May 2011 Newsletter: Building City-Based Charter Strategies

31 May, 2011

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"Transforming Urban Public Education: Exploring the Potential of City-Based Strategies" Conference

On May 12, 2011, education reform leaders gathered in New Orleans for a one-day National Charter School Resource Center (Resource Center) conference titled "Transforming Urban Public Education: Exploring the Potential of City-Based Strategies." The conference focused on building charter school support infrastructures that effectively coordinate stakeholders' activities, drive growth in high-quality charter schools, and foster the policy environment that facilitates the work. More than a dozen veterans of charter school development and education reform from around the country presented their views of what works as well as some of the struggles and complexities that go with pushing for progress, interacting with districts, and sustaining improvement through changes in leadership and political climates.

This monthly newsletter from the Resource Center highlights key issues from the conference presentations, including the development and the operation of charter support groups in New York City, New Orleans, Tennessee, California, and Colorado; the operation and interaction of state and city organizations; and the roles of funders. In the "Resources" section in the right column, a link is provided to the conference webpage, which contains related resources that provide deeper information about the presentations and critical topics. Research indicates that strong city-based charter school support organizations can play a key role in achieving faster growth of high-quality charter schools, according to Scott Pearson, Associate Assistant Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education, and Acting Director of the department's Charter Schools Program (CSP). "We think it's something that has not been sufficiently highlighted and focused on, and that it's a potential strategy that can be of great benefit," Pearson said.

Charter School Support Structure Emerged Gradually in New York City

Phoebe Boyer, Executive Director of the Tiger Foundation and the Robertson Foundation (two philanthropic organizations that have funded charter and district school development and support organizations), said in her keynote address that high costs, low support, and complexity deterred the opening of charter schools in New York City in the early 2000s. At that time, charter schools in the city were struggling, and three had closed. But she said that the landscape began to change with the election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who took office in 2002), the advent of mayoral control of the schools, and the appointment of Joel Klein as Chancellor to reform the district.


In 2004, the New York City Charter School Center was launched with $41 million in foundation support, including $15 million from the Robertson Foundation. Boyer said that the center has shown the key role that such an organization can play in convening conversations, coordinating work for education improvement, and being a voice for quality and accountability. To drive systemic change, she urged that such organizations focus their work locally and build the strategies that involve a broad range of city leaders. "If we are just fixing the needs of one school, it is not enough," she said.

That work includes putting pressure on charter schools to improve their performance, especially on fronts such as serving special education students and English language learners. Among the impacts of the charter school presence are district schools seeking greater freedom from centralized control. Working cooperatively with districts is essential, but managing such relationships as colocations of charter and district schools can seem more like combat. She noted that the neologism "co-opetition" has emerged as a descriptor for the interaction. The number of charter schools in New York City has grown to 125 in 2010. And key research reports-- How New York City's Charter Schools Affect Achievement (2009) and Charter School Performance in New York City (2010), both by Stanford University researchers--show the sector's positive impact on student performance.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said the idea behind the center was to help the sector grow and catalyze school system improvement. At first, the center was planned as part of the city's department of education. But it was launched as an independent organization, designed not as a charter school membership group but as a support group that could act to hold charter schools' "feet to the fire."

According to Merriman, charter schools in some parts of the city account for 25 percent to 30 percent of the schools. "There is leverage now, and there is high quality," Merriman said. It helped that the district under Klein gave charter schools access to public school facilities at no cost, a provision worth about $3,000 per student that would have gone to landlords. A growing list of services has been provided to schools with the growth of the organization, which now has a staff of about 20 and an annual budget of $6.5 million.

The right kinds of services must be provided--those that are not too costly, such as one-on-one services for individual schools, and those that do not overlap with what is being provided by private businesses, such as accounting services, even though such services might be efficiently provided by the center. More time, for example, is being spent on advocacy with parents, Merriman said. The center has performed pay scale and benefits studies to supply charter leaders with information about the labor marketplace, coordinated certain exam scoring, and provided a way to have teacher background checks completed more quickly. Echoing Boyer, Merriman added that for support organizations to be effective, there "must be people on the ground that understand the specifics and are not directing it from a remote location."

