Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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Authorizers Select for Quality

In the design of everything from the application timeline to the review criteria, all of the authorizers profiled here use their application processes to select high-quality schools to authorize. The application requirements encourage applicants to provide meaningful information about areas of school management that these authorizers have learned are the best indicators of success, including a description of a compelling mission and well-researched educational program, a solid business plan, and well-thought-out governance and management structures. The process also usually requires applicants to provide strong evidence of the community's support for the proposed school. Over the years, these authorizers also have developed review processes that provide reviewers with ample time and a variety of opportunities to get to know the applicants in order to reliably assess their capacity to create and sustain a successful charter school.

Employ a variety of evaluation methods to assess applicants' capacity

Early on in the charter movement, many authorizers relied on only one written application to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a potential charter operator. More recently, all of these offices have begun to employ a variety of evaluation methods to assess an applicant's capacity, including a multistage application process, in-person meetings to offer feedback on the application, review by internal and external review teams, and formal interviews. (Table 2 provides a few examples of the main stages in the charter application process used by different authorizers.)

Figure 3. VOA and MN Charter School Sponsorship Program Selection Criteria

The Volunteers of America of Minnesota Charter School Hallmarks

Small schools - Research shows that students are more successful in small school environments. Students receive more attention and are able to farm strong relationships with their teachers in small schools. Their size allows teachers to work closely with parents and students to develop individualized learning plans that address the learning style of the student, resulting in a more beneficial learning experience for all involved.

A focus on marginalized students - VOA of MN is committed to working with children and families in need. Currently, many students are not served well by the traditional public school system. Some of these students fit the traditional "at-risk" profile, but many others have been pushed to the margins for reasons such as unique leal11ing styles, lack of social skills and nonconformity. VOA of MN assists in the creation of schools that will help all students succeed.

A focus on service learning - Service learning is an educational strategy where students gain and apply academic knowledge and critical thinking skills to address genuine community needs. It is a powerful and authentic method of learning that gives students opportunities to reflect on their place in the world. As our name suggests, VOA of MN believes that all persons are assets for their community, and seek to extend to all youth the opportunity to contribute as a volunteer and community-creator.

Schools that fill a void in the community - VOA of MN is committed to assisting in the development of educational opportunities that do not currently exist in the community. In addition to being innovative, schools seeking VOA of MN sponsorship should have curriculum design that is research-based, supported by best practices and aligned with the Minnesota Graduation Standards.

A commitment to racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity - To counter the trend toward increasing segregation in our schools and our society, VOA of MN strongly believes in the importance of diverse learning environments. A diverse student body and staff enrich the educational experience by exposing students to new perspectives and causing them to examine their own perspectives and experiences.

Table 2. Examples of Different Application Processes

Authorizer Sequential Stages in the Application Process . . . .
Indianapolis Mayor's Office Letter of intent, including general location, grades served, anticipated enrollment Prospectus, including summary of school mission, leadership team, prospective students, curricular approach Final application, including interviews by internal staff and review by external contractors and a charter schools board
New York City Office of Charter Schools Intent to apply, including general location, grades served, anticipated enrollment Intent to apply, including general location, grades served, anticipated enrollment Concept paper, including vision for the school and capacity of the planning team Panel interview by charter schools staff Final application, including proposed leadership, curricular model, start-up and five-year operating budgets
Central Michigan University Charter Schools Office Initial application, including vision, business plan and proposed curriculum Training and development, including an on-site seminar for successful applicants to further develop their plans Full application, including all plans for leadership, funding, and compliance

In Indianapolis, the mayor's office has a multistep rolling application process (see fig. 4). The applicant's letter of intent starts the process and gives the authorizing staff a sense of how many applications to expect in a given time period. Though not required by law, the mayor's office then requires a prospectus to extend the time for the authorizing staff to get to know applicants and offer feedback to help them improve on their proposals.

