Charter Supporters Consider Innovation & Quality at #NCSC13


In his first major public speech, Pitbull opened the National Charter School Conference (#NCSC13) at the DC convention center.  He’s a supporter of SLAM, Sports Leadership and Management Charter School in Miami. Billed by his given name, Armando Christian Perez, said he heard many charters adhered to the mantra of rigor, relevance and relationships.  He said SLAM was devoted to engagement, entertainment, and education. The rapper, who grew up in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, seems to be charter supporter for the right reasons.
Grit, and its role in college completion, is the conference thème de la journée.  Ana Ponce, Camino Nuevo in LA, said, “We need to teach kids to be successful, not only academically but socially and culturally.  They need the soft skills to engage in foreign environments–like college–that are unlike their home.  They need a toolkit they can refer to.”
Michael Lomax, UNCF, reminded the audience that money is part of the resilience formula.  He told a story of a low income student that was admitted to Norte Dame but had less than half the money to stay.
Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who will be taking over the Bush Foundation, added literacy as a concern, “Most students are unprepared to be successful–they can’t read at the level necessary to be successful at a community college.”
On Policy. Craig Barrett, former Intel CEO and BASIS Schools chair, said policy should follow the less of “every good school which exhibits high expectations, great teachers, strong accountability.”  He and Spellings lamented the “crazies in both parties” that don’t support what works.  Spellings said, “We’re in a shoot the messenger phase.”
Lomax said, “I’m optimistic because I see long lines of low income parents trying to get in to the most rigorous academic schools in the community.” He was referring to the hundreds of thousands of students on charter school waiting lists nationally.
On Innovation.  Nadya Chinoy Dabby, Office of Innovation & Improvement, said her office is spending about $250 million per year on charters from several programs. She sees innovation in two respects: it implies education better than the status quo and it reflects the ability to achieve scale through growth and and sharing learning and tools.
“Superintendents get fired for closing bad schools, but not for keeping them open,” said Alex Hernandez. “That’s a governance problem.”  His Charter School Growth Fund supports 40 organizations and 130,000 kids–a portfolio that has made clear that “really amazing schools are possible.”
To the argument that charters only serve 5% of U.S. kids, Hernandez said, “Charter schools are scalable, just give them facilities.”  And, “In places like Denver…we should be bending over backwards to scale DSST and Strive.”
On Quality.  Carrie Irvin, Charter Board Partners, described the importance of evaluating school leaders. “Charter school leadership is complex, particularly in the early years when everyone does a little of everything–board, leadership, and staff.” She said that even in the chaotic startup period, “Good leaders need support, training, and the opportunity to receive candid performance feedback.” Irvin noted that, “Student achievement data should be a critical part of school leader evaluation–but only one piece of the puzzle.” Leaders deserve feedback against critical leadership competencies: educational, personal, and organizational leadership; as well as talent management and school culture.
Rocketship CEO Preston Smith said, “We focused on quality in our first school.  We also focused on building systems because we were interested in scale.” A leader in blended learning, Smith said “Rocketship is working on a new model that allows teachers to optimize their time.”
Independently operated public charter schools have a strategic advantage, compared to district schools, of being able to set a clear vision and mission and recruiting board members to sustain and support the vision.  Irvin sent charter board members home with this checklist for quality:

  • Laser-like focus on student achievement
  • Strategic board composition
  • Robust committee structure
  • Strong evaluation of school leader
  • Clear understanding of the balance between governance and management (and how to operationalize it)
  • Keeping the board focused on longer-term strategy
  • Effective board meetings

The audience and presenters were the most diverse ever at the annual event–a welcome change from a decade ago.  On Tuesday, I’m kicking off the day with a blended learning breakfast sponsored by PresenceLearning.  See the Blended Learning Implementation Guide for more.
Disclosure: Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. Tom is a director of Charter Board Partners.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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