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The promise charter schools hold for public school innovation and reform lies in an unprecedented combination of freedom and accountability. Underwritten with public funds but run independently, charter schools are free from a range of state laws and district policies stipulating what and how they teach, where they can spend their money, and who they can hire and fire. In return, they are held strictly accountable for their academic and financial performance. To represent what such flexibility and accountability look like in practice, this guide provides a glimpse into the inner workings of eight American charter schools whose freedom to experiment is raising the level of student learning.
Free to experiment how? To lengthen the school day, mix grades, require dress codes, put teachers on their school boards, double up instruction in core subject areas like math or reading, make parents genuine partners in family-style school cultures, adopt any instructional practice that will help achieve their missions- free, in short, to do whatever it takes to build the skills, knowledge, and character traits their students need to succeed in today's world.
By allowing citizens to start new public schools with this kind of autonomy, making them available tuition-free to any student, and holding them accountable for results and family satisfaction, proponents hope that this new mix of choice and accountability will not only provide students stronger learning programs than local alternatives, but will also stimulate improvement of the existing public education system. With charter schools, it is accountability that makes freedom promising. No charter is permanent; it must be renewed-or revoked-at regular intervals. Continued funding, which is tied to student enrollment, also depends on educational results. "Deliver a quality product," as Finn et al. put it, "or you won't have students." 1
In this guide we take a look at what contributes to a "quality product" as well as how eight particular charter schools (see figure 1) help their students achieve success.
The first charter school legislation was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and as of January 2004, there were 2,996 charter schools operating in the United States.2 Across 40 states and the District of Columbia, about 750,000 students take part in this form of public education under varying charter laws.3
Parents choose to enroll their children in charter schools, usually entering a lottery for selection when schools are oversubscribed. The schools are free to determine their own governing structures, which include parents and teachers as active members. In all these configurations, autonomy gives charter schools the flexibility to allocate their budgets; hire staff; and create educational programs with curriculum, pedagogy, organizational structures, and ways of involving parents and community members that may not be typical of their neighboring schools. In this way charter schools can serve as laboratories, developing new educational practices that can be later replicated on a broader scale. This freedom to experiment is one reason charter schools have been called "education's best hope." 4
What does this promise look like in action? For this guide, a number of charter schools that are considered successful were carefully examined. The schools were selected first on the basis of student performance: They met 2003 Adequate Yearly Progress goals for their states and demonstrated three years of student achievement growth on standardized tests. They were also selected to represent a range of school types, serving differing student populations and various grade configurations. From over 250 schools nominated, many demonstrated that they were doing an excellent job of educating urban students who have been largely underserved in traditional public schools. A second set of charter schools seem to be meeting the demands of parents in more affluent communities who want an alternative to the local public school program. Very small schools-charter schools in rural areas, virtual technology schools, and home-schooling charter schools-were generally not eligible for consideration in this report because their size made it difficult to meet the testing criteria for participation. Ultimately, eight schools were selected for site visits. While not intended to represent "the best" charter schools in the country, they do provide a window into how autonomy, flexibility, and accountability can work to transform public education. Each school visit took place over one or two days, with observers visiting classes, collecting artifacts that represented aspects of the school's program, and interviewing parents, students, teachers, board members, administrators, and district liaisons. At each school, a set of questions guided the observations and interviews (see figure 2).
Figure 2. Framework for Site Analysis
II. School Operations and Educational Program
IV. Chartering and Accountability
Among the eight schools represented in this guide, three consider themselves middle schools, one is a comprehensive K-12 school, one is 5-12, another is K-8, and two are elementary schools, one of which includes a preschool program. Student enrollment ranges from 182 at a middle school to 850 at an elementary school. At three of the schools, more than 80 percent of the students qualify for subsidized meals; at three other schools, the percentage is about 20 or less. Three of the schools are chartered by their state, four hold a charter from the local district, and one is chartered by a special chartering authority. The oldest of these schools has been in existence for 10 years; most are five or six years old. Programs vary from college prep to project-based learning, from an arts emphasis to bilingual education. Several programs feature non-violence or character education. Part II presents a concrete portrait of each school, a snapshot seeking to capture the particular ambience of the school culture, its distinctive mission and instructional program, and how it has gone about creating a learning community for its particular school population.
As remarkably diverse as these schools are, they share certain fundamental qualities, core features that seem to be at the heart of the charter process. Part I of the guide highlights those necessary elements of creating an effective charter school.