Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another Trend in Charter Schools: Clusters

Charter schools in New Orleans are banding together to share back office support and governing boards. It makes sense to "cluster" charter schools that overlap in vision. While these New Orleans schools are clustering after-the-fact, many charter schools "replicate" under one board and sharing back office support.

Denver Public Schools has authorized several clusters: Denver School of Science and Technology, W Denver Prep, KIPP and Denver Venture. These clusters all have multiple charters and/or multiple campuses either now or in the near future. High-functioning charter school boards are often appealing to charter authorizers who want new schools to serve high-needs areas. The four clusters mentioned all have well-connected board members with a great deal of expertise. Another characteristic common in these clusters is that they've been authorized to operate multiple Denver schools. These clusters don't have other charter schools in other districts.

There are other clusters in the state that have multiple charter schools in multiple school districts. For example, the New America Schools have campuses in Lakewood, Eagle and Thornton. All three charter schools have different authorizers. In fact, the Thornton campus is on its fourth authorizer. As it moves physical locations, it seeks authorization from the local board.

The Colorado Charter Schools Act doesn't define who can be party to the charter contract. Charter contracts can authorizer multiple sites and types of programs (i.e., The Classical Academy at three locations plus an online academy) or it can be three charters under one board (i.e., James Irwin Charter Schools and Jefferson Academy Charter Schools) and all on one campus.

There are pros and cons to having multiple schools under one charter and one governing board. When a particular educational and business model is working, replicating it only makes sense. Having one board, that understands the vision, makes it easier to establish the new school and school culture. Further, combining business operations is more efficient and cost effective.

The issue of how many schools under one board is optimal is where the predominant "con" to the scenario enters the discussion. Charter schools are independently operated. When does the cookie cutter model limit quality? Nationally this issue has plagued replicators wanting to "scale up" their schools. KIPP and others have created leadership academies to train up new school leaders only to find that these leaders need more support, even after they take on a new charter school.

According to Education Sector's November 2009 report, "Growing Pains: Scaling Up the Nation's Best Charter Schools," charter management organizations (their term for "clusters") are finding that their long-term strategies needs to include support for even the most talented new school leaders.

As with most charter school issues, the inherent philosophy of charter schools is again applicable--charter schools don't fit into a box. Actually, I'm of the opinion that when a box is defined for a charter school someone will find a way to get out of it. Each cluster situation is unique. Which is actually the reason for charter schools in the first place. Charter schools allow for the flexibility and unique approaches that best suits student's academic needs.

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