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Thank a Teacher

CharterSchoolsFBGraphic_turkey_final2Dear Friends,

All of us have had phenomenal teachers in our years of K-12 schooling and beyond; and we’ve all had some lousy ones.

It’s the great teachers, though, that stick with us, and whose memories continue to fill us with joy. For me, thinking about my 3rd-grade teacher, Ms. Schweickert, always puts a smile on my face.

I would go to school in Chicago trudging through blizzards to make it to class to have another amazing day of learning, camaraderie and joy with her and my classmates. I also remember seeing a long division problem for the first time in Ms. Schweickert’s room, and feeling a pit in my stomach, thinking there was no way I’d ever remember all of those steps to solve the problem. My teacher, though, broke it down into simple steps and made it easy and fun to do. My brief moments of hating and fearing math were replaced with confidence and hunger to learn more, thanks to Ms. Schweickert.

And as an adult, learning never stops. In my first year as a 5th-grade bilingual teacher in 1992, I had that same pit in my stomach as I had no idea how to teach 32 5th graders. It was Ms. Harriett Ball, the “teacher of teachers,” who took me under her wing, along with Dave Levin, and taught us how to teach. Ironically, one of the first things she taught me was how to teach long division. Harriett broke the lesson cycle down into simple steps and made it fun to teach. Once again, my brief moments of fearing being a teacher were replaced with confidence and hunger to learn more, thanks to Ms. Ball.

Whether it’s one of your preschool teachers, K-12 teachers, college professors or professional mentors, we all can remember and appreciate great teaching coming from great teachers. Here’s to the most noble and memorable profession in the world: teaching!

To help celebrate Thanksgiving and our teachers, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools created a graphic you can share and thank the teachers who meant the most to you.

Click here to share this graphic on Facebook to thank your favorite teacher!

Happy Thanksgiving and Plow on,

Mike Feinberg
Co-Founder KIPP

Pamela Davidson


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The President’s Pre-K Proposal: How Charter Schools Fit In

Last week, the president’s proposal to expand access to full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for four-year olds from low- to moderate-income families was introduced in the House and the Senate. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate (S. 1697) by Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and in the House (H.R. 3461) by Representative George Miller (D-CA-11), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Representative Richard Hanna (R-NY-22).

Under the proposal, states, mostly likely through the state education agency (SEA) would apply directly to the U.S. Department of Education to receive funding for pre-kindergarten programs. The funds would be allocated to states by formula, based on their number of four-year olds living at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. States will be required to match the funds on an escalating basis beginning with 10 percent in the first two years and 100 percent by the eighth year and beyond. Federal funds will be gradually phased out over 10 years. In turn, states must sub-grant funds to local eligible entities (which may include school districts, public charter schools, Head Start programs, or licensed child care providers) to operate these programs. The legislation authorizes $27 billion over 10 years.

Public charter schools and traditional public schools would be eligible to apply for a grant from their SEA to open, expand, and operate pre-K programs. Charter school participation could come at a cost, however: the legislation’s requirements could potentially undermine their autonomy and flexibility. For example, the legislation mandates requirements for teacher qualifications and salaries, class size, and required services for children–areas where most public charter schools currently have autonomy to set their own standards.

Public charter schools thrive on their ability to be innovative and independent while being held accountable for student academic achievement. They enjoy the freedom to select their staff; create a distinctive school culture, adjust curriculum to meet student needs, and develop new learning models. Public charter schools could benefit from these pre-k grants to create early learning programs, but they should not have their hands tied. Consistent with the terms of their charter, charter schools should be free to innovate while being held accountable for results for any pre-k program they offer.

Pamela Davidson is the senior director of government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Nina Rees


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Charter Schools Lead the Way on STEM

As originally posted on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce blog for Education and Workforce



Over the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the United States will create 9.2 million jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In order to fill these jobs, experts agree that we must adequately train our students in STEM fields. This is a critical step toward securing our economic competitiveness.

It’s encouraging to see some of our nation’s best high schools embracing STEM education. Take a look at the U.S. News 2013 list of “best high schools in America” and you will find a number of schools with a strong focus on STEM workforce preparation – and many of these schools are charter schools.

On a recent survey, one-fifth of all American charter schools reported that they have a specific STEM or math/science focus, and this number is growing.

Among them are the Magnolia Science Academy, a high school in California, and the Denver School of Science and Technology in Colorado. Both are models of STEM-focused education, and both are public charter schools.

