawns in political games."

Representative Lee added, “Kentucky is one of only ten states without a charter school law and our students’ test scores and graduation percentages consistently rank towards the bottom in national ratings. Is there a possible correlation?”

States must have charter school laws in order to compete for federal stimulus Race to the Top funds. Rep. Lee has introduced education reform-type bills in the past only to have them dismissed without discussion. Maybe the incentive of possible federal money will permit Kentucky to come out of the Dark Ages.

Cesar Chavez Academy: The Story Continues

Lawrence Hernandez has certainly been in the news lately. He's been a controversial figure since he first opened Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo back in 2001. Most recently his salary, his wife's salary and the salary of the Chief Financial Officer have made news. EdNews has a couple of articles with more details here and here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Charter School Governing Boards and Nepotism: Is it Ever OK?

Several charter schools in the state have been dealing with nepotism issues. This makes all charter schools look bad when the public generalizes their preceptions about all charter schools based on what they hear in the media about a few errant schools.

It doesn't matter if it's in a school district or in a charter school, when public funds are being used, people must be above repute. Having family members as board members or employees of the school almost always leads to problems. Family members should not supervise each other. This includes governing board members and administrators or even the second person under the lead administrator.

Charter school board members should not be related to each other. In fact, many consider it a best practice to have the school's bylaws stipulate that board members cannot be immediate family members of a school employee or a school employee. The potential for a conflict of interest is too great.

Some authorizers are now requiring new charter school governing boards to uphold certain standards such as no nepotism and no employees of the school on the board. Authorizers increasingly scrutinize proposed bylaws in charter school applications as a means to avert future governance issues by making sure certain provisions are addressed before the charter school is approved. Charter contracts often have proposed bylaws attached as a means of defining what is an acceptable or unacceptable change to the charter. Charter school bylaws should stand as approved by the authorizer unless an amendment to the bylaws is approved at a later date. Amending the bylaws may be a substantive change to the charter that fundamentally alters the vision and mission of the charter school.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Is it a Language School or a Religious School?

Schools officials at a Hebrew language charter school in south Florida are going to try and open three more charter schools using the same model. The Ben Gamla charter school serves 600 elementary school-aged students and has another ~135 on its waiting list. The school came under scrutiny by their authorizing school district initially and had an independent district-hired expert to examine all of the school's lessons.

One of the commenters on the Miami Herald article about the Ben Gamla charter school wondered what would happen if this were an islamic charter school? Minnesotans know. They have Tarek ibn Ziyad Charter Academy (TIZA), a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. TIZA is an Islamic charter school.

While most public school officials draw the line on teaching religion, there can be a very fine (gray?) line when the school's culture is also rooted in religion. District officials in Florida were wise to have an independent expert monitor the school's curriculum. It appears district officials in Minnesota have struggled with how to provide proper oversight to this unique charter school. Earlier this year the Minnesota Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the charter school stating they were teaching religion. A federal judge later dismissed most of the case.

Last week it was revealed that a nonprofit organization associated with TIZA paid for a state legislator's trip to Mecca in 2008. Further, the Minnesota Dept of Education notified TIZA school officials that they would not pay the school any more money until all of the school's teachers were properly licensed only to say it was "an error" two days later and fund the charter school.

TIZA reports higher-than-average test scores and has been recognized for outstanding academic growth by the Northwest Evaluation Association.

Charter school authorizers and policy makers have a unique challenge with atypical charter schools that operate at the threshold of acceptable practices. A key to averting problems is effective performance contracting and transparency. Moreover, authorizers learn from each other and the challenges they face, many of which could rarely be anticipated.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Aren't There More Management Companies Operating Charter Schools in Colorado?

Colorado has bucked the national trend for education management organization-operated charter schools since the law was first adopted. According to "The State of Charter Schools in Colorado" report,
"Only 12 schools, about 9% of the total, were operated by national nonprofit or for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs). By comparison, a quarter of charter schools natioinwide are managed by EMOs. In Michigan, nearly three out of four charter schools are so managed."

The National Association of Public Charter Schools says 22.5% of the nation's public charter schools are operated by an EMO or CMO (Charter Management Organization).

Colorado has been known to have more "grassroots" or "freestanding" than other states because that's how the movement started. Further, authorizers (local boards of education) were more influenced by their constituents (voters) than by a management company. It wasn't until the 2004 Charter School Institute law passed that management companies made an impact in Colorado.

In Colorado, charter schools are operated by a company include:
Edison: 4
Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation: 1
Mosaica: 4
National Heritage Acadmies: 1
White Hat Management: 3

The McREL blog states that the top 10 charter or education management companies are:
Edison Schools (97 schools)
KIPP (82 schools)
Imagine Schools (73 schools)
Big Picture Learning (68 schools)
National Heritage Academies (57 schools)
White Hat Management (51 schools)
EdVisions (40 schools)
Aspire (21 schools)
(tie) Green Dot (19 schools), Charter Schools USA (19 schools)

Due to some problems in the past with certain management companies, many authorizers in Colorado tend to shy away from approving management company-operated charter school applications. Most authorizers require evidence of community support as evidenced by a governing board of people from the local community. Moreover, charter contracts are made between the authorizer and the governing board, specifically excluding the management company as a party to the contract.

Oftentimes laws evolve over time based on a series of events. When the number of new charter schools approved dipped to a low of six in 2002 and five in 2003 lawmakers looked for ways to create more opportunities for charter school applicants to gain approval. Prior to the adoption of the CSI law in 2004 several attempts were made to create an alternative authorizer including institutions of higher ed and municipalities. Both of these models are used in other states, but Colorado ultimately settled on a state authorizing board (CSI).

Now an emerging trend in the state is for replication of existing, successful charter schools. These include the Cesar Chavez Network, W Denver Prep, Denver School of Science and Technology, and KIPP. These replication networks are commonly referred to as charter management organizations. Authorizers are more attracted to approving new charters with people they've already worked with and seen evidence of the school model's success rather than taking a chance on an unproven model or working with an EMO with established practices that may not easily conform to the district's expectations.

While Colorado may have bucked the national trend to use EMOs, it is at the front of the nation in replicating successful models. It's now encumbent upon charter school authorizers to employ best practices in establishing replication schools with true autonomy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Alaska Charter Schools

I just returned from ten days in Alaska where I saw the word "charter" on hundreds of signs throughout the state. Sure, the word was on signs for charter fishing boats, but the state also has 26 charter schools in operation. Alaska's charter school law is weak, receiving a "D" rating from the Center for Education Reform.

Alaska's charter school law passed in 1995 and permits up to sixty charter schools. Some of the provisions that make the law weak are less autonomy than other states (i.e. an "academic policy committee" instead of a governing board) and the charter school is bound by the authorizing school district's collective bargaining agreement with teachers.

Several of Alaska's charter schools focus on the Alaska Native heritage and culture. The Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Charter School in Bethel uses the immersion method of teaching Yup'ik to elementary school-aged students. In fact, note this list of spelling words for 2nd and 3rd grade students. Other charter schools use Spanish immersion, the Spalding method and a handful are homeschool programs.

Many of the state's charter schools are only accessible by plane, boat or dog sled since there isn't a road system in rural Alaska. About eight rural charter schools operate in Colorado, but at least they have a road to the school!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

No Blogging Until Next Week

I'm in Alaska volunteering at a college/counseling center and won't be blogging until midway through next week. My initial plan was to write my blog in the evenings, but between salmon fishing, being tired and sore from manual labor, and squeezing in some sightseeing when there's a break from work there hasn't been any time. My computer addiction has been replaced with time spent doing construction work. See you next week!