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Innovating Across the School Program
In effective charter schools, the mission drives every aspect of the school program, and in each case the school program reflects the school's freedom to experiment, to be creative in terms of organization, scheduling, curriculum, and instruction. "The way we are going about closing the achievement gap for our kids," said Roxbury Prep's principal, "simply would not be possible under the present confines of the public school system." The schools are infused with the spirit of innovation. At one charter school, innovation takes the shape of a longer school day; at another, it is in the teaching pedagogy or scheduling configuration. While such practices may have been developed and tried in other places across the country, the novel ways charter schools can put them together often results in a school culture and operational structure quite different from those in neighboring schools.
Figure 3: Mosaica and the Arts and Technology Academy
Not all charter schools want to start from scratch. One option for charter schools is to contract out services such as accounting and other central office functions to "education management organizations." In addition, these management organizations can provide charter schools with an operational structure and curriculum model. Such are the arrangements in place between the Arts and Technology Academy in the District of Columbia and Mosaica Education, Inc., which has relationships with 24 charter schools nationally.
The Arts and Technology Academy (ATA) operates as an LEA with a budget of just over $5,320,000 (2001-02). The school pays Mosaica an annual fee of $610,000 to provide central office management functions and the Mosaica Educational Model. Aspects of this model in place at ATA include the extended school day and calendar year, a commitment to student and teacher facility with technology, foreign language instruction beginning in kindergarten, and Mosaica's interdisciplinary Paragon "world ideas" social studies curriculum, which complements ATA's and Mosaica's focus on the arts. Direct Instruction in reading and mathematics are also a Mosaica feature adopted by ATA. In addition to all that ATA has implemented from the Mosaica model, the school has negotiated variations from the model as well. For example, when a new principal came to ATA, he asked the school board to add the 100 Book Challenge to the school's reading program, to balance the existing skills focus with more literature. The board president and principal noted both a "healthy tension" between ATA and its management company and the importance of a strong board for negotiations.
Mosaica Education's Web site is http://www.mosaicaeducation.com/index.html.
Mission-Responsive Curriculum and Pedagogy
At the School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee, curriculum and instruction are responsive to the developmental approach to learning called for in the school's mission. The program features thematic, interdisciplinary instruction, project-based learning, and portfolios in place of grades. The rubric in figure 4, used for self-reflection and program monitoring, shows how the school defines this approach. In St. Paul, responsive to its mission in a gang-infested neighborhood, the Community of Peace Academy has created a whole co-curriculum, in and outside of class, focused on peace building and fostering justice and a non-violent lifestyle.
With a mission to challenge their students academically, KIPP Academy Houston and the BASIS School, in Tucson provide accelerated curricula (see figure 5). Some schools, like Roxbury Prep and the School of Arts and Sciences, develop their own curricula and do not typically use textbooks. Other schools have adopted external models such as the Advanced Placement curriculum taught at BASIS, the Core Knowledge curriculum used at Oglethorpe, and the Paragon curriculum and direct instruction model at the Arts and Technology Academy.
Figure 4. The School of Arts and Sciences Thematic Instruction Rubric
Stage 2 - Thematic, Multi-Age Classroom
In addition to Stage 1 components
Many schools incorporate project-based learning and internships for older students to develop connections between classroom learning and real world professions. At BASIS, the last two weeks of the school year are devoted to project-based learning. For example, some students developed and produced an opera as part of the Metropolitan Opera Project, while other students went to Mexico to visit a marine biology lab. Each Friday, middle school students at the School of Arts and Sciences work with science professionals in the community. Among their many projects, students have worked on DNA studies, animal studies, robotic programming, and electron conduction studies with university researchers, veterinarians, and engineering scientists. As part of their science class, students conducted an archeology project for Cornell University, and while sifting through sediment from a site, discovered the wing of a pre-historic beetle. Their findings became part of a research study.
Figure 5. BASIS Course Requirements
Course and Graduation Requirements List BASIS High School 2003/04
Enrollment in a minimum of 7 courses/year is required for students in grades 9-11
BASIS does not award 1/2 credits for completing a single term of a two-term course at BASIS
*2003/04 11th grade students are not required to take AP test in Statistics or Calculus
In many of these charter schools, student motivation is enhanced by providing an element of choice within the curriculum. At Oglethorpe Charter School, students pick electives and clubs for Friday activities. At the School of Arts and Sciences, students organize their own progress through a set of assigned math activities or writing exercises. Likewise, the topics of their project work represent personal choices, related to a class or school theme. At Community of Peace Academy, students using the Accelerated Reader program select the books they will read in class based on their improvement and reading level. At the BASIS School, students can choose to take a full menu of Advanced Placement classes and graduate after 11th grade.
Flexible Structure and Operations
In schools driven by a mission, structure should be at the service of function. The flexibility afforded charter schools allows them to carry out their missions in many different ways. Some schools use a traditional model with 50-minute classes, while others use a block schedule with 80- or 90-minute classes. Some use a combination. The structure depends on what the school is trying to accomplish-whether, for example, to expose students to a full liberal arts curriculum or to focus on particular areas or allow for extended projects. At the School of Arts and Sciences, a developmental approach is supported with multi-grade classrooms and allowing students to progress on a developmental timetable. A lead teacher and an assistant teacher work across three grade levels in each classroom.