At Magnolia Science Academy all students take a computer class every day and technology is integrated into core classes. Students learn how to design websites and effectively use the internet and curriculum that is aligned with National Educational Technology Standards.

The school also sets a high bar in mathematics. In 2006, Magnolia student Zarathustra Brady became one of six U.S. students on the gold-medal winning national team at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), a cluster of six public charter schools, focuses on bringing STEM education to low-income and minority students.

Despite many incoming students performing below grade level, the school’s high standards foster a culture of achievement. Students take algebra-based physics in 9th grade and are expected to complete college-level coursework in science and engineering by the time they graduate.

Thanks to its robust curriculum, the schools boast a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

These examples are inspirational, but I believe we can do even more.

Neither schools nor businesses can tackle this issue alone, but together we are poised for success.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which represents 2.3 million students in more than 6,000 schools, is working with charter schools across the country to connect them with STEM resources and ensure they are working with their local business communities to craft school curriculums that will prepare students for careers in STEM fields.

The charter model is unique because it provides schools with the freedom and flexibility to align teaching to our evolving workforce needs.

We’re grateful to chambers of commerce for playing such a critical leadership role in advancing STEM education and look forward to building strong alliances with business partners from coast-to-coast to better serve our nation’s students and their communities.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Renita Thukral


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School Spotlight: El Sol Science and Arts Academy Serving English Language Learners Well

Located in Santa Ana, California, El Sol Science and Arts Academy (El Sol) is a dual immersion school using a 90/10 model. When the students enroll in kindergarten, 90 percent of the day is conducted in Spanish. The rate decreases by 10 percentage points each year until the fourth grade when the students reach a 50/50 language ratio.

Opened in 2001 with a kindergarten and first grade class, El Sol has added one grade level each year. During the 2012-13 school year, El Sol served 763 students in K–8th grade and 72 students in its part time pre-k program. Ninety-six percent of El Sol students were Latino, many of whom were recent immigrants. Moreover, 70 percent were English Language Learners (ELL), and 80 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Here are a few of the ways El Sol is working to serve ELL students:

Special Programs 

  • Every student who enrolls must complete a home language survey that is required by the State of California. The answers to the survey determine whether the student must take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) to determine her/his level of English proficiency. This test helps determine the particular level of instruction the student will need, and El Sol provides targeted instruction in each grade at every needed proficiency level.
  • The students have a longer than normal school day and extended day tutoring programs are available for students who need them.
  • To assess academic progress, students undergo writing and oral assessments in addition to the required standardized exams. Students’ portfolios and grades are discussed by teachers before making decisions to advance the respective students to the next level.

Parent Engagement and Cultural Understanding 

  • To ensure parents understand what is happening in their child’s school, all school correspondence goes home in English and Spanish, and virtually the entire staff can speak both languages.
  • The school offers a full array of family services, including an onsite wellness center, ESL and citizenship courses for parents, and attorneys who come in to do pro bono work.

Bilingual Teachers 

  • El Sol partners with local universities to recruit high-quality teachers. One nearby university, Chapman University’s School of Education, sends student teachers to the school as part of their training program.
  • Teachers at El Sol are required to have a bilingual certificate in language acquisition development in addition to their teaching credential.
  • El Sol seeks out teachers who have taken nontraditional paths to the profession. They often hire staff from other countries who do not have U.S. teaching credentials but do have higher education degrees from other countries. They use them as instructors who supplement the work of teachers.

El Sol’s model is an excellent example for all charter schools. As the charter school movement grows, we must continue to serve all students well, preparing them for academic success and beyond.

Renita Thukral is vice president for legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

This blog is excerpted from the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s publication, Serving English Language Learners:  A Toolkit for Public Charter Schools. 

Kim Kober


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Charter School Partnerships among Highest Rated i3 Grant Applicants

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the top 25 applicants of this year’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition, which will award more than $135 million to expand innovative practices designed to improve student achievement.

The focus on innovation makes the i3 competition a logical fit for charter schools. Funding can provide development for smart ideas that need further research, validation for programs to assess effectiveness and build capacity, or scale-up grants for programs ready to expand at the national level. Previous years’ charter recipients have included the KIPP Foundation, New Schools for New Orleans, The AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, Aspire Public Schools, the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, and IDEA.

