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Countdown to National Charter Schools Week (8 days to go)

National Charter Schools Week (NCSW) is just around the corner—May 5th-11th. During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents and advocates from all parts of the country. Check out our toolkit for ways you can participate in NCSW! “While ‘innovation’ can be defined and operationalized in numerous ways, we believe innovation is the development of more effective practices and processes that not only result in advancing student achievement, but also instill the habits of mind required for our children to access the college and career pathways of the 21st Century. This is, in fact, our mission and the mindset undergirding the STEM Prep model.”Kristin McGraner, Ed.D., Founder & Executive Director of STEM Preparatory Academy in Nashville, TN.

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Countdown to National Charter Schools Week (2 days to go)

National Charter Schools Week (NCSW) is just around the corner—May 5th-11th. During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents, and advocates from all parts of the country. Check out our toolkit for ways you can participate in NCSW! During NCSW, we present the Champions for Charters awards to recognize public officials for leading a major public charter issue or initiative, serving as a highly visible public charter school advocate, and consistently supporting charters as a quality public school choice option. As we countdown to NCSW 2013, let’s draw inspiration from a past Champion for Charter recipient. 2010 Champion for Charters – U.S. Representative Jared Polis (D-CO-2nd) Congressman Polis introduced the bipartisan All Students Achieving through Reform Act (All-STAR), H.R. 4330, to support the expansion and replication of high-quality public charter schools that close the achievement gap. It is a key proposal and recognized as the most important piece of federal charter school legislation proposed since the original Charter Schools Program in 1994. Throughout his public service, Rep. Polis, who founded and served as superintendent of charter schools serving at-risk students, has worked hard to ensure that public charter schools are treated fairly and have equal access to education dollars. “The All-STAR Act is about making the very best educational practices at America’s leading charter schools available to more students,” said Polis. “It’s as simple as finding what does and doesn’t work, funding the best schools, and giving every student the best possible education. This bill will provide hope and opportunity to tens of thousands of additional children at new or expanded charter schools.”

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Countdown to National Charter Schools Week (4 days to go)

National Charter Schools Week (NCSW) is just around the corner—May 5th-11th. During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents and advocates from all parts of the country. Check out our toolkit for ways you can participate in NCSW! “In my 14 years at Jumoke Academy, a public K-8 charter school in Hartford, CT, I have seen what can happen when committed teachers and school administrators confront the high needs of a low-income and minority population head on. Jumoke was founded in 1997 by my mother, Thelma Ellis Dickerson, a lifelong advocate for education reform and former president of the Hartford Board of Education, to eliminate the achievement gap for the city of Hartford. It was her fervent belief that, ‘if we provided a safe, supportive but rigorous learning environment for children, staffed with high-quality teachers who challenged students to learn at the highest levels, we could change the face of public education in the city of Hartford for the absolute better.’”Michael Sharpe, CEO of Jumoke Academy, President of the Connecticut Charter School Association, board member of the National Charter School Leadership Council, founding member of Legacy Protect and Family Urban Schools of Excellence

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Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders: Updates from the National Charter Schools Conference

Planning for this year’s National Charter Schools Conference is underway, and I wanted to share my thoughts on one of the major topics of this year’s conference, educating tomorrow’s leaders. At midnight tomorrow, March 8th, the advance rate for the conference expires. You can register now to secure this lower rate. Our conference theme is Delivering on the Dream, which speaks to all of our dreams for public charter schools, whether we’re teachers, advocates, school leaders, or support staff. For so many, the dream involves future leadership—students leading change, schools leading communities, and teachers leading schools. Thus, we have chosen educating tomorrow’s leaders as a major thread at the conference.

