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.