Because many charter schools have an extremely ambitious mission, they provide a longer school day than their local counterparts. At the Arts and Technology Academy, children attend school one hour a day longer and 20 days more a year than the regular District of Columbia schools. The added time can be calculated as three extra years of schooling by the time children reach high school. At KIPP Academy Houston, students are in school from 7:25 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon, with Saturday school required twice each month.
Behind the scenes, administrators at these schools have created program schedules to support teacher collaboration. Shared meeting time for teams of teachers during the school day gives them the opportunity to plan, develop curriculum, discuss student issues, and conference with families. Special Friday schedules at Roxbury Prep allow teachers a weekly three-hour block for professional development. Afternoon teacher meetings are a weekly feature at the BASIS School, as well.
Each charter school has the autonomy to hire staff that fit its program. Gates, for example, hires teachers with specialized certification to work with English language learners. The school also hires a number of part-time teachers to reduce group sizes during core academic instruction and created a position for a teacher leader to oversee the school's complex array of programs. BASIS looks for teachers with strong academic backgrounds, but not necessarily teaching credentials, to teach their advanced courses. KIPP and Roxbury Prep look for young teachers with lots of energy. Roxbury Prep plans its program in anticipation of frequent teacher turnover; other schools, like Community of Peace, have stable faculties that have evolved the school's program over time.
One of the striking characteristics of these schools is their ability to provide a high teacher to student ratio. At Community of Peace Academy, there is one teacher per 16 students in the kindergarten and first grade. Elementary grades at the School of Arts and Sciences have two teachers, a lead teacher and an associate teacher for each multi-age classroom. Many of the schools have staff specialists, such as a school nurse, social worker, or counselor; high school or college placement director; parent liaison-translator; special education resource specialist; and librarian. Student needs and priorities determine the staffing and resource allocation.
In all cases, school leaders and staff agree that teachers need to buy into the program or find another home. At the Arts and Technology Academy, for example, turnover was high after the first year with a new principal, when the faculty came together around a vision and expectations increased. Staff not enthusiastic about the school's new demands were encouraged to leave, and 21 of the 41 teachers and instructional assistants did so. The following year, turnover was much lower.
Supportive School Environment
Common to these charter schools is a sense that school cares for each student as a family does for its children. At the School of Arts and Sciences, teachers work with the same students for two or more years in a row. This "looping" gives teachers more time to develop strong relationships with students and families and to understand and meet students' educational needs. At Oglethorpe Charter School, an individual "Personal Education Plan" is developed for all students to help monitor their progress toward achieving subject area objectives. There is a widely shared sense that students have specific needs and may require different levels of support in their learning. The focus at the School of Arts and Sciences on individual learning needs has attracted many students whose previous education experiences featured the highly individualized approaches of home schooling.
Students in these relatively small schools are taught to help and support one another. At KIPP Academy Houston, one of the school mantras posted in every classroom reads, "If a teammate needs help, we give. If we need help, we ask. Work Hard. Be Nice. Team always beats individual." At Community of Peace Academy, students are trained to become "Peace Builders," actively working to create a non-violent community based on trust and acceptance. Teachers make time for proactive classroom discussions about character and responsibility, coaching students to make thoughtful, caring decisions. As one parent said, "Community of Peace works because the teachers create a peaceful environment where the children feel secure and comfortable to learn. The teachers really care about the children." The tone in these charter schools is one of acceptance. For example, students at the School of Arts and Sciences are encouraged to express their creativity, knowing that their individuality will be supported, not teased. Several schools bring everyone together for Friday community meetings, singing together, giving theatrical presentations, and recognizing student achievements and contributions to help create a positive tone schoolwide.
Even in neighborhoods known for rough public schools, these charter schools are peaceful and safe, without violence or disruption among the students. Every school has developed strong expectations for student behavior and systems to help students to do their best. Most of these schools have a dress code or require uniforms. The School of Arts and Sciences is a notable exception, where students are free to wear blue hair and capes if they please. Student incentive programs at KIPP Academy (see figure 6) and Roxbury Prep keep students focused on being prepared for class and modeling excellent citizenship. At Oglethorpe, students must earn the privilege of clubs and extracurricular activities by keeping their grades up.
To be sure that no student "falls through the cracks," support for students extends from providing for their social and emotional well-being to providing systems for students who struggle academically. At Roxbury Prep, if students are not doing well in an academic class, or need help to master a concept, teachers will pull them for a tutorial during gym or elective periods. Several schools have "homework hotlines." Oglethorpe created a special class for five students at risk of failing the sixth grade, allowing them the opportunity to accelerate their learning and join the seventh grade mid-year. At BASIS, if students do not pass comprehensive exams in academic subjects, they are offered summer school courses to prepare them to retake the test at the end of the summer. At KIPP Academy Houston, students who have not completed their assignments are required to attend "Wall Street," staying after school, often late into the evening, until the work is finished. Such measures help these schools maintain their high expectations; parents are supportive and students recognize that they are learning to take responsibility for themselves.