Keynote Panel

The three speakers at our keynote panel on July 1 have three distinct perspectives to lend to the topic of educating tomorrow’s leaders. After the success of last year’s panel, we decided that we had to have another intense, thought-provoking conversation this year. Dr. Michael Lomax, President and CEO of UNCF, brings to the table a deep understanding of how K-12 education feeds into college and sets students up with the habits of good leaders. NCSC 1a           Leaders like Dr. Craig Barrett are far and few between. As former CEO of Intel, Dr. Barrett will be sharing with us the connections between education, leadership, and workforce preparedness. How can we make sure we are preparing students for healthy and productive lives? NCSC 2         It would be unfair to have this conversation without a strong, school-centered participant. And Ana Ponce, listed as one of Forbes Magazine’s “7 Most Powerful Educators,” has been creating leaders in L.A. for over a dozen years. If you have questions for this trio of great speakers, leave a comment below—we’ll try and get as many of your questions answered by this great panel!

Professional Development

All of our attendees are either current leaders or tomorrow’s leaders, which is why we’re putting a special emphasis on leadership training at this year’s conference. There will still be all the outstanding content related to public charter schools, but we’re adding a few sessions this year to help develop more leaders in our own community. NCSC 3a             Sessions such as Strengthening Your Organization Through Strategic Planning: The Good, the Bad, and the Measured, led by Lisa Diaz and Marisol Logan, will prepare all attendees for the challenges of bringing an organization through change. Leadership Development and Sustainability: The Foundation of Successful, Stable Schools will walk you through steps to make both yourself and your teammates better leaders. What professional development goals do you have that the conference will help you achieve? This is just a taste of some of the great things we have planned for this year’s conference! Don’t miss out on the lower rate for registration before March 8th, and keep an eye on both the blog and the conference homepage for more exciting updates about this year’s conference!

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Making the Most of the National Charter Schools Conference: Five Steps to Networking

Yesterday I told you all about one of our focuses this year, educating tomorrow’s leaders. And today, I’d like to share some tips and tricks I’ve learned from attending a lot of conferences and seeing the National Charter Schools Conference grow over the past few years. With registration rates going up after midnight, I thought it’d be good to tell you a bit about the opportunities we’ve got for you. So, here we go—Jenny’s six steps to networking.

1. Establish Your Networking Goal

NCSCa         You would be amazed at how many people don’t have a goal when they network. You’ve come to a conference to learn something, right? Sometimes that thing can’t be found in the breakout sessions or from the keynotes. But you’re at an event with thousands of other people—surely some of them have been in your shoes! Possible networking goals might be:
  • Meeting someone who also runs the finance committee on their board
  • Learning how other schools schedule professional development days throughout the year
  • Finding a great example of a learning management system put to good use
  • Discovering what that state did to celebrate National Charter Schools Week
Keep your networking goal in mind the whole week, and make sure you’re trying to achieve it. Pro tip: Write one quick fact you learned from a person after getting their card. Especially if they helped you towards your goal!

2. Introduce Yourself

NCSCb       Going up to strangers and introducing yourself brings me the jitters, and I’m sure I’m not the only one! Jumping into a conversation doesn’t need to be stressful—keep a few things in mind:
  • Join conversations of 3 or more people so you know you aren’t interrupting something private
  • Go say “hi” to someone standing by themselves—they might be just as scared as you are!
  • Use your goal to introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Jenny. Have any of you successfully networked at a conference before? Have any tips?”
  • Pin yourself to the elbow of a strong networker, and use him or her to pull you through the room
You know who are often great and experienced networkers? Our exhibitors! They always know a bunch of people and are super outgoing. Use them to help you navigate a crowd, and you’ll always go home with a pocketful of some great business cards. And while a good drink in hand always helps, be wary of doing the food and drink juggle! Always keep a hand open for shaking hands, and use a table if you’re going to be eating and drinking at the same time.