This year, two charter-focused programs made the i3’s top 25:

  • The San Francisco Bay Area Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit, special education and mental health services provider, proposes to partner with a mix of charter and district schools, including Education for Change, a charter management organization, and the Lighthouse Community Charter School to implement their Unconditional Education program. Rather than focus efforts on a single counselor or only a handful of staff, the program provides academic, behavioral, and social-emotional intervention training to the entire school community and will serve schools with large percentages of high-risk youth.
  • The University Public Schools, a network of charter schools affiliated with Arizona State University, applied for i3 funds to expand their Gathering, Reflecting, Owning our Work (GROW) project that provides STEM immersion for K-12 students. GROW will give students portable technology for use both in the classroom and at home, and provide meaningful data on the effectiveness of mobile learning.

Other applicants in the top 25 are partnering with K-12 schools, including public charters:

  • The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in New York City is proposing a parent engagement program partnership with schools located in the South Bronx—including the Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School. Schools in this area are often characterized by high levels of poverty, school failure, and crime. CAS’s Parent Leadership Institute will encourage parents to build peer networks, workshops, and one-on-one training sessions to help families find schools that best meet their child’s needs.
  • Expeditionary Learning partners with schools, districts, and charter boards to boost student engagement and achievement. Their i3 application outlines a program to deliver resources, support, and professional development to teachers at select middle schools in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. With an emphasis on both school culture and academic success, their model has a proven track record to markedly improve student achievement in as little as two years.

The top 25 applicants have until December 11 to secure matching funds required to receive federal funds and final awards will be announced by the end of the year. The i3 competition is a great way to reward innovative, collaborative efforts between charter schools and traditional public schools, and we are pleased to see this year is no exception.

Kim Kober is the federal policy & government relations coordinator at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Todd Ziebarth


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What This Week’s Elections Mean for Charter Schools

While there were only a small number of elections and referendums at stake on Tuesday, some of them had big implications for public charter schools:

1.  Virginia will likely remain closed to charter schools. When outgoing Governor Robert McDonnell won Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2009, charter supporters had high hopes that the state would finally enact some meaningful improvements to its weak charter school law. It didn’t. Four years later, Virginia still has one of the weakest charter school laws in the country (it’s ranked #39 out  of 43 in our most recent rankings report).

In this year’s election, of the two major party candidates, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli emerged as the lone charter school backer. Unfortunately (for the future of public charter schools in Virginia), he lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday.  Although McAuliffe’s former boss, President Bill Clinton, was an early supporter of charters, McAuliffe himself has failed to show the same kind of leadership for innovations and options in public education. It is likely that at the end of McAuliffe’s four-year term, Virginia will still have one of the nation’s weakest charter school laws.

2.  New Jersey is in a position to move forward on legislative improvements to charter school law. With Tuesday’s gubernatorial and legislative elections in New Jersey behind us, the years-long effort to improve the state’s charter school law may finally gain traction. Governor Chris Christie, a charter supporter, won by a wide margin and in his acceptance speech said that fixing the state’s broken education system is a top priority. With the Democrats remaining in control of the legislature, enacting charter legislation will require a bipartisan effort. Let’s hope that Governor Christie’s possible presidential aspirations propel him to show the country how to get things done with the opposite party.

3.  The uncertain future for New York City’s charters becomes official. Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio won on Tuesday, ushering in what is certain to be a new day for charters in the city. The question is, “how new?” Will he stick by his earlier statements and limit the expansion of charters, stop co-locating charters with other public schools in district buildings, and start charging rent to public charter schools using district school buildings? Or will he define “new” by making some improvements to the city’s innovative co-location process, keeping the city open to new charters, and ensuring public school buildings are rent-free for all public schools? Our hope is that the mayor-elect spends some serious time with the students, parents, teachers, and leaders of the city’s public charter schools so he will see firsthand the important role they’re playing in educating the city’s schoolchildren.

4. Boston will now have a mayor that supports lifting caps on the state’s highest performing charters. In a sign that shows how far the charter school movement has come, each of the two finalists for mayor in Boston supported charter schools. According to the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association, as State Representative, now mayor-elect Marty Walshtestified in favor of a bill that would eliminate caps on charter school growth in the state’s lowest performing districts. He also served on the Board of Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester for 17 years, and often cited his experience at Neighborhood House on the campaign trail. While Walsh’s opponent, City Councilor John Connolly, advocated for a more aggressive overhaul of the city’s school system, Walsh has a consistent track record of pushing for meaningful reform of the city’s schools, including the growth of the state’s highest performing charters. Mayor-elect Walsh’s advocating for a lift of charter school caps should provide a boost to the legislative effort to pass a bill.