Merriman also said the center is striving to help change the dialogue of conflict with district schools to a focus on improving schools no matter the nomenclature. The district, he said, played a key role in the development of charter schools. Cooperation was at the highest rung of the district leadership, with the acknowledgment that charter schools could be part of successful school improvement. "We were made legitimate by the district," Merriman said. "Those early years were about legitimacy." The rhetoric was us-versus-them. "We had been asking to sit at the adult table, and suddenly we were at the adult table," he said.

Reform developments within the district helped enable the conversation about charters. Robert Hughes, President of New Visions for Public Schools, described how his organization worked to develop more independent schools within the district.

According to Hughes, extensive dissatisfaction with district schools existed, but there was no organized voice to express this dissatisfaction. The idea in 2001 was to bring the concept of portfolio management to the schools, where the district operates as a manager of schools, regardless of the type of school. Those that succeed are supported; those that flounder are replaced or redesigned. The approach was to close and replace large, low-performing high schools with small district schools in public facilities, keeping the union. Hughes noted that Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, serve on the board of New Visions. "Our goal is to engage the union and have a different kind of contract going forward," Hughes said.

As the work moved ahead, community groups were asked to design schools. The work started in the Bronx, with the aim of communities taking responsibility for schools and the integration of social services without losing the focus on academic performance. A goal was set to achieve an 80 percent graduation rate. Thus far, 100 schools have been created, and they have a graduation rate of 73 percent.

"We started a conversation that the charter community moved into very quickly," Hughes said. "We had gotten 'close and replace' down." He said that as the effort grew, organizers started to ask what charter independence would be like within the district, with the idea being that "we don't have to do what the bureaucrat downtown says about vacation policies." Hughes noted that a survey of principals had found that they were spending 54 percent of their time working on compliance issues involving outside entities.

Hughes said that working with districts may not be a sing-along, but there are high-performing district schools with much to impart, and an important aspect of cooperation is the clarification of relationships. Cooperation by charter and district schools has been encouraged through a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program that resulted in an announcement in December 2010 that nine cities had developed written collaboration compacts. In May 2011, Boston announced a district-charter collaboration agreement it had developed on its own.

Robin Lake, Associate Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington-Bothell, told the conference that the Gates Foundation will be looking for signs of a shift from a culture of conflict between charter and district schools to a culture of cooperation. CRPE will be evaluating the results of Gates collaboration cities' work, looking for best practices. The collaboration compacts are not legally binding contracts, and it remains to be seen whether the agreements can be sustained over time and solidify reforms, Lake said. She noted that four of the nine cities have new school superintendents since the agreements were reached.

City- and State-Based Charter Support Structures: Interactions and Challenges

Eric Paisner, Vice President of Knowledge and Partnerships for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the organization has worked closely with charter support organizations to build strength in advocacy and partnerships. "We hope to move people out of silos and help them work together," Paisner said. One of those efforts involved hiring FSG, a social impact consulting firm, to develop a roadmap for city-based strategies and coordination with state-based groups.

John Kania, a Managing Director at FSG, said that the autonomy that makes charter schools special must be preserved, but developing a support infrastructure influences the level of difficulty faced in accomplishing goals. "You need to leverage economies of scale," Kania said.

Charter school stakeholders interact with many entities, including state, local, and federal governments; authorizers; and school districts. Outlining the components of a system that aligns and coordinates charter support work can offer a clear view of what pieces may be missing or where assistance can be found. Kania recommended drawing a blueprint that begins with an assessment of the existing conditions, setting goals, and developing an organizing structure. "How do you right-size your effort to the resources in your community?" Kania said. "The needs are going to be very different by community."

Providing coordination for charter schools can be an effective role for a charter support organization, and it is not necessarily expensive. Making inroads with a small amount of money breeds further success and improves the prospects for greater support. "Philanthropy will need to continue," Kania said. "There is a lot of hill to climb."

