Feature

Charters as Tools of Reform

Some top leaders see beyond the threats to a model for spreading innovation throughout a school district by PRISCILLA PARDINI


When Arizona passed its charter school legislation in 1994, Kent Matheson, then-superintendent of the Flagstaff Unified School District, was among the many school leaders in the state who considered the move nothing short of an all-out attack on the public school system.

"Originally, my hackles were up, and I went through the same negative posturing as the rest of my colleagues," recalls Matheson, who is now retired and living in Washington state where he does some consulting. "We bristled because here was the state, which we believed was doing an inadequate job of funding the public schools already in place, coming up with a new charter school system."

Matheson's worst fears soon were realized. By 1996-97, there were 106 charter schools operating in Arizona, including nine in Flagstaff, a community of about 55,000. More than 1,000 students enrolled in the new schools, about two-thirds of whom came from the 12,000-student Flagstaff district. The students brought with them per-pupil allotments of about $3,500 each.

"It had a major financial impact," Matheson says. "We had to cut staff, cut programs. We had angry administrators and angry teachers. It was a tough time."

Fast forward four years and Matheson has reversed his position completely. "The Flagstaff Unified School District is a much better school district today than before the charter schools came along," he says. "I have to credit the charters with kicking us into another gear and forcing us to rethink how we offered our programs."

Matheson is one of a small but growing number of school superintendents embracing the charter school movement. Unlike many of their colleagues who believe charters threaten the very fabric--not to mention financial welfare--of their districts, these superintendents have come to view charters as effective tools of school reform. Robert Gilpatrick, superintendent in Verona, Wis., typifies their stand, noting: "Whenever you have teachers teaching in settings they believe in and parents sending kids to schools they believe in, you're more likely to avoid the mediocrity imposed by political compromise and build excellence."

A Minority View
To be sure, most superintendents remain, at best, lukewarm toward the charter school movement. "Most still hope it will go away," contends Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute.

Nathan, a charter school advocate, says such an attitude is not surprising, given that today's school leaders have been trained in an environment monopolized by public education. He also points out that superintendents seeking the advice of academics on how to effect school change had long been reassured they were doing the best they could with the resources they had. "That's a very comfortable situation," he says.

But increasingly, as charter schools proliferate, superintendents across the country find themselves forced to respond. At the very least, that means re-examining the effectiveness of their own schools. "The notion of something biting at your heels helps," says Peter Negroni, superintendent in Springfield, Mass., referring to the competition engendered by charter schools.

Negroni is an unabashed supporter of charter schools, which he says "have the capacity to help the public schools reform themselves." In Springfield, an urban district with 26,000 students, 75 percent of whom are minorities, he has happily accommodated three charter schools since 1994, with one more slated to open in each of the next two years. One already in operation is SABIS International Charter School, a college-prep school run by the Minnesota-based, for-profit SABIS Corp., which in 1998-99 served about 900 pupils in kindergarten through grade 10.

Negroni says SABIS does not offer much, if anything, under its charter that the district could not replicate in its non–charter schools. What SABIS does enjoy, however, is a staff totally committed to the school's mission, which puts a high premium on a caring, nurturing environment. "The moment any group of teachers decides to educate a group of kids, it gets done," Negroni says. "It's not a question of whether we have the capability. It's a question of whether we have the will."

Negroni says he and others who support charters are still considered radicals--if not out-and-out traitors--by some of their peers. And though he has not encountered any hostility from other superintendents, he said he has been "vilified" at public hearings, particularly by teachers who found it especially difficult to understand his support for a school run by a for-profit corporation. "But the reality is, we're all in this for profit," Negroni says. "All of us draw a salary. That's our profit."

Competition and Collaboration
Don Shalvey, superintendent in San Carlos, Calif., for the last eight years, believes charter schools are controversial because "you create options, and therefore choices, and therefore competition. And superintendents don't like competition."