5. Colorado charter schools will continue to operate under the state’s current inequitable school funding system.Colorado voters made clear on Tuesday that they don’t support raising taxes to provide more funding for public education in the state. By an overwhelming margin of 65% to 35%, they rejected Amendment 66, which would have provided $950 million in new taxes to fund State Bill 213, a significant overhaul of the state’s school finance system. Among other new education spending, Amendment 66 would have better funded charter schools that serve at-risk students and provided significant support for charter school facilities costs. All’s not lost, though. The state has until November 2017 to get the voters to approve a way to fund the overhaul. If not, SB 213 dies.

6. Columbus charter schools won’t receive local tax dollars. Columbus voters soundly rejected a local tax increase that would have funded a planned overhaul of the city’s public education system. The planned overhaul (created by a 25-member task force convened by Mayor Michael Coleman) covered a wide variety of areas, including the sharing of local tax dollars with high-performing public charter schools. Voters in Columbus defeated the tax measure 69% to 31%, meaning charters will still fail to receive local tax dollars.
Todd Ziebarth is senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Lisa Grover


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Maine’s Expanding and Successful Public Charter School Movement

Since Maine passed its public charter school law in 2011, the Maine Association of Charter Schools has been working tirelessly to bring new opportunities for students in the Pine Tree State. In the past two years, five charter schools have opened and now serve approximately 400 students. This fall, the Maine Charter School Commission received seven new applications for its remaining five charter slots (it is allowed to authorize 10 schools), and for the first time ever, several local school districts are considering charter applications (there isn’t a cap on district-authorized charters).

Cornville Regional Charter School is the state’s first elementary charter school, where students benefit from proficiency-based learning and 90 minutes a week of agricultural education. Maine’s first charter high school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS), serves students who have not done well at traditional schools and offers classes in organic agriculture, forestry, and environmental science.

According to the Maine Charter School Commission’s findings for the 2012-13 school year, both schools met all of the expectations of their contracts and are excelling at engaging students and families. Parents told commission members there “were no cracks for kids to fall in” at Cornville Regional and that students were “learning like never before” at MeANS. In September 2013, the Federal Charter School Grant Program awarded a total of $1.2 million over the next three years between the two schools. Maine received two of the 17 non-State Education Agency grants awarded nationally, with Cornville Regional Charter School landing the largest grant award.

Nevertheless, Maine’s expanding public charter movement has powerful detractors. In the 2013 legislative session, less than 48 hours after the state’s first Charter School Day, the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs voted to cut funding for Maine’s charter schools.  A total of five anti-charter bills passed the Democratic-controlled legislature in the 2013 session. Governor Paul LePage, one of the state’s charter champions, vetoed all of them, something he may be forced to do again in the 2014 legislative session.

Despite these detractors, it’s clear that momentum for the state’s young charter movement is building and we expect parents and communities across the state will turn to charter schools in ever greater numbers in the future.

Lisa Grover is senior director for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Gina Mahony


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Ed Reformer, Charter School Advocate Sworn into the United States Senate

On October 31, Cory Booker (D-NJ) was sworn into the United States Senate to complete the term of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Senator Booker (@CoryBooker) has been at the forefront of the national movement to strengthen public education, most notably in his previous position as mayor of Newark. During his time as mayor, Booker encouraged Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to establish the Foundation for Newark’s Future. To date, the foundation has made nearly $80 million in grants to improve access to early childhood education, reform K-12 education, and strengthen community and family engagement in Newark’s schools.

Under state law, the mayor of Newark has limited influence over the city’s public schools. But there is no doubt that the leadership and vision of then-mayor Booker created the right climate to improve the city’s schools.  Public charter schools have been an important part of the education reform movement in Newark, with more than two dozen schools opening in recent years, which now enroll 20 % of Newark’s students. A recent report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shows that students in New Jersey public charter schools–particularly those in Newark–are making significant learning gains in both reading and mathematics.

As part of his reform efforts, Senator Booker also forged a relationship with Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) to promote public charter schools. In late September, they joined for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Newark Teacher’s Village, a public-private partnership that will house three public charter schools, subsidized residential housing for teachers, and commercial development.