A Charter Support System in New Orleans

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) was started as a vehicle for interaction among people interested in rebuilding the school system. NSNO has raised $68 million to support a strategy that covers recruiting talented educators, building support systems, developing and expanding high-quality charter schools, and providing services. Support for NSNO includes multimillion dollar grants from the U.S. Department of Education. "We have seen a radical transformation of public education in this city," said Sarah Newell Usdin, NSNO Founder and CEO, who welcomed conference participants and described her organization's efforts. NSNO has incubated, launched, or expanded 31 percent of the schools in the city. It also has incubated a special education cooperative and brought to New Orleans various charter support experts, such as school governance consultants. In New Orleans, about 70 percent of the public school students now attend charter schools--the nation's broadest penetration. Usdin said that 45 percent fewer students attend failing schools in the city today than in 2005, and the achievement gap of city students compared with students statewide has been reduced by 50 percent.

Usdin acknowledged that simply getting a school off the failure list does not necessarily mean that the life trajectories of students will be changed. So the performance bar is being pushed higher. Accountability and the development of a culture of high performance are improving, she said, noting that one New Orleans charter school management organization voluntarily turned in the charter of one of its schools that was not performing well. Part of the accountability effort is having Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes analyze school performance data. "We have become increasingly honest about the performance of our schools," Usdin said. "We hope to have created a model," she said of reforms. NSNO has started a partnership with a charter development organization that is beginning work in Tennessee--an example of interconnections among support organizations.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, Executive Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and a veteran strategist for political campaigns, said the state's charter schools are concentrated in New Orleans. But about one third of the nearly 100 schools exist elsewhere in the state, and there are five types of charter schools, all with different kinds of operating arrangements. That makes it "hard to agree on the issues we should be addressing," Shirley said.

A variety of organizations have sprung up over the past half-dozen years that have built strong collaborations and placed the focus on making sure that all students attend a high-performing school. Shirley praised what she said are good relationships in New Orleans among many district and charter school officials. "We drink beer together; we hang out," Shirley said. But that's New Orleans. In other parts of the state, hostility exists. She said that charter school opponents have posted roadside signs that say, "You can take our buildings, but you can't take our kids." Support mechanisms are not in place elsewhere in the state as they are in New Orleans.

Continuing progress means meeting new challenges, including changes in leadership. The Louisiana Recovery School District, a statewide organization that predates Katrina and was started to address failing schools, has a new leader, John White, who had been one of Klein's deputies in New York City. And Paul Pastorek, the state education superintendent who had pushed reform, announced during the week of the Resource Center's city-based strategies conference that he was leaving. Concerns persist that all children are not being served, Shirley said. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, filed a federal lawsuit claiming that students with disabilities in New Orleans have not received the education services they are entitled to under federal law.

A Charter School Support Group Starts Work in Tennessee

In Tennessee, the goal of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator is to hatch 20 schools over the next five years. Greg Thompson, Incubator CEO and a former education program director for the Hyde Family Foundations, is leading the nearly $40 million program, which includes a variety of supports for charter school development. While tapping into groups such as NSNO, Thompson noted the limited success of the expansion of successful charter school models. The strategy in Tennessee cannot be built around bringing outside organizations into the area. Efforts need to focus on "finding the next local Chris Barbic," Thompson said, referring to the founder of the high-performing Yes Prep charter school system in Houston, Texas. "If you pour a billion dollars in and don't get the people part right, you will fail," he said. All charter schools are eligible for support from the Incubator, but such support will be directed to schools that meet certain criteria, Thompson said.

Some issues impacting success go beyond what happens in schools. Thompson said that a key piece of creating a pipeline for talent is making a community attractive and a place where job candidates can see a positive career trajectory. Maggie Runyan-Shefa of NSNO, founder of a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) school in New York City and a graduate of the KIPP School Leadership Program, seconded Thompson's sentiment. She also said that NSNO is working to find ways to support both stand-alone charter schools and those developed by local people.

State-Based Support Groups Interact With Cities

Jed Wallace, President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, identified the risks associated with the existence of separate city and state support organizations. Pressing an issue important to charter schools can involve detailed technical and regulatory matters, and inconsistencies in views within the charter community can create openings for charter opponents to exploit. "We want to make sure that positions locally are tightly hinged with the state," Wallace said, adding that it must be done while protecting charter school autonomy. "Those are the levels of complexity that emerge."