The application requires a description of the proposed education model, but according to the mayor's former charter schools director David Harris, "It's not about the model. It's about the people." In retrospect, he cites as an example one of the mayor's newly authorized schools that contracted with a well-respected construction company for the school's facility. The company made a six-figure mistake regarding the cost. The chair of the school's board was a sophisticated and high-profile business person who had access to the resources to solve the problem. "We couldn't have anticipated that problem; they couldn't have anticipated that problem," says Harris. "But they had people who had the ability to do the work and a board that could support them in overcoming unforeseen obstacles."

After the mayor's authorizing staff has reviewed an application, it then presents its findings to the Charter Schools Board-a group of community leaders with experience in education, business, and law. The board invites selected applicants to submit a full application, which is examined by a team of external reviewers and the Charter Schools Board. These groups expand the authorizing staff's perspective and offer additional expertise to assist the mayor in making his final chartering decisions.

Figure 4. Indianapolis Mayor's Office Application Steps

Step 1:
Letter of Intent

Applicant is identified as a new design applicant or an existing design applicant.

Step 2:
Applicant submits a Prospectus

Some applicants asked to reapply.

Step 3, 4:
Selected applicant:

  • asked to submit a Full Application
  • may participate in informal meeting

Step 5:

Selected applicant submits Full Application

Step 6, 7, 8:
Full Application Review:

  • Application preview
  • Initial internal review
  • Review by Charter Schools Board

Step 9:

Mayor notifies applicant of determination

City-County Council ratifies

Charter documentation finalized

The Office of Charter Schools in New York City (NYC) follows a similar multiphase application process. Reviewers there have learned to look in each stage for proposals that take advantage of the unique features of charter schools while showing tangible ties to the community and a plan for effective oversight. Jim Goenner, executive director of the Charter Schools office at Central Michigan university (CMU), describes this type of multiphase application process as "both an art and a science." Staff members at CMU follow the "science" as they evaluate the school's financial viability and proposed education plan. Much of the "art" takes place during the second phase, when successful applicants are invited to meet with CMU staff members to discuss and refine their applications.

Require strong evidence of community support

Across all sites, one of the most important determining factors of a school's success is its ties to the local community. Some schools are started by a community-based nonprofit and, as such, they have a built-in understanding of the unique needs of a particular community as well as an established reputation within that community. Other schools are started by the operators of national school models who may have to invest considerable time and energy in learning about the community and in building support for their school among local residents.

Regardless of the school's founder or its mission, these authorizers have learned that schools are most likely to attract students, successfully serve their learning needs, and draw upon local resources if they have strong community support. Whether they require school operators to engage in a formal partnership with a community organization or simply ask for letters of support from community representatives, each of these offices uses its application process to ensure that schools are in touch with the communities they intend to serve.

Building community support has become a major focus of the Renaissance 2010 initiative in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Because there is opposition to the initiative from the local teacher's union and some community groups concerned about the district's decision to close several low-performing and under-enrolled schools, staff members in the Office of New Schools have invested considerably in a strategy to build neighborhood support for the new schools. Internally, the Office of New Schools has created two staff positions dedicated to community relations. These staff members analyze school data and produce press briefings and other materials that highlight the performance gains made by CPS schools.

Chicago's efforts go beyond public relations, however, to forge deep community involvement in the new schools process. The Office of New Schools sets up Transition Advisory Councils (TACs) in communities that have new charter schools opening in recently closed non-charter school buildings. (See fig. 5 for a flyer used to recruit TAC members.) Each TAC includes 10-12 members of the community who go through an application process and are then selected by staff members from the office of new Schools to represent their neighborhood. TAC members meet regularly and have several responsibilities including: 1) developing a list of guidelines about what type of school they would like in the neighborhood, 2) conducting outreach activities to deliver information to community members about how new school operators will be selected, 3) hosting public forums to collect information about community concerns and deliver information about the school selection process, and 4) recruiting individuals from within the community to operate new schools. In addition, one TAC member participates in the district's process of selecting the new school's operator.

Figure 5. Flyer to Recruit Members for Chicago Transition Advisory Councils

Image of the flyer organizations' name 'Renaissance 2010 100 New Schools for Chicago.'

Do you want to engage in change in Chicago Public Schools?

