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Romney and Obama Debate Education, but Agree on Public Charter Schools

The Romney campaign has recently turned its gaze to education and made statements regarding the role of public charter schools in America’s current educational landscape (see more at EdWeek’s Charters & Choice and Politics K-12 blogs).  The views of Romney and Obama on this role are actually quite similar: the expansion of high quality public charter schools will increase innovation and student achievement. Mitt Romney supports higher expectations for students, more accountability for teachers, and increased parental choice through increased access to public charter schools.  During his time as Governor, Romney fought to eliminate the Massachusetts state cap on charter schools, vetoed a budget line item that would have imposed a moratorium on additional public charter schools and suspended the 5 charter schools granted in 2004, and approved a 2005 state budget that dedicated $37.7 million to ensuring proper transitional funding for public school districts that send students in charter schools.  In recent debates, Romney has repeatedly mentioned school choice as a key principle of successful public education.  During the, CNN Arizona Republican Presidential Debate in February 2012, Romney specifically named charter schools as important to educational achievements in Massachusetts: “My legislature tried to say no more charter schools.  I vetoed that, we overturned that…With school choice, testing our kids, giving our best teachers opportunities for advancement, these kinds of principles drove our schools to be pretty successful.” So how does Romney’s charter focus stack up against President Obama’s? As we’ve seen, Barack Obama has largely recognized public charter schools in terms of their innovation and has therefore supported their expansion.  Soon after his inauguration in March of 2009, President Obama gave a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he called on states to “reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools.”  The President acted on the message of this speech in July of 2009, when he introduced his signature education reform plan “Race to the Top,” which rewards innovative plans for teacher quality and student achievement, and encourages states to lift limits on charter schools.  In addition, much of President Obama’s reform of “No Child Left Behind” in 2011 mirrored the language of “Race to the Top” by focusing on innovation and flexibility to produce student achievement, qualities important to the success of the charter sector.  The support of charter school expansion provided by “Race to the Top” and the reform of “No Child Left Behind” has been important to the current Obama campaign in responding to criticisms around education reform. We are glad that both candidates support the growth of high quality charter schools and are keeping this important topic at the forefront of their campaigns.
Nora Kern

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Spelling out Success: A Wyoming Public Charter Student’s Path to the Scripps National Spelling Bee

When you ask the average twelve year-old, ‘what’s the hardest word you’ve ever had to spell?’ most probably couldn’t give you an answer. Then again, Lia Eggleston isn’t your typical twelve year-old. After a moment’s reflection, the poised 8th grader, who attends Snowy Range Academy—a public charter school in Laramie, Wyoming—definitively responds, “koan.” Not only do I have no idea what this word means, I have to ask Lia to spell it for me. Lia is the winner of the 2012 Wyoming State Spelling Bee. With that accomplishment comes a next step that has been a dream for Lia: being a competitor in the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee. The event, which has captivated audiences and Hollywood (fiction and nonfiction films), will be held in National Harbor, Maryland on May 29-31, 2012. Lia’s path to becoming a spelling bee champion was inspired at home: her brother participated in a state spelling bee, so she decided to give it a try. She admitted that her first year of competition included a few lucky guesses, such as Japanese-rooted word “koan,” and Lia ended up placing 2nd in the 2010 Wyoming State Spelling Bee. From there, she became more dedicated in pursuit of the state title. She began studying and memorizing words from Spell It!, a list of a approximately 1,150 words created in cooperation with Merriam-Webster as a study aid for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In her second attempt, Lia placed 3rd in the 2011 Wyoming State Spelling Bee. Spelling Bee Headshot (1)               Photo: Lia Eggleston’s official headshot for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. With her mantra “the only place left is 1st” keeping her motivated, Lia began working with a coach, University of Wyoming student Jen Black, who was a former Scripps Spelling Bee competitor. Together, they study word origins—Lia notes that the Greek and Latin derived words are easy once you have roots memorized, Spanish and Japanese-based words are more phonetic, but words with Germanic and Slavic bases are really hard—and practice the most challenging words on the Spell It! list. Lia estimates that she spends at least a few hours on the weekend and an hour after school with Jen once or twice each week practicing, adding in a half hour a day before school doing computerized spelling tests over the past month.  The study limit permitted by Scripps is four hours a day, but Lia’s eighth grade schoolwork at Snowy Range Academy Charter School, and her other extracurricular activities—cello, dance, and theater—mean that she has to make tough choices about how to spend her time. With the support of her Snowy Range Academy and dance school classmates (see picture below), who Lia says are “pretty excited” for her, and teachers (“they already knew I had won the state bee before I could tell them”), Lia has her eye on the prize. She will just have time to finish her school year (classes end on May 25th) before flying to the East Coast for the competition on the 27th. As a representative of the public charter school movement, we will “bee” cheering her on. You can follow Lia and the National Bee on www.spellingbee.com, Facebook, or on ESPN during the week of the Bee. G-O Lia! Even I can spell that one. Spelling Bee-Pfeffernuss             Photo: Lia Eggleston (bottom row, second from right) spells her favorite word (Pfeffernuss–a German spice cookie) with help from her friends in the Laramie Dance Center’s Advanced Irish Step dance class. Photo credit: Anne Brande, photographer at Ludwig Photography.