California has 912 charter schools, and enrollment has reached 365,000 students. With that growth, the association's approach has changed. "We are no longer in the business of plant tending," Wallace said, referring to the focus on the needs of individual schools. "We are in the business of environment building."

Wallace said that when he travels around the state, he wants to find out about members of governing bodies so that he can understand and help influence the political climate to support charter schools. Such work can be done by city or state charter school support organizations. But he emphasized his view that tight coordination and speaking with one voice is crucial to avoiding the divisions that can undermine progress. Staff at the association must be comfortable working in charter schools, district offices, and the state capital. Trust must be earned from charter schools that make up the association's membership. Those schools want to know "What are you doing for me?" Wallace said, adding there are circumstances where the association still provides support for individual schools.

Jim Griffin, President of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said the league is based in Denver but operates across the state, where there are 170 charter schools with an enrollment of about 72,000 students. Although generally known as an urban phenomenon, Denver fought the acceptance of the state's charter school law for years, Griffin said. The state's first charter school was opened in Aspen, Colorado, and growth came outside Denver until political barriers to charter schools in the state capital were removed. He said developments in Denver and across the state influence one another. The league is supporting a pilot special education cooperative in Douglas, Colorado, that involves six charter schools. "That's going to serve as a wonderful template," Griffin said. "I look forward to being able to help Denver out with what we learn." Meantime, the development of a written policy on charter school access to public school buildings in Denver has helped with advocacy outside the capital, Griffin said, adding that the policy is something he can carry with him and help make his case. "Denver has a tendency to get a lot wrong," Griffin said. But he said the city also is trying many different approaches, and "they're getting a heck of a lot right."

How One National Funder Places Its Bets on Reform

Different funders have different approaches for supporting charter schools and education reform. One prominent source of support has been the NewSchools Venture Fund, where Jim Peyser is a Managing Director. Peyser also serves on the board of several charter school networks and NSNO, was the former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and helped start the state's first charter schools.

The NewSchools Venture Fund is focused on supporting education reform, especially to benefit low-income students, and has backed charter school development work. Efforts have included a $12 million investment in Boston and $20 million each in Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. The approach is to jump-start promising work by coordinating philanthropic aid, providing support for three or four years and then letting the work proceed on its own. Peyser said the aim is to help raise the voice for quality and accountability and catalyze broader reform. He said the focus is on cities with the potential for the biggest bang for the buck.

Each context requires tailored strategies, he said. In Washington, D.C., for example, Peyser said the investment by the NewSchools Venture Fund has not yielded the anticipated results of a broad base of high-performing and influential charter schools. Peyser said the goal is not to "fix what's broken," but added, "I don't think we have much choice but to do that" in the nation's capital. For example, he said that ongoing support could involve assembling a more comprehensive package of services to support a strong school leader who has not developed a strong leadership team. He suggested that it makes more sense to boost a school stuck in the middle and close failing schools. The idea is not to "create something out of nothing."


Federal Charter Schools Program Director Named

A veteran administrator of charter school support programs has been named director of the U.S. Department of Education's Charter Schools Program (CSP).

Stefan Huh, who for the past four years has led the Office of Public Charter School Financing and Support within the District of Columbia's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, will start his job as CSP director on June 20, 2011.

Associate Assistant Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education and Acting CSP Director Scott Pearson announced Huh's appointment on May 26, 2011. Pearson plans to take a leave and return in the fall. Read more.

Report on Charter Loan Performance Says School Size, Academic Standing Matter

Larger charter school organizations and those with stronger academic achievement tend to perform better on loan repayment, according to a report prepared by Ernst & Young.

A Decade of Results: Charter School Loan and Operating Experience--prepared for the Low Income Investment Fund, the Reinvestment Fund, and the Raza Development Fund--covers 430 outstanding and paid loans totaling $1.2 billion from 2000 to 2009.

The average original loan amount was $3.5 million, while seven years was the most common loan period and 5.3 percent the average interest rate, according to the May 2011 report. Data about foreclosures, refinancings, and extensions as well as school-based characteristics and breakdowns by geographic region are included in the report.

Among the reported findings are that schools that are part of a group of six or more schools have higher net income per student. On average, schools without delinquent or extended loans "belong to an organization that is 69 percent larger than the size of schools" with loans in such conditions.