Become a TAC Member

The Renaissance 2010 initiative seeks to create 100 high-quality schools in designated communities of need by 2010. These schools will be held accountable for performance through 5-year contracts while being given autonomy to create innovative environments using 1 of 3 governance structures: charter, contract, or performance. With 38 high quality schools created in the first two rounds, Renaissance 2010 is right on track.

What are Transition Advisory Councils (TACs)?

Transition Advisory Councils serve as liaisons between Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and communities to ensure new schools offer high quality educational options that reflect the community's needs and interests.

What is the role of TACs

Meet regularly to discuss and determine the community needs in the new school Conduct community outreach activities and collect citizen input Network and host public forums with community leaders, groups and organizations Make recommendations to CPS about the new school proposals

Who is on a TAC?

  • Parents
  • Faith-based/CBO representatives
  • Local business representatives
  • Area residents
  • Member's-at-large
  • Alderman
  • Educators
  • High School Students
  • School Alumni

The Office of New Schools is seeking TACs for the following school buildings:

  • Collins High School at 1313 South Sacramento (North Lawndale)
  • Fraizer Elementary School at 4027 W. Grenshaw (North Lawndale)
  • Morse Elementary School at 607 N. Sawyer (West Humboldt Park)
  • Woodson South at 4444 S. Evans (Grand Boulevard)

Download an application:
Call our office to request a copy (773) 553-1530

Chicago Public Schools| Office of New Schools| 125 S. Clark, 5th Floor| Chicago, IL 60603

Past concerns of TAC members have included whether a school would take students from the immediate neighborhood and whether a school would train students to work in neighborhood industries. In both cases, district officials addressed these concerns by including questions about them in the application review process. TAC members also have gone on "learning trips" to see successful schools both in Chicago and around the country. At this point, the TAC program is still relatively new, so it is too early to determine if TACs will influence the level of community support for the new schools. But many TAC participants report that they appreciate being involved in the selection process.

When asked to list the top three factors that will determine a school's success, the staff in the mayor's office in Indianapolis reply, "People, people, people." The mayor's charter application requires evidence of parental demand to ensure that the school will fulfill its enrollment projections, as well as several letters of support for the school. Most importantly, however, as part of the review process the staff carefully evaluates the founding group's capacity to access community resources and garner support from the community. Most applicants demonstrate this capacity by partnering with a local business or community organization. Fairbanks Hospital in Indianapolis, for example, partnered with a charter board to operate a school that serves students who are recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction. The Indiana Black Expo, a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the achievements of African-Americans, led the application for the Andrew J. Brown Academy, a school in eastern Indianapolis; and students at Christel House, a charter school supported by local philanthropist Christel DeHaan, benefit from her local ties as well as her experience managing children's homes and schools around the world. These types of partnerships help ensure that schools authorized by the mayor's office have an authentic connection to the communities they serve, even if the original impetus for the school did not come from that community.

Across all of these authorizers, applicants' demonstrated capacity to draw upon resources in the local community is an important part of the selection process. The NYC Office of Charter Schools requires evidence of an applicant's partnerships with students, parents, and community organizations as collaborators and stakeholders, as well as three letters of support from representatives of the community that the school intends to serve. In California, applicants that come to the State Board of Education (SBE) for approval of their charter through the appeals process must appear before the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools (ACCS), an advisory body composed of representatives of charter school operators and administrators, teachers, school district and county-level education officials, parents and other community members. The ACCS conducts public hearings that provide an opportunity to explore each school's petition in depth. The charter division uses these hearings as an informal method to gauge community support and the applicant's capacity. If stakeholders are absent from a school's hearing, the ACCS views this absence as a red flag indicating that the school may not have the necessary support within the community to be successful.

Engage in responsible risk-taking with regard to innovative school programs

According to a recent study by Andy Smarick of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,9 80 percent of the charter school laws that include a preamble or purposes sections mention "encouraging classroom innovation" as one of the purposes of the law. This purpose presents a dilemma for many charter school authorizers who feel pressure to adopt proven models in order to meet the pressing needs of underachieving students but who also want to encourage innovation in the hopes that new ideas in break-the-mold schools will prove successful as well. All of the offices agree that one way to balance the risk involved in authorizing an innovative program is to carefully evaluate the applicant's capacity to implement its plan during the application process.

