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Promoting a Community of Continuous Learning
Commitment to a vision, an innovative spirit, and strict accountability all work to create learning communities in these schools, cultures of continuous improvement.
In most charter schools, the whole accountability process, from end-of-term comprehensive exams, to weekly teacher sessions sharing student work, is used to steadily improve teaching and learning. Yearly analysis of progress, taking a hard look at what's working well and what isn't, becomes the basis for a schoolwide improvement plan with new goals for the coming year. Schools give constant attention to refining curriculum and instruction, using student data to make instructional changes. If an analysis of math scores reveals a problem, steps are taken to solve it, whether through professional development, adopting a more effective program, or focused attention to specific areas of the curriculum.
At Roxbury Prep, faculty engage in a rigorous process of self-reflection, analyzing curriculum and student performance down to the level of the questions on comprehensive exams. Students at BASIS participate in a highly articulated examination process, taking midyear "preliminary" exams in all core subjects followed by "must-pass" year-end exams. Students at Gates are regrouped for reading and math based on tests given every four or five weeks. The Community of Peace Academy hired an outside evaluator to help them assess their overall program. At Oglethorpe Charter School, teachers explicitly reflect on their own learning, with each annually submitting a professional portfolio to the school's board of directors. At the BASIS School, a teacher's pay is partially determined by "performance bonuses" tied to achieving learning goals.
Professional development at these charter schools is driven by school goals. For example, when the Community of Peace staff learned that their students needed better preparation in reading and writing, the school hired a full-time curriculum specialist to support teachers to improve their instruction. When an evaluation showed that the school's approach to English as a Second Language (ESL) needed strengthening, the school made it possible for every team of teachers to work with an ESL specialist, weekly, to help modify assignments and assessments and scaffold learning to accommodate students struggling with a new language or learning disabilities.
At the same time, schools allow for informal, collegial professional development. Across the schools, teachers are provided time during the week for planning and meeting together. During Roxbury's regular Friday afternoon "Inquiry Groups," teachers share problems, analyze student work, reflect on practice, and agree to try new ideas.
Charter autonomy is itself a help in fostering a culture of improvement, by giving schools the flexibility to act quickly to identify areas of concern, make programmatic decisions, and put them into action. As one teacher said, "I see change happen here when we need it." It is control over budget, staffing, and curriculum that allows charter schools' internal accountability systems to work so effectively.
Most of the charter schools visited provide teachers with additional professional development and planning time throughout the year. Some also have summer sessions during which staff build ownership of the school's mission and vision, developing the systems and curriculum that will create the unique culture of the school.
Charter schools attract teachers who strongly share the school's mission and are willing to go the extra mile to achieve it. At Community of Peace Academy, Principal Karen Rusthoven seeks adults who personally live the philosophy of the school and understand the importance of a healthy balance of the whole person, mind, body, and will. Her teachers love the school so much that many have served there for five years and more, a long time in the universe of charter schools, where most are themselves less than five years old. Other schools have a harder time retaining teachers. As dedicated as the young teachers are who come to Roxbury Prep, the work load is grueling. Comparing it to the intensity experienced by recent college graduates at high-powered management consulting firms, the school's co-directors recognize that their young teachers, who "come early and stay late," cannot be expected to remain for years and years. To compensate for the expertise that leaves with each departing teacher, the school has developed systems to retain evolving curriculum knowledge, storing it in school databases and passing it on from one teacher to the next. The KIPP Academy mantra, "There are no shortcuts," applies to staff as well as students. Teachers work hard, long hours, starting their day at 7:00 and teaching until 5:00; they are also on call in the evening to field student and parent phone calls and to teach Saturday school twice a month.
Teachers at charter schools are not in it for the money. They are not earning overtime for their long days. Staff compensation at these schools is usually the same as in the local school districts. In some cases it is less.
In all of these schools, parents rave about the teachers' commitment to the students, their availability and openness for communication, and their dedication. The challenge is how to support staff who are working so hard to make a school successful. Many teachers say that collegiality with their teammates, the partnership with parents, the climate of support from administrators and board members, and even the opportunity to serve on their school board provide a boost in morale that makes it possible to engage in such all-consuming work.