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Public Charter Schools Comprise 60 Percent of Newsweek’s Top 25 Transformative High Schools, Including the Top Three Slots

Newsweek recently released its list of the Top 25 Transformative High Schools, and public charter schools represented exactly 60 percent of the list, including the top three highest ranked schools. Within the Top 25, the charter schools hold the rankings of: #1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 23. In terms of its methodology, Newsweek notes: “It’s no secret that schools in poor neighborhoods often struggle. But some achieve a remarkable amount in relation to the poverty of their communities. Newsweek calls these Transformative Schools, and for the second year in a row, we have created a list of the top 25. “To compile the Transformative list, we took the scores from Newsweek’s top 1,000 schools and factored in the percentage of students who qualified for free- or reduced-price lunches—the most reliable measure of socio-economic status in American high schools. Schools that restrict admissions based on academics were ineligible; the purpose of the list is to highlight schools where enthusiasm is the only defining metric.” NAPCS commends the tremendous impact these public charter schools are making in the lives of its students. This is another proof point for what can happen when great leaders are given the flexibility to be innovative. You can more about the #1 rankedPreuss School UCSD in our newest issue brief.

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NAPCS Encourages the Charter Sector to Comment on the New Race to the Top District Proposed Requirements

The US Department of Education has posted a draft executive summary of the draft requirements, priorities, selection criteria, and definitions for the Race to the Top District (RTT-D) competition. According to the Department, the RTT-D competition “will build on the lessons learned from the State-level competitions and support bold, locally directed improvements in teaching and learning that will directly improve student achievement and teacher effectiveness. More specifically, Race to the Top District will reward those LEAs that have the leadership and vision to implement the strategies, structures and systems of support to move beyond one-size–fits-all models of schooling, which have struggled to produce excellence and equity for all children, to personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.” Applicants must be LEAs (including charter LEAs) serving at least 2,500 students. Local Education Agencies may apply as a consortium which may include LEAs across one or more states. Additionally, at least 40% of participating students across all participating schools must be from low income families (using free and reduced lunch criteria). Applications must meet Absolute Priority 1 and one of Absolute Priorities 2: Absolute Priority 1, Personalized Learning Environment(s) Absolute Priority 2, LEAs in Race to the Top States Absolute Priority 3, Rural LEAs in Race to the Top States Absolute Priority 4, LEAs in non-Race to the Top States Absolute Priority 5, Rural LEAs in non-Race to the Top States You can read more and submit your comments here: http://www.ed.gov/race-top/district-competition. And stay tuned for further NAPCS analysis.
Nora Kern

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Systemic impact: E.L. Haynes, (Washington, D.C.)

In conjunction with the release of our newest issue brief, the Charter Blog is looking at ways public charter school leaders design their school mission to meet diverse community needs. Previous blogs (see here> and here) looked at how a school and school model were growing and adapting to the needs of their community. Today, we take a deeper look at mission-based activities conducted by E.L. Haynes, in addition to the practices noted in our issue brief. E.L. Haynes, a year-round public charter school that opened in the 2004-2005 school year, is based on a mission that encompasses racial, socioeconomic and home language diversity.  Through strategically locating in a central neighborhood that is accessible by the city’s public bus and subway systems, the school is able to attract families of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds from every ward in D.C.  Our issue brief <insert hyperlink> explores E.L. Haynes’ practices in attracting a diverse student population and the instructional staff’s rigorous use of data to drive continuous improvement. E.L. Haynes serves grades pre-school through nine, with plans to grow through grade 12. However, the school does not have plans to expand into another school campus. So the school governance board is looking to expand its impact on education reform in the District of Columbia and across the country. To do this, E.L. Haynes has taken its data-driven decisionmaking model and made it a platform for creating a broader impact beyond its walls. E.L. Haynes has launched collaborative projects with other D.C. charter and district schools which build on the insights gained at the school. The four systemic reform areas and the current initiatives are: building human capital (The Capital Teaching Residency Program with KIPP DC), convening practitioners (D.C. Race to the Top’s Professional Learning Community of Effective Strategies), launching innovative practices (LearnZillion and D.C. Race to the Top’s SchoolForce Consortium), and shaping policy (special education, competency-based high school graduation, teacher evaluation).  E.L. Haynes believes that these four high yield strategies will help elevate the learning of all D.C. public school students. EL Haynes Performance (45)             For more information on E.L. Haynes, please see their case study in our issue brief and visit their website. Photo: E.L. Haynes students performing at the 2009 Champion for Charters Reception.
Nora Kern

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Expanding the school model: Citizens of the World Charter Schools (Los Angeles metro area)

In conjunction with the release of our newest issue brief, the Charter Blog is looking at ways public charter school leaders design their school mission to meet diverse community needs. Building the school model Citizens of the World Charter Schools (CWC) aims to provide an excellent public education that is academically rigorous and socioeconomically, racially and culturally diverse, and builds community both within and outside of the school. Their flagship school, CWC Hollywood, opened in fall 2010 after a full planning year, delivering an intellectually challenging, experiential learning environment that is designed to build each students confidence, potential, and individual responsibility as citizens of the world in which we live. The Hollywood school is the first of a network of schools to open in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with two additional schools approved to open in Silver Lake in the fall 2012 and Mar Vista in fall 2013 . CWC deeply believes that demand for high performing, neighborhood schools exists within many communities across the country.  Citing the hundreds of families who sit on waitlists for other strong, diverse charter schools, CWC feels compelled to meet the demand, and sees strategic, aggressive growth as the lever to do so. Taking it national CWC evaluates potential school markets by analyzing the demographics of neighborhoods and identifying neighborhoods that could attract a diverse student population through organic growth and community outreach (as opposed to employing a weighted lottery). Taking this into account, as well as the potential state’s charter school law, per pupil funding, parent demand, and talent on the ground, CWC selects new sites and begins to identify parents and community leaders who are supportive of the mission and vision.  CWC—which sees itself as somewhat of a hybrid between a charter management organization (CMO) and charter school incubator—strives to build high quality teams to run schools with the CWC mission, yet leave enough room within the CWC brand to give school leaders true autonomy to make school-level decisions that are responsive to and reflective of the community it serves. Recognizing that this takes time and grassroots organizing, CWC works to identify new sites early enough to ensure comprehensive outreach to the community. CWC’s involvement in the California and New York  markets has yielded different lessons in terms of adapting to local policies. In California, which ranks as the 43rd lowest state for per pupil funding allotments when labor is factored,  employing non-classroom staff to conduct community outreach is nearly cost prohibitive. So school location in diverse neighborhoods is of the utmost importance, since that will be the primary means to attract the desired student population. Other funding issues, like deferrals and mid-year cuts, create pressured revenue streams for charter schools. In New York, charter schools are held accountable for matching the enrollment population—not neighborhood population—of district schools. Therefore, CWC’s focus on student diversity could be difficult because schools with a focus on diversity would seem to be faced with inherent challenges in complying with this requirement. CWC will test the national pulse for creating K-12 schools that open a pathway to college while learning in diverse school settings as it strives to build a network of schools across the country. CWC Blog           For more information on Citizens of the World Charter Schools, please visit their website. Photo: Citizens of the World Charter School website.
Nora Kern