3. Take advantage of Different Networking Environments

NCSCc       At the National Charter Schools Conference, we provide a lot of different spaces and styles of networking so that you can achieve your goals. Here’s a quick run-down of what we have going this year:
  • Big, Formal Networking: This includes our welcome reception and happy hour with exhibitors. These opportunities are great for you to float around and meet people extremely different from you—learn about what’s going on in their worlds and be open and curious.
  • Mealtime Networking: Breakfast networking sessions, lunch breaks, dine-arounds in DC, people love to get together and share ideas over food. Sharing a table with someone instantly creates a sense of congeniality and relaxes the atmosphere. So don’t be a wallflower at lunch, find the busiest table, sit down, and say “hello!”
  • Breaks: I bet you didn’t know that we make the breaks between sessions a little longer so that you can meet people? Go out into the hallway and see who is loitering. Don’t beeline for the next room, take your time and introduce yourself to a couple of people instead.
  • Spaces: We’re excited to have the Steelcase Collaboration Lounge at this year’s conference, and the exhibit hall is always a place to go to meet up with people. Skip a session and go see who is around in these places. Sit down, strike up a conversation, and see what you learn.

4. The Pass-On

NCSCd       Sometimes you meet someone who can’t help you with your goal, but don’t despair! Find out what his or her goal is and do apass-on. Find someone else who will benefit from meeting that person and make sure to provide an introduction. Even if you’re not interested in dropout recovery, maybe you know someone who is. And who knows? Maybe they’ll return the favor and connect you with exactly who you were looking for.

5. Follow-up

NCSCe         Definitely the hardest and most rarely done part of networking is the follow-up. You’ve gone home to your pile of business cards and now need to sort through them. Don’t just file them in your rolodex, cement those relationships! Pick the top ten most important contacts you made and send them a quick message thanking them for talking with you and saying how you’d love to keep in touch. And then, when you have a question that they might be able to help you with, send them an email! Or maybe you’ve met someone who would get along with a contact—make use of it and send that person along. Your network gets stronger through use, so make sure to exercise that muscle! I hope to see you networking away at this year’s National Charter Schools Conference this summer. If you see me, make sure to introduce yourself and share your goal! Don’t forget that registration rates go up at midnight tonight, so head over to our site to sign up.

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Public Charter School Performance Tops New Study on Global Competitiveness

In his New York Times column, Thomas Friedman shared the results of a new study. Rather than just comparing themselves to others in the United States, some schools signed up to see how they stack up relative to the international average. The America Achieves’ “Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?” report goes through this data to better understand exactly how our schools are underperforming. Both Friedman and the report debunk the myth that it’s America’s poverty rate that keeps our schools uncompetitive on a global scale. America Achieves’ report formally shows what numerous other studies have already demonstrated: that the highest-performing schools are not always filled with well-to-do students. Several schools across the country, including two public charter schools, demonstrate that poverty is not to blame for our low rankings on the international test. The report mentions two schools in particular which stand out: North Star Academy in Newark, N.J. and BASIS Tucson North in Ariz. Both schools have been on my radar for years as very high-performing public charter schools, and I’m thrilled to see that not only are they knocking it out of the park here in the U.S. but are also excelling on a global scale. North Star Academy outperforms the average student in all but nine countries in reading—impressive for a school with 80.3 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch. However, BASIS Tucson North took the prize with performance that beat the global competition, outperforming the average school in every country in the world in math, science, and reading. It is with great pleasure that we will welcome Craig Barrett, President and Chairman of BASIS schools, to participate in a keynote panel at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference. His schools set high expectations for all students—six AP classes is the norm—and the students step up and achieve. Dr. Barrett will share why this matters in terms of making sure that children are not only college and career ready but able to step up and become leaders in future generations. Congratulations to both of these schools! Dr. Barrett           Craig Barrett, President and Chairman of BASIS schools Uncommon school       Image via North Star Academy website

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Phoenix Charter Academy’s Alternative School Model Meets Student Needs and Fosters Academic Success

Being involved in charter schools at the policy level, it sometimes becomes all about the data—how many charters are on the U.S. NewsBest High Schools list; the number of students on waitlists; the ratio of English Language Learners as compared to their district counterparts. The numbers are without question important, but visiting a school in person can remind you that behind all these numbers are people. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea, MA. At the school door I was greeted by Rosa, a student who gave me a tour. Rosa proudly told me that she is going to University of Massachusetts, Boston campus for college next year. As we walked through the school, she told us about how every student receives an hour of tutoring every day to help prepare for the MCAS, the state standardized test. She pointed out the signs on students’ lockers, wishing them luck on the test. She pointed to pictures of former students on the walls—if they made it through graduation, then she can too. These photos inspired her, and reassured her that she could get through this. As we walked through the building she pointed out various classrooms—science, math, humanities—and we paused at a door. The instant it opened, a head popped up from behind a bookshelf. “Mama!” The little girl ran straight towards Rosa, reaching out. Rosa held out a hand and gave those tiny fingers a hard squeeze. “Welcome to our nursery.” Phoenix1             Phoenix is outside of the norm even for a public charter school. Considered an “alternative” school, it focuses largely on students who have been unable to succeed in any other kind of academic setting. Their students range in age from 14 to 22 and generally have very little support at home. Every student who walks through their doors receives an individual course plan. There are no class cohorts, no sophomores or juniors. You’re given a personalized route to graduate high school that isn’t a set time period, but instead lastas as long as it will take you to master the material. If you come in needing remedial math or if English isn’t your first language, you spend some extra time in the introductory classes. If you’ve already had a few years of high school, maybe you can skip ahead to some of the second or third level courses. Only once you reach the last year of your program can you proudly bear the title of “Senior.” Everyone is expected to graduate at their own pace, once they demonstrate knowledge mastery. This comes with a lot of challenges. It takes resources for teachers to design such an individualized plan for every student. Classroom management can be even more difficult when the students are nearly ten years apart in age. However long it takes, and no matter how many times the students may drop out again, a remarkable number make it to graduation day. Considering that the district had given up on that dream long ago, this is truly an amazing school. Rosa had her child three years ago, and had been attending the district school. Faced with the challenges of teen pregnancy, she eventually moved over to Phoenix. It’s clear that the nursery has been a huge help to her—her daughter had a half-dozen playmates, and the infants were sleeping in the room next door. She’s taking AP Physics, chemistry, and pre-calculus. As she said “the support is incredible.” Phoenix takes pride in providing help to the students, no matter what kind they need—academic or personal. Phoenix2               How do you compare Phoenix to a regular district school? Last fall, I saw a fantastic school leader talk about how her school had to be reborn as a public charter because the district thought that since her school’s pregnant teenagers weren’t graduating high school in four years, they were failing. These alternative schools are being held to the same accountability standards as their district counterparts. It’s a travesty to assume that since these students can’t graduate at the same rate as their less challenged peers, they won’t ever succeed. Schools like Phoenix insist that no matter what, they won’t give up. We need a serious conversation on alternative schools and how we can fairly hold them accountable. They have high expectations for their students, and are getting students into college who would have otherwise been considered lucky to get a GED. This is why, at the National Charter Schools Conference, we’re hosting a preconference conversation on the subject. Please come join us for this—we need all our minds working together to figure out the best solutions to these policy challenges. If you’re already signed up for the conference, you can register for the preconference through our reaccess site. For those who still need to sign up, it is an option during the registration process. This school might not be hitting AYP every year, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t creating amazing opportunities that didn’t exist before for these students. Phoenix3         This Sunday, Rosa celebrated Mother’s Day with her husband and daughter. On Monday, her husband headed off to work and she went to take her AP Physics exam. Thank you Phoenix, for introducing me to her, and to Rosa, if you’re reading this—I hope you scored high!

