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Why Charter Schools Week Is An Opportunity To Improve

Newswire: Tuesday May 7, 2013

by Jeanne Allen

“People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy after.”
–Oliver Goldsmith

(‘In other words, self-reflection is essential but seeing others exhibit characteristics or actions that are worth learning from is also helpful. It offers perspective and examples of successful practice.’ From Rick Larios, a veteran education reformer who cut his teeth at Edison Learning, I receive a special “thought” every day that almost always inspires.)

This particular quote seems particularly apt today, the second day of National Charter Schools Week, a time to reflect on as well as celebrate the milestones made when this simple concept was created by thoughtful people in the late 1980s.

The birth of the first charter law in Minnesota in 1991 ushered in a major, bi-partisan movement. The first school, City Academy High School in St. Paul was what it was all about – teacher driven, with parents highly empowered and curriculum tailored to the interests and needs of students. TIME Magazine would, a few years later, call it a “Grassroots Revolt.” And so it was. Organic, interesting innovations in teaching and learning began to be developed in application after application, school after school. Innovations in authorizing were similarly adopted, with laws suddenly empowering universities, mayors, and city councils to step up to the plate and engage in creating the “new public school.”

Some 22 years, 6,200 schools, 2.5 million students and 6 million adults involved later, there are many more policies and laws than ever dreamed, and a rigorous push for more and better schools daily, demanded largely by the people who led the battle to start – frustrated teachers and parents who know that they and their children can do better if given a choice.

Yet too often, those involved lose sight of that original goal and spend time advancing bad ideas that have no connection to the original concept. So it was that Tuesday’s Thought from Oliver Goldsmith which struck me as particularly apt today. “People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy after.” It happens to the best of us, the best movements. In the charter school world today, it’s happening, period:

  • With an authorizer group that believes its model for authorizing is the only one, despite evidence to the contrary and examples of disconnect with the very people authorizers are intended to support and serve;
  • With charter school networks, which believe that their way of educating is the best and only way, to the detriment of the small, independent groups who know their communities and families best and work hard to serve them outside of the public eye, yet fail to garner the public attention that the more well-funded among us get;
  • With policymakers who believe in charter schools but keep putting their names on bills that empower more government involvement, and disempower the people running the schools;
  • With organizations, who limit their visions and often focus on turf over substance;
  • With funders who fail to question – have I become blinded by one model, one group, one approach?
  • With all of us who assume that it’s someone else’s job to fight these fights and challenge their friends to do better.

And yet, despite all of these internal deficiencies the reform eco-system has, where thousands of great stories of student and educator success are evident, day after day, in the nation’s cities and towns, and blissfully ignorant of the grasstops battles that are waged over policies to help them maintain and advance their most precious commodities, our kids. To wit:

At Archimedean Upper Conservatory Charter School, FL, the first two graduating classes (Class of 2012 & 2013) have had tremendous success with college placement. Of a combined total of 65 students of the first two graduating classes, 97% have been admitted to 4-year colleges and universities, roughly 60% have been admitted to Top-100 colleges and universities and about 15-20% have been admitted to Top-20 colleges and universities including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Williams, Amherst, Stanford, MIT, Pomona, Brown, Duke, West Point, Vanderbilt, Emory, and more. Archimedean Upper Conservatory although has been in existence only since 2008 has several successes in academic competitions including: National VEX Robotics Silver Medals (2011 & 2012), National Science Olympiad (2012), National History Bowl & Bee (2011, 2012, 2013), National Ocean Sciences Bowl (2013), National Academic Championship (2013), State Science Olympiad Silver Medalist (2011 & 2012), State Science Olympiad Bronze Medalist (2013), Miami-Dade District Geography Bee Champions (2011 & 2012), and more.

At Boys Latin Charter School, Philadelphia – the only public school in town to take the National Latin Exam – students have increased their medal count each year and actually doubled last years total. They compete in Certamen, a “college bowl” competition for HS Latin students, competed at Yale and most recently at Holy Cross, where the Boys Latin young men placed third (against competitors from toney New England private schools). College enrollment percentages beat any ethnic or gender rates in the District, including Asian girls. The first two graduating classes had college enrollment rates of 74% and 81% respectively, mostly in 4-year institutions. There does not appear to be another public HS in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania graduating more than 25% African-American males who can beat that performance. Because it is an all-boys school it thrives on competitive outlets.

Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, NC is recognized for its environmental mission as well as its academics. It’s been a Designated Honor School of Excellence for two consecutive years and received the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Award for being a school that exercises a comprehensive approach to creating “green” environments through reducing environmental impact, promoting health, and ensuring a high-quality environmental and outdoor education to prepare students with the 21st century skills and sustainability concepts needed in the growing global economy (2012). The school’s Middle school science teacher, Stuart Miles, won North Carolina’s Charter School Teacher of the Year (2010-11). Evergreen received the Exceptional Environmental Education Center award from the Environmental Educators of North Carolina (2010) and was approved for charter renewal for 10 years and full SACS CASI accreditation through AdvancED, an organization that advances excellence in education worldwide (2009).

Great Valley Academy in Manteca, California demonstrates the power of the “Ripple Effect.” In its first year the API score was 800, without test prep. Its kids include high numbers of children with dyslexia, ADD and Autism, yet their students are able to function without academic deficiencies. Great Valley ensures that not only does every child succeed academically, but every class learns to run a business. And there’s still time to be a model for physical fitness and instill strong character in its students. In a short period of time they have been so successful that the traditional school district signed a contract with its leaders to implement the program in their schools and they are beginning to work with a county school to do the same.

These are but a few models that exist. Visit these charter schools — and others — TODAY by going to their websites at the Center’s Online Directory, and get involved, become outspoken and ALWAYS seek to improve (without asking government to impose additional restrictions and bureaucracy to get there!)

For more ways to improve what you do in the charter school eco-system, check out these ideas and tools:

The Essential Guide to Charter School Lawmaking: Model Legislation for States
 – CER has developed a roadmap for policymakers and advocates that focuses on essential elements of charter school law: Independent and Multiple Authorizers, Number of Schools Allowed, Operations, and Quality. This framework is based on 20 years of experience working with charter school leaders, policymakers, and legal experts, and reflects what actually works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to ensuring sound charter school policy.

The Parent Power Index (PPI) measures the ability in each state of a parent to exercise choices – no matter what their income or child’s level of academic achievement – engage with their local school and board, and have a voice in the systems that surround their child. The Parent Power Index gives parents an interactive tool to discover whether the state affords them power –and if not, what they can do to get it.

Start a Charter School Today! Use CER’s step-by-step toolkit to help you through the process of establishing a charter school.