“Senator Booker worked hard to set the right tone for Newark’s education sector during his time as mayor,” says Mashea Ashton, CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund. “As he noted in a recent video on Newark’s public charter sector, Senator Booker believed that all students in Newark deserve access to a high-quality education. He recognized that collaboration is the only way to provide that access, and challenged stakeholders at all levels to put aside our differences and commit to cooperation. We are hopeful that his successor will continue to foster that spirit of collaboration and support for a portfolio approach to education that includes a strong public charter sector.”

Senator Booker understands that for all children to succeed, families need a variety of high-quality schools that range from neighborhood schools to charter schools. This leadership, vision, and ability to build bipartisan relationships is needed in the United States Senate, and the National Alliance is eager to work with the new senator from New Jersey to strengthen public education across the nation.

Gina Mahony is the senior vice president for government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Renita Thukral


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New Organization Will Help Strengthen Special Education in Charter Schools

Earlier this month, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) announced its launch at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ (NACSA) 2013 Leadership Conference. This new nonprofit organization is the first to focus solely on working proactively with states, authorizers, charter school and special education advocates, and other stakeholders committed to serving students with special needs. NCSECS will seek to improve access, create dynamic learning opportunities, and address barriers that may impede charter schools from enrolling and effectively educating students with disabilities.

Accompanying its national launch, NCSECS released its first publication, Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools. The report:

•    explores the relevant legal framework that shapes special education in the charter sector;
•    outlines both the challenges and opportunities facing charter operators;
•    identifies key accountability structures; and
•    offers recommendations for improvement.

Notably, the organization’s co-founders and report’s co-authors, Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill, begin their analysis with a cautionary note:

“Provision of special education and related services in public charter schools has been an ongoing source of debate since the sector’s inception:  Where do these new, autonomous schools fit in the topography of public schools under federal special education requirements? And are public charter schools welcoming students with diverse learning needs?…The charter sector needs to proactively address concerns related to access and provision of quality services for students with disabilities.”

Their words could not come at a better time. The charter sector has seen litigation across the country—sometimes against individual school operators, sometimes against the entire charter community in a city (for instance, in New Orleans and Washington D.C.)—claiming charters aren’t meeting their legal obligations to serve special needs children. To make sure we stay on the right side of the law, charter schools must comply with all federal and state civil rights laws, including those that protect special-needs students. This new report and organization will be helpful tools in ensuring that compliance.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Christy Wolfe


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Alternative Charter Schools: Should Traditional Accountability Measures Apply?

Should there be “alternate” accountability systems for charter schools that intentionally serve students at risk of academic failure?

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released a report last week that examines this question.Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence-Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools offers a set of recommendations for authorizers wrestling with this issue to ensure that quality is appropriately measured at schools with a stated mission of serving high-risk students. Typical accountability measures such as grade-level proficiency and graduation rates may not offer the same barometers of quality in alternative settings. And trying to make current accountability measures “fit” these schools has too often been a matter of simply setting lower expectations. Parents and students should be confident that accountability measures are appropriate for their school and not simply a means to avoid real accountability for educational improvement.

But what is an alternative charter school?

The report provides an interesting window into how states have approached defining alternative charter schools. Colorado has set the highest bar, requiring that 95 percent of a school’s students be classified as “high risk” in order for the school to be moved into its alternate accountability system. Washington, D.C. determined that 60 percent is an appropriate threshold. Texas defines schools where more than 50 percent of its students are 17 or older as a dropout recovery school. California requires at least 70 percent of students at a school fall into one of seven at-risk categories before it is called “alternative.” California also has a specific definition for a dropout recovery school as schools with at least 50 percent of its students classified as dropouts or students who have transferred but not reenrolled in another school for 180 days. Other states have no threshold and only require that a school’s stated mission be to serve an alternative population.

The report recommends setting a high bar when defining such schools. Schools should only be classified as alternative if they have a large percentage of students with extraordinary learning difficulties, acute risks to their ability to succeed, or a documented history of academic failure that leaves them significantly far behind their age group in high school credits.

All public schools, including public charter schools, should receive credit for the progress that they make with high-risk students. But unless there are clear definitions of “alternative” public charter schools, however, there is a “high risk” of simply making excuses for schools and not evaluating them on the basis of clear performance measures.

Christy Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools