Autonomy and Flexibility in Charters

Several locally authorized charter schools generate academic gains through their freedom to significantly alter staff development and school culture by ERIC J. PAISNER

At 8 each morning, students and teachers at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, a public charter school in downtown San José, Calif., gather for their daily launch, what amounts to a culture-building exercise where everyone at Rocketship gets fired up for the day.

Twenty minutes later, the school’s 463 students in grades K-5 head to one of three scheduling blocks — literacy, math or learning lab. Students in literacy and math sessions engage with their teachers for two hours of classroom learning. Students in learning labs spend two hours learning math and literacy using computers and tutors. The children rotate among the three blocks during the day.

Clearly, a day at Rocketship public charter school looks different from a day in most traditional public schools. According to John Danner, CEO of Rocketship Education, the nonprofit organization that manages the three Rocketship public elementary schools in San José, neither block scheduling nor significant computer use is the driving force behind the school’s excellent academic results.

Instead, three critical activities drive Rocketship’s success — rigorous and ongoing teacher professional development, the creation of an environment in which every minute of the school day is tailored to each student’s individual learning needs, and significant parent engagement in the school.

Sharp Departures
Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School, like many of the nation’s 5,000 public charter schools, uses its freedom as a charter to dramatically depart from what you might expect in a public school. Charter schools, independent public schools that are free to be more innovative and are held accountable for improved student achievement, operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia. In all but five of those states, school districts have the authority to permit charters to operate alongside traditional public schools, offering parents additional public school options and opening up possibilities to reach students through alternative educational models.


Eric PaisnerEric Paisner (left), of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, sees charters exercising their flexibility, especially in professional staff training and in school culture.

Chartered by Santa Clara County Office of Education and launched in August 2007, Rocketship leverages its autonomy to create a rigorous professional development program for its teachers. The school hires academic deans who work with teachers on eight-week professional development cycles focusing on the specific skills needed to teach the students in their classrooms. Assessments are conducted regularly, and the data from those assessments yield measurable and timely goals for improvement in each cycle. Teachers are videotaped in the classroom, and they compare their performance to that of a master teacher’s performance on the same lesson.

When academic deans perform classroom observations, they talk directly to teachers via a wireless earpiece, so they can give teachers suggestions for improving instruction during the lesson. Similarly, to ensure that schools’ learning labs are tailored to the evolving needs of each student, Rocketship conducts ongoing research and development on its instructional technology and the thousands of interactive online lessons that serve each of its 1,300 students, 90 percent of whom are low-income and 75 percent of whom are English language learners.

These innovations have produced remarkable academic results for students. In 2009-10, the school earned a state Academic Performance Index score of 925, comparable to elementary schools in the considerably more affluent Palo Alto, Calif. The API score places the San José charter in the top five public elementary schools in California that serve populations in which at least 70 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Rocketship’s breakthrough model and resulting success are possible because it has significant managerial freedom. Danner and co-founder Preston Smith could not have created Rocketship if they could not have developed their own school schedule, revamped professional development or paid teachers 20 percent more than their school district counterparts. The pair aligned all academic and operational systems around individual student achievement. This approach has yielded both excellent academic achievement at all their schools and large cost savings across the network.

Because one-fourth of all in-school time is spent in the learning lab, Rocketship requires only three full-time teachers for every four classrooms. A school with 500 students will save approximately $500,000 per year, money that is used to hire academic deans, finance Rocketship’s three-year leadership development program for new leaders and increase teacher pay. All of these reinforce the organization’s focus on customizing education for its students.

Community Connections
Although many districts authorize public charter schools, the school districts maintain no role in the day-to-day operations. This separation has given charter schools flexibility to set their own school day, school year, curriculum, hiring practices, professional development programs and much more. In the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ recent publication, “Free to Lead: Autonomy in Highly Successful Charter Schools” (available at www.publiccharters.org), significant autonomy from district structures is identified as vital to the success of charter schools.

The Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta used its autonomy as the city’s first charter to make the school the centerpiece and sustaining element of Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood revitalization. Recognizing that a high-quality public school was a necessary component for breaking the cycle of poverty in the community, the East Lake Community Foundation and community members opened the charter school with 240 students in 2000. It has since grown to serve more than 850 students from preschool through 8th grade, achieving top-notch academic results.