But Shalvey also believes that meaningful school reform will not occur if educators simply continue doing things in the manner they've always done them--even if they do them well.

"But when you tinker around the edges," says Shalvey, "you need a lot of buy in." He says such tinkering is hard to do at neighborhood schools, which usually are not schools of choice and which parents pretty much expect to operate in traditional ways. Shalvey instead advocates for at least one school in every district that "pushes the envelope a little bit."

San Carlos, a suburban district of 3,000 K-8 students on the San Francisco Bay, has such a school--the San Carlos Charter Learning Center. With an enrollment of 200 and an equally long waiting list, the school serves as a research and development site for projects related to multiage instruction, technology and the arts. The best of the school's practices, Shalvey says, are being replicated in other district schools.

The charter school, which relies heavily on the expertise of community resource people, is a place to "try out some things," Shalvey says. Freed from state-imposed time and space regulations, for example, the school sets its own calendar, sometimes holding classes on Saturday so parents can attend with their children. Allowed to hire noncertified faculty, the school has brought in a botanist and architect as classroom teachers. All teachers work under one-year performance improvement contracts, are eligible for bonuses and draw up personalized learning plans describing what they and their students plan to accomplish.

Unlike Negroni and Shalvey, Matheson reluctantly came to the charter school movement out of a mindset that said, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Given the popularity of the charters in Flagstaff, he quickly came to the conclusion that his district schools needed to become "competitive, creative and collaborative" in order to survive in an environment where parents clearly wanted more school choice.

At first, it was simply a matter of offering the charter schools--for a fee--some of the services that the district already was providing its own schools, primarily transportation, special education classes and food service. "We took the position that regardless of where you went to school, you were still Flagstaff kids, and we didn't want to punish the kids," Matheson recalled.

But before long, in a concerted effort to lure parents and students back to the district's schools, Flagstaff officials began taking steps that would allow their schools to compete head-to-head with the charters. Taking their cues from organizers of one particularly popular charter, district officials opened a new magnet school that focused on academics, technology and character development. The district also found a way for the first time to fund all-day kindergarten. (The source of the money was a mix of tuition and federal funding.) In addition to developing new programs, officials also redoubled efforts to identify and aggressively promote successful programs already in place at area high schools.

District–wide Charters
On the surface, the five schools in the Kingsbury, Calif., Elementary Charter District do not look much different from schools anywhere else in the country. "That's one of the things that's hard to get across to people," said former superintendent Ron Allvin. "You probably won't see a lot of difference on the surface, but charters allow you to improve things that are not necessarily visible."

In fact, Allvin found the charter concept so appealing that he led a three-year effort to charter not just one or two schools, but the entire 2,000-student district. "We saw it as a return to local control … we wanted the freedoms to extend all the way through the district," he said.

Three years later, Allvin sees progress. Teachers, he says, have begun to think and teach in new ways. They chose, for example, to use a phonics series that the local private schools use, but which was not on the state-approved textbook list. "Guess what," says Allvin. "It's working." Meanwhile, parents are more involved in the schools and feel more accountable for their children's success.

Freed from administrative regulations, the district now works much more closely with parents who, out of dissatisfaction with the district, had chosen to home-school their children. These days, one of the district's certified teachers works with those parents. The district also allows home-schooled pupils to participate in district classes on a part-time basis and in extracurricular activities.

About 40 miles north of Atlanta in Cartersville, Ga., Superintendent Harold T. Barnett runs the only K-12 chartered public school district in the United States. He says the conversion to charter status re-energized the district's 260 teachers, many of whom were allowed to travel throughout the Southeast seeking the best educational practices for replication.

The changes that have come about since fall 1996, when the district's status changed, include a restructuring of the school day, an overhaul of the curriculum and a shared-decision making model of school governance that involves parents. One school, for example, began devoting a daily, two-hour block of time to the teaching of math and reading. "Absolutely nothing or nobody interrupts during that time," says Barnett.