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Charter School Graduates Ready to Serve in Uniform Face Obstacles Even Before Boot Camp

Did you know all high-school diplomas awarded to public school students are not equal in the eyes of the military? Unfortunately, students attending many of our nation’s public charter schools are learning this the hard way. Why? Well for enlistment purposes, the military classifies education in three overall categories: Tier I, Tier II and Tier III:
  • Tier I - High-school graduate
  • Tier II - Alternative high-school credentials including test-based equivalency diplomas (GED), occupational program certificate of attendance, correspondence school diplomas, home-study diplomas, online/virtual public school diplomas or high school certificate of attendance.
  • Tier III - Non high-school graduate
The vast majority (more than 90 percent) of all enlistments are from the Tier I category. However at times, graduates from traditional and virtual public charter schools are labeled as Tier II candidates when they attempt to enlist in the armed services, making it a bit more difficult to enlist. It seems charter school graduates are being penalized for choosing a different public school option. To correct this unjust policy, the U.S. Senate included language in the National Defense Authorization Act that requires the Secretary of Defense to develop a new policy guiding the recruitment and enlistment of charter school graduates in the Armed Forces. Unfortunately, that legislation has yet to pass and faces significant hurdles due to other social policies. Nonetheless, given the Secretary of Education’s recent comments about many students being unable to successfully enlist, either because they didn’t graduate, have obtained a criminal record or are physically unfit, it seems counterintuitive to handicap a potential recruit who has graduated from a high-quality, state-accredited public school simply because it is a charter school.

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Using Technology to Improve Student Achievement

Village Charter School (VCS), a K-8 school of 360 students in Trenton, NJ, with 80 percent of the student body receiving free or reduced-price meals, is the epitome of an urban charter school that can go from a school not meeting state standards to one that does—in two years’ time! In the 2009-2010 school year, only 33 percent of the school was proficient in mathematics and 37 percent was proficient in language arts on the NJ Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (the state’s standardized test for NCLB ratings). VCS had to significantly improve its standardized test scores to meet the high academic standards demanded by the NJ DOE Office of Charter Schools. Beginning September 2010, VCS transformed itself in a few ways, mainly through two technology initiatives. You might have read about one of them in Tech & Learning Magazine during the 2010-11 school year, when the VCS SuccessMaker-Dell Project was covered monthly in The Long Review section of the magazine. For this project, Pearson (publisher of SuccessMaker, a dynamic software program) and Dell computer donated a site license and two, twenty-station computer labs, respectively, believing that the fidelity to a data-driven approach in a first rate software-hardware environment would yield significant benefits. SuccessMaker is interactive and diagnostic. Teachers used the wealth of data provided by the software to differentiate the instruction, student-by-student, standard-by-standard, skill-by-skill in real time. Administrators reviewed student progress on a weekly basis, met with teachers to discuss the results, and visited classrooms to see the differentiated instructional approaches. Students accessed the software in in two formats: in three weekly thirty-minute sessions in the labs and at various times in class. Students are accustomed to immediate feedback when engaged in technology, and this activity helped them become more successful and more aware of their progress in real time. They, as do all people, enjoy being successful. This practice set the trajectory to incorporate more technology into the day-to-day curriculum, which made the other major technology initiative a natural one. That other initiative was the 1:1 netbook project. VCS started with grades one and five, then expanded to grades one, two, five, and six, then to grades one through seven, with eighth graders receiving netbooks in September. Kindergartners will receive netbooks sometime soon as well. Having a 1:1 changed the teaching-and-learning environment. Teachers and students thought differently; they acted differently; they approached teaching and learning from a more sophisticated perspective. The students became self-starters and took ownership for their own learning. The netbooks became “primary learning resources,” for students, and soon they might be replaced with other technologically appropriate devices. It’s very cool to watch first-graders get a netbook from the charging station, go to their desks, and start working independently in the same way many students get a book off the shelf. The environment mirrors one usually found in private schools. VCS continued expanding its technological bandwidth. This year, it is piloting the Discovery Education Techbook, a digital textbook, in middle school science, and is looking at corresponding techbooks in social studies for next year. VCS is not saying that all you need are the two technology initiatives referenced herein and your school will have the same dramatic and rapid increase in student achievement. The staff has a deep commitment to the school and community, creating a nurturing environment fostering connections with the students. In 2012, one-half of the VCS students were proficient or advanced proficient in math and almost the same number were proficient in language arts—which placed VCS in the “meets standard” category relevant to academic performance. The technology initiatives created sparks of excitement, and a heightened awareness to what is possible for all students. VCS             Students at Village Charter School in Trenton, New Jersey, use their individual netbook computers in class. Image by Michael Mancuso/The Times.

