Community Wise, Charter Strong

Dirk Tillotson is the Director of the New Schools Incubator Program for the New York Charter Schools Association. He spent a few minutes with us talking about the strengths of charter schools in communities.
Can you explain some of the benefits to communities of incubating good charters?
Schools are anchors of communities and will support families in their individual growth and also potentially build and maintain stronger community institutions. Individually, good schools allow often overstretched families to focus on other needs. They don’t have to worry about where children are if there is a strong afterschool or Saturday program, and the children will also learn skills that make them better contributors to the family.
Also many of our schools are in areas that have particularly wealthy neighborhood schools, and many low income families truly struggle to pay parochial school tuition, sacrificing other family needs. Good charter schools (or good District schools for that matter) take the burden off of families and allow them t focus on other needs while also developing students from the community as leaders and providing them skills to make real changes.
What is the process of incubation for charter schools? Also, how long does it take to seed the idea and develop a strong charter?
Every great school starts with a great idea, or a need that is unfulfilled, but the idea is only the seed for the tree that must be cultivated to support the weight of the program. We typically spend 18-24 months with a founding team before they open doors for students.
We start with the idea or need, and then work on developing the team and getting the needed skill sets, all the while refining the mission and building out the program, based on research in books, and more importantly, the local community. Once the resources are amassed (most of them in human capital) then the plan to deliver services is really hammered out based on, ideally, existing effective practice. The charter application in NY is typically between 600-1000 pages, so the process of writing up the program is a major drain in itself.
Ideally, schools are approved with at least 6-8 months before they have to start serving students. Because there are so many uncontrollable variables in the chartering and startup process we feel it is crucial to meticulously plan for those things that can be controlled, so as to minimize the inevitable startup challenges
Watch a video interview with Dirk Tillotson

You have a special skill set in school leader training. Can you describe what makes a good school leader?
A good school leader has to be crazy, they have to be willing to give it their all every day, 24-7, they have to believe in kids that everyone else has abandoned, they have to put up with criticisms that are often out of bounds and out of line. And they get paid half of what their similarly smart colleagues are making. They have to believe in kids and adults more than they believe in themselves and get them to share that originally mirage-like vision. Sometimes they have to just will things to happen. They need to be brilliant, relentless, and also really understand the life and death stakes we are dealing with, and commit themselves to walk in faith and not sight and to get others to follow them and then to be able to show other that this faith is justified based on truly outstanding results with kids.
What goes into the training of a school leader?
Usually the most important areas are training them for the things they have not had to do—which for teachers getting promoted—that means really manging adults and being on top of the non-instructional aspects of the job. For people new to the charter sector it is really getting them to cast off the chains of what they are used to and to embrace the freedom, and also to prepare them for the other non-instructional areas. As a new charter you are a startup business, government agency, school district, non profit, and a school charged with educating kids. Most school leaders are really not prepared for all of the responsibilities. For us, leaders really need to understand their strengths and weaknesses and to be honest about them, capitalizing on strengths and supplementing where weak.
What does a good charter school do for the community?
It creates the lifeblood for health and sustainability in the ideal circumstances.
Have you noticed an increased call for technology-led school solutions?
Particularly in the charter sector I think there is a desire to capitalize on tech, though it is largely unrealized. Schools look remarkably like they did 50 years ago, despite the rapid changes in most other areas of society that tech innovation has fostered. Particularly around the access to information, we have seen a call for greater use of tech.
What made Oakland Charters Together successful?
We capitalized on each others’ strengths and worked to gether to create a rising tide that lifted all boats. The schools did not see themselves in any unhealthy competition, each school was saying it would be the best and the ones at the top would share practices and challenge others to surpass them in student achievement.
Can you describe your vision for a community with a strong charter school network embedded?
There would be a whole host of school choices meeting the needs of all types of students, these would be widely publicized and information would be pushed out to the most disadvantaged students. Students who are not engaged in the choice process would be actively engaged through education advocates, and all students would have a variety of high quality academic choices and then would make choices based on the best overall thematic fit for a program.
If you could speak with one education reformer, living or dead, who would you speak to, and what would you ask them over lunch?
Frederick Douglass, don’t you get tired of this crap?

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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