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Volunteers of America of Minnesota Charter School Sponsorship Program
Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2005–06 school year)
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Minnesota State Charter Law: http://www.revisor.leg.state.MN.us/bin/getpub.php? type=s&year=current&num=124D.10
As the first nonprofit in the nation to become a charter school authorizer, Volunteers of America of Minnesota (VOA of MN) focuses on developing education options that will fill a targeted void. VOA of MN's Charter School Sponsorship Program stands out for its efforts to authorize schools that address the genuine needs of the communities where they are located. Several VOA of MN schools serve high populations of students with special needs as well as students who come from low-income families.
VOA of MN has a 110-year history of providing services to the most marginalized populations. The organization has about 4,000 volunteers and 700 paid staff members, but its Charter School Sponsorship Program is only a small part of the organization, with only two full-time staff members: a director who handles four schools and the policy-related activities of the work, and a charter school liaison who is the direct contact for VOA of MN's other eight schools and works to develop a network among existing schools.
The VOA of MN charter office's mission is closely aligned with the mission of its parent organization. The mission is most evident in the criteria that the office uses to choose which schools to authorize: VOA of MN's charter office gives priority to schools that are small, focus on marginalized students, feature service learning, fill a void in the community, and embrace racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity.
The portfolio of schools that VOA of MN authorizes is quite diverse. For example, it authorizes a high school for deaf students that offers a bilingual program in English and American Sign Language; a K–8 school located on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota; a duallanguage immersion Spanish and English K–8 school that also promotes conflict resolution; a K–8 school that combines rigorous college preparatory courses with a focus on outdoor education; and a grades 7–12 school that features project-based learning that is facilitated online.
Because VOA of MN's charter office is so small, it often draws on the larger VOA of MN organization for help with legal, financial, or fund-raising issues. It also takes advantage of what has been developed by other authorizers. "A lot of what we use is replicating what we see as good practices elsewhere," says Justin Testerman, director of VOA of MN's Charter School Sponsorship Program. "When I started, I went out and looked at the places I thought were doing the best work, then borrowed what they were doing and changed it to fit our environment."
As an active member of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), VOA of MN's charter office has taken advantage of NACSA's tools and resources and has adopted tools from other authorizers and organizations— including accountability and monitoring tools from Indianapolis, a five-step intervention process from the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board,32 and a checklist for opening schools from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.33
One of the VOA of MN charter office's biggest problems is limited funding. Minnesota's charter law severely restricts funding for charter school authorizers. For this reason, VOA of MN's charter office has had to get additional funding from the larger VOA of MN organization, and it saves on costs by having only two staff people and by not having to pay rent—VOA of MN provides the office space. The charter office also has leveraged local resources by directing schools to the services of local and statewide organizations, such as the Center for School Change, the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, and the state department of education.
As another approach to its funding challenge, VOA of MN actively works to influence statelevel policy and to increase funding for highquality authorizers. In particular, the director of the VOA of MN authorizing office is heavily involved in statewide charter policy organizations and has worked to improve the quality of charter authorizing across the state by introducing more rigorous standards.
Being active at the state level in other chartering organizations also has helped VOA of MN staff members cultivate contacts among people who get a lot of inquiries from potential school operators. In turn, these contacts refer appropriate school applicants to VOA of MN, and the VOA of MN charter office has not needed to recruit applicants actively.
The VOA of MN charter office director and school liaison consider their school selection process to be one of their main strengths. In their review, they first make sure the proposal aligns with VOA of MN's mission and principles. Second, they look at the capacity of the applicant to implement its plan. Not all applicants must have an education background, but according to Testerman, VOA of MN staff members look for applicants to be "sincere and realistic" and to have the "stamina and determination" needed to open and successfully run a school.
Applicants submit a proposal and business plan to the VOA of MN charter office, and these materials go to a group of reviewers who then have three weeks to evaluate the applications. Reviewers include the two VOA of MN charter office staff members and six or seven advisors, usually including charter school leaders, business leaders, representatives from charter support organizations, and a lawyer who has been on several charter school boards. The reviewers provide extensive written feedback and score the applications using a rubric. All applicants, regardless of whether VOA of MN chooses to authorize them or not, get extensive feedback— three or four pages of comments—about their plans.
After discussing each application, the review group makes a recommendation and the VOA of MN charter office director then makes a decision on whether to invite the applicant in for further conversations. (So far, the director has always agreed with the review group's recommendations.) The applicants who are invited for an interview receive more feedback on their applications, and VOA of MN staff members have a chance to further evaluate the applicants.
If VOA of MN decides to approve the proposal, the applicant has one month to revise its application before it is submitted to the state by VOA of MN. In Minnesota, there is a two-tiered application process with applications first approved by an authorizer, who then takes the application to the Minnesota Department of Education for final approval. In only one case has an applicant gone through VOA of MN's process and received approval from VOA of MN but failed to get a charter from the state. However, this group was successful in getting a charter from the state the next year because it reworked its curriculum plans significantly.
According to VOA of MN's charter office staff members, another strength of their approach is the alignment they have achieved between different parts of their process, from application review to contract, to accountability and monitoring. They have learned that a lack of alignment can confuse and disorient schools. For this reason, VOA of MN staff members makes sure that everything they ask for in biannual reports, for example, is directly tied to VOA of MN's statutory authority and is in the school's accountability plan.
One advantage of the VOA of MN charter office's small size and personalization is that its two staff members are able to develop and maintain strong relationships with their schools. These staff members require schools to submit two reports per year; the reports assess academic performance, identify strategies for meeting challenges, and include information on fiscal management, governance, operations, and compliance. The second report also serves as the annual report that is required by the state, although the VOA of MN report requires more information.
VOA of MN staff members also do two formal visits per year and two informal visits to each school. Site visits allow the authorizer to monitor and provide feedback as well as to follow up on any particular information from the written reports. The formal site visits include classroom observations and interviews with students, the business manager, teachers, board members, and parents, as well as meetings with the principal and staff.
In addition to the formal and informal site visits, VOA of MN staff members attend four board meetings per year at each school and collect board minutes from every board meeting. These minutes act as an early warning sign, with VOA of MN staff members using them to look for potential problems, such as financial concerns, personnel issues, or enrollment concerns.
As part of VOA of MN's efforts to develop a knowledge-sharing network among its schools, the VOA of MN charter office holds annual meetings and provides strong online resources.
The schools that VOA of MN authorizes have performed well so far in terms of student achievement— only one school in the past year did not make AYP. A few schools have had other kinds of struggles, such as attracting the anticipated number of students, but, for the most part, parents are satisfied and the students are doing well.
|Signs of Success: Volunteers of America of Minnesota|