Community partnerships have been critical factors in Drew’s success. As a charter school with broad freedom to design an academic program and operational structure, Drew could easily partner with local organizations. As a result, the school’s campus was built to include a YMCA connected to the school, a golf course across the street and athletic facilities at the Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income residential community where many Drew students live.

The school partners today with the Rollins Center for Language & Learning at the Atlanta Speech School to improve the school’s language and literacy program, Georgia State University School of Music to incorporate music into the curriculum and many others.

Drew’s founding board and administration used its freedom to both leverage community assets and permit the neighborhood served by the school to occupy a critical and formative role in the school. When Drew replaced its retiring principal two years ago, the charter board conducted a rigorous selection process that was managed not only by the charter board members themselves but also by parents, teachers and students.

Cynthia Kuhlman, director of educational achievement at CF Foundation and Drew’s board chair, says hiring a new principal needed to be a community-building event. The process had to provide assurances to the community that the incoming principal could run a highly successful public school and serve as a community leader in East Lake. The board worked collaboratively with the newly selected principal to develop a multiyear contract with incentives aligned to the success of all parties, a validation that the incoming leader was invested in the long-term success of Drew and the neighborhood.

Drew serves its students in a manner best suited to those students, through a longer day, a science, technology and arts curriculum, and community partnerships. This strategy yields outstanding academic results. During the 2009-10 academic year, 96 percent of all Drew students met or exceeded state standards in reading, 91 percent in math and 97 percent in language arts. By comparison, when Drew opened in 2000, only 44 percent of its 4th graders met or exceeded state standards in language arts, 31 percent met or exceeded standards in reading, and only 21 percent did so in math.

The same students, 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price meals, now are among the top academic performers in the state.

Cultural Collaboration
Autonomy also has allowed public charter schools to serve a wide variety of student needs in ways that dramatically differ from the past. In spring 2010, Aspire Fire­stone Academy was offered the opportunity to operate in a new school building in Los Angeles. As a condition of the building’s use, 

Charter school bus

Aspire would be required to serve the school’s existing neighborhood students, including a classroom of students with autism. Aspire Firestone’s educators welcomed this opportunity.

From the beginning, Aspire Firestone, which received its operating charter from Los Angeles Unified School District, was adamant its incoming students, regardless of their ability or prior placement, become fully immersed in the school culture and all of its activities. Consequently, Firestone staff decided that students previously categorized as autistic would not be categorized as such, even though they were to remain in a class together. Removing the label gave Firestone the flexibility to determine when and how to integrate students with autism into general education, a process that would have been considerably more difficult in a large school district, says Ilene Ivins, special education program specialist for Aspire in the Los Angeles region.

Each classroom in Aspire Public Schools, a high-performing network of 30 public charter schools throughout California serving predominantly low-income communities, is named for its teacher’s college alma mater. Fire­stone’s inclusive classroom likewise became “the George Washington Learning Center” to ensure the classroom and its students, dubbed the “GW Scholars,” were virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the school.

Firestone also believed teachers should support a school culture that allowed students to transition easily between classes when beneficial for those students. As a result, all teachers received training in both special education and core instructional methods.

Soon after starting the school year in 2010, the 352-student Firestone school was convinced its decision to forgo student disability categorizations was right. While on opening day only one autistic student in the inclusive class could complete a prekindergarten-level connect-the-dots activity, by May all students in the class were studying grade-level math content. One student was fully transitioned to her grade-level class, and several others significantly increased participation in general education classrooms. Further, all students in the class met 100 percent of their speech goals by December.

Had Aspire Firestone not eliminated the autism special education designation, the process to change each of these students’ individualized education programs to enable transitions between classrooms would have been much more labor- and time-intensive. As a charter, fewer hurdles had to be cleared to add a student or teacher to a classroom for all or part of the day. Firestone’s flexibility allowed it to serve its students in an inclusive manner that best suited the needs of the children attending the school.

Whether the school significantly altered its approach to professional development or classroom teaching like Rocketship, integrated the community into its school design and governance like Drew, or revamped special education to give students the benefit of a strong school culture like Aspire Firestone, the freedom provided by the public charter school model enabled each of these locally authorized schools to make changes needed to improve the education outcomes for its students.

Eric Paisner is vice president of knowledge and partnerships with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. E-mail: Eric@publiccharters.org