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Incubating a diversity-focused charter school: Bricolage Academy (New Orleans)

In conjunction with the release of our newest issue brief,  the Charter Blog is looking at ways public charter school leaders design their school mission to meet diverse community needs. The question of which students a charter will serve is a critical inquiry that must be considered throughout all phases of school development (and throughout the life of the school). Schools in the incubation phase can shed particular light on the if/then considerations that founders must balance in order to launch their envisioned charter school. Josh Densen is working with 4.0 Schools—a charter incubator that focuses on talent development to build charter school leadership teams—to launch Bricolage Academy, a proposed New Orleans charter school that is diverse by design. Densen began the inquiry process for his school in July 2011, and, as of January 2012, he has begun to work on the charter application. For Densen, socio-economic diversity is a value to celebrate and a prerequisite for future academic and professional success. Densen does not have an ideal student demographic population; his admissions process reserves 40 percent of each class for free and reduced price lunch (FRL)-eligible students, 30 percent for non-FRL students, and 30 percent for a general population without income preferences. However, there is an “at risk” provision in Louisiana’s charter school statute that requires a charter school’s population to mirror the demographic composition of the district from where the students transferred (roughly 62 percent FRL students to match the state demographic for district schools, and even higher within Orleans Parish). As a result of this provision, Densen has a few considerations to weigh when he submits his charter application for authorizer approval. Densen is considering use of a weighted lottery to achieve the socioeconomic diversity described above. That said, if Densen decides to not use a weighted lottery, he can attempt to influence the demographics of the school’s population with a geographic catchment area preference. Locating the school in an area of New Orleans that is already diverse may result in a diverse student population at the school, however, due to New Orleans status as a near-100 percent charter and all choice district, there is no guarantee that a diverse population will endure if families throughout the system choose to attend his school or the neighborhood demographics shift over time. Using a weighted lottery will further the mission of the school and assure parents and families of the school’s commitment to diversity, a quality valued by many New Orleans residents. Densen recognizes that use of a weighted lottery will make Bricolage ineligible for federal CSP funding. The enthusiastic support he receives from a broad range of New Orleans residents and philanthropies reaffirms his commitment to socio-economic diversity. Josh Densen Blog           Photo: Josh Densen For more information on the use of weighted lotteries, please see our issue brief. You can learn more about Bricolage Academyhere.

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How Public Charter Schools Are Designed to Meet the Diverse Demands of Our Communities

Today, NAPCS is proud to release our newest issue briefA Mission to Serve: How Public Charter Schools Are Designed to Meet the Diverse Demands of Our Communities. By looking at high performing public charter schools that are consciously designed to serve their students–whether in homogenous or diverse environments–this issue brief underscores that public charter schools can accommodate both models and, in the process, provide more high quality public school options to our nation’s students. One of the most exceptional developments within the first two decades of the movement has been the rise of high performing public charter schools with missions intently focused on educating students from traditionally underserved communities. While much media attention rightly has been given to these schools, the past decade or so also has seen a noteworthy rise in high-performing public charter schools with missions intentionally designed to serve economically integrated student populations.  These schools are utilizing their autonomy to achieve a diverse student population through location-based strategies, recruitment efforts and enrollment processes. Perhaps most notably, a growing number of cities – and the parents and educators in them – are welcoming both types of public charter school models for their respective (and in some cases unprecedented) contributions to raising student achievement, particularly for students who have previously struggled in school.  Our issue brief showcases this development in three such cities:  Denver, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. Diverse Models IB Cover Photo 1

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The Challenge of Filling Charter School Governing Board Positions