The report also notes that "stronger academic performance is associated with better loan performance," with academic performance based on the attainment of adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Of all the loans in the dataset, five loans totaling $12 million ended in foreclosure.

NACSA Issues Brief on Closing Charter Schools

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has issued a brief summarizing how to close a charter school "in a responsible and efficient manner." Navigating the Closure Process covers what to anticipate from stakeholders and the key elements of planning a closure.

"School closure is difficult for all stakeholders, including the authorizer. However, the authorizer, in conjunction with the school leadership, has the opportunity to orchestrate a smooth, successful closure," the eight-page brief states. "Even when the school is actively fighting the closure decision, the board of directors and the authorizer should be able to find common ground by agreeing to make students' and families' needs the number one priority."

The brief notes that more extensive information is available in an 80-page guide that NACSA produced in 2010. Accountability in Action: A Comprehensive Guide to Charter School Closure includes detailed information about procedures, case studies, a sample closure plan and checklist, and sample letters to various constituencies. It has six chapters: "Why Good Authorizers Should Close Bad Schools"; "The Evidence Base Needed for School Closure"; "Closure: Timing, Process and Appeals"; "Authorizing Boards and Executives"; "Supporting Students and Families"; and "Message Matters in Closure Decisions."

Boston Leaders Write District-Charter Schools Compact

Leaders in Boston have announced a district-charter compact that is designed to have traditional public schools and charter schools collaborate to improve achievement for all students. The draft compact covers issues such as joint teacher recruitment and training, transportation, the location of new charter schools, and the recruitment of students.

"Our public education system should welcome innovation of many types with one standard: accept all kids, deliver outstanding results," Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in an April 28, 2011, public statement about the agreement. "This historic agreement creates a framework for [Boston Public Schools] and the charters to work together toward that shared goal."

The draft compact is similar to agreements announced in December 2010 involving nine cities that were part of an initiative supported by the Gates Foundation.

A study addressing the role and impact of autonomy in public charter schools and district schools in Boston was included as part of a Resource Center webinar on April 20, 2011.

Manzanita Charter School Finds Home on Air Force Base

The organizers of Manzanita Public Charter School did not intend to open their school on a military base. It just worked out that way for Kathy Grbac and Lynnda Palmer, the pair who spearheaded the start-up of the school, which opened in 2008 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Grbac, Manzanita's manager, said in an interview with the Resource Center that she and Palmer, the principal, had planned to open their school near downtown Lompoc, California, to accommodate the underserved students who were the focus of their charter application. Instead, the Lompoc Unified School District (LUSD), the authorizer that was empowered to grant the charter, offered an elementary school site on Vandenberg Air Force Base that LUSD was closing. Read more.

NCES Report Describes Charter Enrollment Growth, Compares Charters With District Schools

Charter school enrollment nationwide more than tripled to 1.4 million from 1999 to 2009, the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 2 percent to 5 percent, and an increasing percentage of those schools fell into larger enrollment categories, according to The Condition of Education 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The percentage of high-poverty charter schools, where at least 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, increased from 13 percent to 30 percent over the same period, according to the annual report mandated by Congress. In 2009, 19 percent of traditional public schools were considered high-poverty schools, the report states.

The report also provides data about changes in demographics of charter schools and comparisons with district schools on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics scale scores.


The conference resources for the "Transforming Urban Public Education: Exploring the Potential of City-Based Strategies" conference on May 12, 2011, are available online. This webpage provides the conference agenda as well as links to conference presentations, which include detailed reports on the background of charter school developments in New York City and information about how to assess the need for a support organization and effective strategies.


June 20-23: The National Charter Schools Conference 2011, themed "Because Every Child Can Succeed," will be held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Registration is open, and information about the program, accommodations, and discounts is available.

August 1-3: The Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education will hold its 2011 Leadership Mega Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, located just outside Washington, D.C. A wide range of sessions is planned to increase opportunities for collaboration and networking. Online registration is now available.

October 24-27: NACSA will host its 2011 Leadership Conference on Amelia Island, near Jacksonville, Florida.