Spotlight

All-Charter Status Brings Us Flexibility and More

by MERRIANNE DYER

How many times as a school leader have I run into state and federal mandates and restrictions that prevented me from breaking with tradition and creating something better for the students in my schools?

 

In 2007, the Georgia legislature provided a means through which school systems could make this possible by applying for charter-system status. A charter system is a local school district that operates under the terms of a charter between the state board of education and the local district.

Merrianne DyerMerrianne Dyer

The state board in June 2008 issued Gainesville City Schools a charter for five years, granting the school district broad flexibility and waivers from certain state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability in meeting student performance goals. All schools in the approved charter system become charter schools, so the emphasis is on school-based leadership and decision making.

Gainesville, located 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, is one of the first four of the current 11 Georgia charter systems.

School Choices
The eight Gainesville City Schools have used charter status to explore alternatives in systemwide policy, such as school attendance zone assignment, and in schoolwide matters, including class schedules and delivery models. Where to apply the flexibility is based on community, parent, teacher and student input, along with data on achievement, attendance, graduation rates and discipline.

At the elementary level, our five schools have been converted to charter schools of choice, open to annual selection by students anywhere in the city. Each school’s govern-ance council customizes its school schedule, and classroom configurations to address the Georgia Performance Standards. We use various school-designed delivery models for teaching English language learners and are not constrained by narrow state guidelines. The innovative delivery has led to success for the English learners while meeting the federal requirements.

Under this arrangement, the central office works closely with site leadership to ensure all five schools reach the expected results so that enrollment maintains a balance.

Instructional Benefits
Scheduling has been a primary area of flexibility that all schools have exercised. The waiving of Georgia’s requirement for seat time in high school courses has allowed us to customize schedules to provide more instructional time to areas of greatest need.

As Georgia implemented a new integrated high school math curriculum, charter status enabled our high school students to have longer class sessions for math and adjust other courses to accommodate this need.

Flexibility also has been beneficial in program delivery. Thirty-eight percent of students in Gainesville City Schools are English language learners. Each school designed a customized program in ways that departed from the state guidelines while still meeting federal requirements.

Rather than rely on the standard pullout model, our ELL staff has used co-teaching and dual immersion to better serve the students. These practices have proved to be a more efficient use of personnel. More importantly, the achievement of the English learners improved in each of our schools, enabling us to meet the schools’ annual measurable objectives.

Parent, family and community programs no longer follow the mantra of “this is what we always do.” Our plans are based on stakeholder input through surveys, and the needs are identified by parents at each school. Every school offers a variety of tailored home-school-community events.

As each school becomes the locus of control for its functions, leadership at the district level has had to evolve. We are moving from a vertical hierarchy of superintendent/assistant superintendent/principal to a team-based approach where central-office directors serve as team leaders to support principals and school-based staff. It’s an “all hands on deck” approach that is service-oriented. The redistributed leadership focuses on the principal as the frontline leader of school improvement.

We also are learning to perform in a variety of leadership roles instead of a departmentalized assignment of duties and responsibilities.

Concurrent with the conversion to charter-system status, our school district has benefited from participating in the three-year Executive Leadership Program for Educators, sponsored by the Wallace Foundation, through the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business/Curry School of Education.

Cultural Shift
Perhaps the greatest benefit of charter status has been the shift from a culture of compliance to one of innovation. We have been open to nontraditional avenues informed by research.

A prime example is the redesign of our district strategic plan and organization using the Comprehensive System of Learning Supports framework. This framework is derived from the work of Linda Taylor and Howard Adelman of the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools. We were led to their work by exploring ways to help the 18 percent of students in our district who were not successful on state assessments or were not completing high school with their cohort group.

Through a grant from AASA and Scholastic, we are participating in a LEAD collaborative, a group of four school districts implementing the support framework designed by Taylor and Adelman. This incorporates the traditional school improvement into a three-component framework that addresses the root causes of failure and the pervasive barriers to student learning.

Although this work is not dependent on charter-system status, we were led to it by the shift to innovative thinking that charter status has produced.

Being a charter system has given us the permission and encouragement to disrupt practices that had become outdated, ineffective and stale. We look forward to continue using our flexibility for further innovation and customization of learning environments.

Merrianne Dyer is superintendent of Gainesville City Schools in Gainesville, Ga. E-mail: Merrianne.Dyer@gcssk12.net