At the high school, the traditional, seven-period day was changed to a four-period block schedule. In both cases, Barnett says, "they didn't have to ask for permission. The charter gives them the right to experiment with other ways of getting the job done."

Barnett says SAT scores now are higher than at any other time in the history of the school system, even with more students taking the test than ever before. Attendance is also up, and failure rates are down.

Though not a charter school system, the St. Paul, Minn., Public Schools sponsored 16 of the 22 charter schools that operated in the city in 1998-99. (The other six are sponsored by the state board of education, local colleges and other school districts.) A total of 1,823 of the district's roughly 45,000 students attended charter schools last year.

Cy Yusten, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in St. Paul, where the first charter school in the country opened in 1991 to at-risk students, insists that the migration of students to the charters was not a problem in the eyes of the district, despite the loss of state aid. Says Yusten: "In a large, urban district like ours, that's not an issue."

In fact, Yusten says the popularity of the charters has provided an unexpected benefit to the district by alleviating space problems in overcrowded schools. But the charters also help the district provide what could well be the widest array of school programs in the country. "Parents like the idea that there's so much choice," says Yusten.

Not for Everyone
Gilpatrick, the superintendent in Verona, Wis., sees his district's two charters (one a multiage, continuous-progress school that emphasizes science, math and foreign language; the other organized around the Core Knowledge approach) as tools to help the district meet its goals. "For years in public education we've tried to find the one best way and get everyone to do it," says Gilpatrick, "but charters say there may be more than one good way."

Yet despite the promise he believes charter schools offer, Gilpatrick says the introduction of competition and choice into a public school setting can be "a difficult dance." (See related article.) He points out that in states such as Wisconsin, where revenue caps and cost controls limit local spending and state aid follows pupils, a charter cannot open unless school dollars are diverted from an existing school. "It sets up a delicate balance between maintaining the overall good of the school system and providing for the charter or school of choice," he says.

Moreover, even superintendents who support charters say they are not for everyone. "They're not for districts that really don't have significant needs," says Shalvey. "And they're not for the timid."

Allvin is quick to point out that chartering schools is not only a lot of work, but politically and professionally risky. "Any perceived change can and will become political and puts your job on the line," he says. He warns superintendents who "don't want to rock the boat" to think twice before experimenting with charters.

Precisely, says Shalvey, who likes to compare a school district to an ocean liner and a charter to a kayak. An ocean liner, he points out, is big, laden with resources and stable. A kayak, on the other hand, is small and offers a much bumpier ride. Yet, unlike an ocean liner, a kayak can turn pretty quickly and go places an ocean liner cannot.

"It's not necessarily a smooth ride. We all hold our breath over the charter," says Shalvey. "You do it because it shakes you up."

In what kind of communities are charter schools most likely to thrive? Places willing to let teachers and other staff members take risks, says Clifford Janey, superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., and a member of the special committee set up to examine charter school applications in Rochester. "The culture of this community is characterized by a strong and sincere willingness to create deep change," says Janey, who expects Rochester's first charter schools to open in the fall of 2000.

In Verona, Wis., school-based budgeting and other policies designed to empower teachers and principals helped set the stage for charters. "Once people were engaged, we started asking 'What is it we're struggling with? What would we like to improve on?'" said Gilpatrick.

Another superintendent whose district is in the process of planning for charters is Kathleen Cooke, of the Hamilton School District in suburban Sussex, Wis. Cooke says such a move would not be possible were it not for the "creative, out-of-the-box thinking" of local school board members. "They take great pride in looking at innovative ideas to increase learning," she said. "This is not threatening to them at all."

Barnett, the Cartersville, Ga., superintendent, says he would tell superintendents leery of the charter movement to "loosen up and consider the possibilities" it has to offer. "Remember," he says, "if you keep on doing the same old things, you're more than likely going to get the same old results."

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer based in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com