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More than 700 Texas Charter School Parents, Students, Teachers and Charter Leaders call for passage of strong charter legislation at TCSA Rally at the South Steps of the Texas State Capitol

During National Charter Schools Week and in the final 20 days of the 83rd Legislature, the Texas Charter Schools Associationwelcomed to Austin more than 700 parents, students, teachers and charter leaders from across Texas to rally on the south steps of the Texas State Capitol to show their strong support for public charter schools and charter legislation this session. On that same day, the TCSA’s first charter bill, SB 1538, which helps to accurately measure drop out recovery charters and traditional public schools, passed and is headed to the Governor’s desk. TCSA executive director David Dunn praised all the charter school parents, like our two parents from Dallas and Austin who spoke at the rally, students, teachers and leaders across the state, who are working this session with the Texas House and Senate to pass legislation that will strengthen and support effective charter schools in Texas, lift the arbitrary cap on charter schools, and more accurately measure drop out recovery schools and the work they do with students returning to high school to recover credits and graduate. He also thanked our Legislators for leaving the House and Senate chambers and addressing charter parents and supporters at the rally.  During the rally, we cheered and thanked them for their support and for all the hard work they are doing this session to pass good and needed charter legislation. Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst addressed the rally participants as well as Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, House Public Education Committee member and Representative Marsha Farney and Representative Diane Patrick.  During National Charter Schools Week, public charter school parents, leaders and supporters traveled from Houston, San Antonio, San Marcos, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Angelo and locally from Austin, Tex., to rally for legislation that helps their children and strengthens overall charter school policy to benefit all charter schools statewide. We began the day with lunch on the Capitol grounds, and then TCSA led a supporter march from 11th and Congress up to the Capitol south steps, chanting our support for public charter schools and options for parents and students. We rallied at the south steps and then entered the Senate gallery to watch the Senators in action.  Senator Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education committee, recognized our charter parents, students, teachers and leaders in the gallery and we stood to applaud and wave.  Rally participants ended their day at the Texas Capitol by visiting their district House rep and asking for support on TCSA’s list of charter bills. All of the rally participants represent more than 154,000 students on 500-plus open-enrollment charter school campuses across the state, and equally as important, the larger-than-expected crowd represents the more than 101,000 students on waiting lists for a spot at a charter school.  The Texas Charter Schools Association is the statewide association representing open-enrollment charter schools in every part of our great state of Texas, and we continue to advocate for quality charter schools and state policy that will create an environment for more charter growth, more innovation and more options for parents and students in Texas. Public charter schools are making a difference for students in Texas.
  • In 2011 (the last year of rankings in Texas), in public charter schools rated under Texas’ Standard Accountability System, higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic students passed the TAKS test in every core subject area than in traditional public schools.
  • According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in her annual Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST), Texas charter schools account for nearly 30% of the state’s most fiscally efficient public schools, even though they represent only 3% of the student population.
  • Texas public charter schools, as a percentage, serve more African-American students, more Hispanic students, more economically disadvantaged students and more at risk students than traditional public schools. Public charter schools serve only slightly fewer limited English proficient and special education students, as a percentage, than traditional public schools.
  • U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools Rankings: 8 out of the top 20 in Texas are public charter schools.
TCSA2             Image via Austin American-Statesman: Texas Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick speaks at TCSA rally TCSA1           Image via Austin American-Statesman