This is my third year serving on a public charter school governing board. The school, Pioneer Charter School, is a PreK-7 school in Denver serving a large proportion of students who are at-risk for academic failure. Over 90 percent of Pioneer’s students are Latino, 70 percent are English Language Learners, and 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Pioneer opened in 1997, making it one of the first Denver Public Schools (DPS) charter schools. For the first decade of operation, it would have been difficult to distinguish Pioneer from one of the neighborhood district schools (the district maintained control over the school’s budget, hiring of the school leader, and other duties that the school’s governing board should have had responsibility for). One consequence of this ‘charter school in name only’ management was that most parents believed that the school was their neighborhood school. About five years ago, during Pioneer’s charter renewal, DPS made the Pioneer board decide between becoming a district school or firmly establishing itself as a charter school. The governing board decided to become a full-fledged charter school, taking on fiduciary responsibility for Pioneer. Pioneer has struggled academically, which has been quite a challenge for me as a board member. During my first year on the board, we contemplated recommending closure. Instead, we made a change in school leadership, hiring a dynamic leader who had previous success as the founder of a KIPP school in Colorado. We are in the second year of our self-imposed turnaround, a process that has included: a nearly 50 percent turnover in teachers; a complete overhaul of the curriculum (from inconsistent use of Success for All and Everyday Math to a customized, in-house standards-based curriculum based on the Common Core); the implementation of regular benchmark assessments and data-driven decision-making; and changes in school policies to ensure that we have a culture of high expectations. As a board, we are cautiously optimistic that we will see academic gains on this year’s state assessments. But we are also realistic in understanding that it may take another year or two to see real improvements (fingers crossed that it will happen before we come up for renewal again). Serving on a charter school governing board has been incredibly demanding and amazingly rewarding. I truly love the work. However, it is a yearly challenge for our board to find new board members. We work with local organizations, like the Colorado League of Charter Schools and Get Smart Schools, to find new board members. But we have had to balance seeking out individuals who have the expertise we need with simply finding individuals who are willing to volunteer their time to the school (and twisting their arms to do so…). And this is not a unique problem for our charter school (the National Charter School Resource Center examines recruiting board members in D.C. and Maine here). For many new charter school board members, this is the first time they have served on a board (that was my experience). Fortunately, there are some great resources for governing board professional development in Colorado through the CO League and the CO Department of Education. Other states have similar resources for governing boards. There are also national organizations that provide assistance and quality guidelines. As a researcher, I am interested in the role that charter governing boards play in the charter sector. However, there is very little research on charter boards and many unanswered questions: Who serves on charter boards and for how long? What are the most common decisions that charter boards undertake? What types of board decisions have the most impact on school performance? How do founding boards differ from boards of charter schools that have been around for many years? How involved are boards in the strategic vision of their charters? This is certainly an untapped area for potential charter school research. I hope future studies can shed light and provide solutions for the questions, so that schools like mine can effectively propel themselves to a higher level of board operation and student academic achievement. AN Board Blog Photo Resize             Photo: Older students read to the younger students on Reading Day at Pioneer Charter School (PCS).
Eric Paisner

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Tennessee’s Misguided Proposed Limits on Charter School Hiring

Recently, EdWeek and The Tennessean reported that Tennessee lawmakers are pushing legislation to limit the number of foreign born teachers that can be employed by a charter school. House Bill 3540 passed the House Education Committee earlier this week. The companion bill, Senate Bill 3345, cleared the Senate Education Committee last week and is headed to the Senate Floor. The bill has a host of other restrictions related to charter school affiliation with foreign nationals, and also requires charter schools to disclose all funding from foreign sources. Without even getting into why the legislature would want to do this (here is a major supporter of the bill), this is a huge overreach into charter school autonomy. Autonomy is a bedrock principal of charter schools. And, as we’ve mentioned before, the ability to create and manage a team is a critical element of charter school autonomy. If charter schools are high quality and operating within the law, we should not restrict who charter schools can and cannot hire. Moreover, this bill doesn’t even address any issues that currently exist. As reported in the EdWeek piece, Matt Throckmorton, the executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association knows of only six teachers in the state who have been hired on a foreign-worker visa. But, he notes, the low threshold provided in this bill would restrict most charter schools from hiring even one foreign teacher on a work visa. Surely, limiting the potential pool of teachers can’t be productive, especially when we know there is a shortage of high quality teachers already.