Justin Testerman, the director of the Charter School Sponsorship Program at VOA of MN, likes to use a venture capital analogy to describe VOA of MN's approach to authorizing schools. According to Testerman, applicants generally fall into one of three categories. First, there are "whole school models," like Success for All or Core Knowledge Schools, that have a research base to support their approach to improving student achievement. These models require schools to adopt a schoolwide curricular and instructional approach, and in some cases a governance approach, that has been developed elsewhere. Second, there are applicants that base their proposals on best practices. While the entire school program may not have been tried before, there is some evidence, perhaps anecdotal, that these practices have been successful elsewhere with a similar group of students. Finally, there are applicants that submit proposals to try education approaches that have never been done before. As Testerman looks across the 12 schools that VOA of MN has authorized, he notes that there are a few schools that fall into all three of these categories.

According to Testerman, "Trying new things is part of what charter schools are about." EdVisions Off Campus High School is an example of a school that VOA of MN decided to authorize despite the risk entailed in the school's featuring an approach that had not been tried before: project-based learning that is facilitated online. When asked how VOA of MN makes the judgment call to authorize such a higher risk approach, Testerman says it comes down to the people. The VOA of MN staff members ask themselves, "do we trust these people? do they have the right capacity?" In the case of EdVisions Off Campus High School, "We had worked closely with EdVisions in the past and knew them to be capable and talented innovators. We also knew the organization was not going to let that school fail and would back it up with their own money if necessary, so we were willing to take a chance on this school."

In Massachusetts, opening innovative schools is a high priority despite ongoing pressure from education officials of the Massachusetts Department of Education who would like the state to offer charters only to conventional, proven school models. A very contentious and difficult school closing in 2005, and the negative publicity it generated,10 could have caused the Massachusetts Charter School Office not to take risks on innovation, and yet that has not happened. According to Jeff Wulfson, the Massachusetts Department of Education Associate Commissioner for School Finance and District Support, who oversees the charter office, "If we can't stick our necks out, we shouldn't be in the charter business."

In continuing to reward charters to innovative models, the Massachusetts office has remained true to both the spirit and the letter of the state's charter law, which reads:

The purposes for establishing charter schools are: to stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education; to provide opportunities for innovative learning and assessments . . . and to provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative, innovative methods of educational instruction and school structure and management.11

Given this mandate, it is not surprising that the state's 57 charter schools represent a broad spectrum of education approaches. There are urban, suburban, rural, arts-focused, college prep, and Montessori schools. In 2006, the state granted a charter to the Fall River Maritime Public Charter School, a fifth through eighth grade program that will be operated under a unique governance model in which teachers own the school. The school will be small (founders project an eventual enrollment of 80), projectbased, and focused on marine science.

Because the New York charter school law has a different emphasis, the SUNY Institute's application process is not as focused on innovation as some of the other authorizers. According to the new York charter law, charter schools are intended primarily to increase learning opportunities for students who are at risk of academic failure. With this goal in mind, the SUNY Institute generally seeks out applicants that have a track record of success with schools serving low-income families or applicants that propose a model that has been successful with inner-city students. From the SUNY Institute's perspective, it is too great a risk-and outside the bounds of the law-to approve innovative charter schools for innovation's sake. When faced with a proposal for a school model that has not been tried before in New York, the SUNY Institute staff press the applicant to explain how its model will work with students who are at risk for academic failure. While the SUNY Institute welcomes new approaches, the office has little tolerance for applicants who come without a clear understanding of the proposed education model. According to Jennifer Sneed, Senior Vice President of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute:

They can't know everything, but do they understand what they don't understand? Have they gone to visit other schools that are using this model? Have they researched where this model has been tried before with similar types of students? The lay of the land has changed so much. Even five years ago, you couldn't go out to a charter school [in New York] and talk to the founders and teachers and board members. You couldn't even see a completed application. Now you can see these things; you can investigate their success.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009