Tag Archives: Governance

Governance: The Real Innovation

In education reform, it’s hard for an experienced educator, let alone an average citizen, to know what to make of the seemingly endless and shifting debates about The Next Big Thing.  Teacher evaluation.  New standards.  New tests.  Newer standards, and newer tests.  Magic technology tools. Videotaping teachers.  Not videotaping teachers.

Have you noticed that none of the Old Big Things have both stuck around and had a real, measurable impact on our problems?  Have you noticed that we are constantly moving on to another Next Big Thing?  I’ve noticed, and it’s why I ignore the Next Big Thing in favor of some Old Fashioned Things.

I want to tell you about one Old Fashioned Thing, where the charter law truly has provided innovation that will last.

That Old Fashioned Thing is governance.

Governance matters because all the Big Things and new initiatives in the world won’t make a difference if there isn’t clear agreement on the principles and vision that should guide schools.   In The System where these fancy innovations live, we are nowhere near agreement on those principles and that vision.

Absent such a vision, schools—like any organization—are in danger of being simply employment agencies (and in this case, child warehouses) drifting from initiative to initiative.

I’ve been in The System and I know that just keeping up with the mountains of often conflicting mandates is enough to keep one occupied full-time, distracted from the real work of serving children and families by understanding them and pushing them to high levels of engagement and achievement.

So the real, lasting charter innovation is not a set of instructional tricks or better use of technology.  It’s not eliminating the union contract or doing test prep better than anyone else.  It’s the fact that charters can replace those endless, confusing mandates with the focused attention of a diverse group of professionals who have a singular focus on one community of students: an independent, effective and attentive board of trustees.

You might say, “Well, The System has one of those.”  The current iteration for New York City district schools, the Panel for Educational Policy, indeed features intelligent, accomplished leaders who have earned the public trust.  But those 13 appointees make fundamental policy and resource decisions for over 1,500 schools educating over 1,000,000 students.  Their time is filled with rubber stamping decisions they don’t have time to review, picking a battle here or there in which to engage, and sorting through the divergent protesting voices they constantly encounter and probably rarely understand.

Our board makes those exact same decisions for one school with 300 students.  The difference in vision, consistency and focus cannot be overstated.

Our board has made four critical resource decisions in the past few years addressing employee benefits, class size, our co-teaching model and our top five-year priority, after school.  Each decision followed months or even years of research, planning, consensus building and finally decisiveness, in which all parties felt that they were heard and in the hands of a capable and fair authority.

Innovations will come and inevitably, they will go.  Maybe some gadget or textbook will be so great that it will move the ball forward by a few yards toward the goal.  But unless the goal posts stay in one place, it won’t matter in the long run.

Just wait and watch.  The Big Charter Innovation of school governance will outlast all of them.

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City Council Charter Schools Hearing Testimony

Later today, the City Council Education Committee will hold a hearing regarding oversight and accountability of charter schools.  While we could not attend, we were able to have a parent and a teacher attend in our place.  And we have submitted the following written testimony.

Testimony of co-founders of Harlem Link Charter School
Steven Evangelista, Principal
Margaret Ryan, Founding Principal and Director of Curriculum and Professional Development

City Council Education Committee
May 6, 2014

We are submitting written testimony since we cannot attend today’s hearing in person.  Our school is closed today for professional development, and our presence is needed there throughout the day.

Our school’s being closed today is significant; at certain points in the year, we make plans that differ from those of the New York City Department of Education, not to mention different policies and procedures.  We do so when it serves the interest of our students and our community, and we cherish the autonomy the charter law gives us to make local decisions.  Today, our staff will take important steps in planning for the 2014-15 year in curriculum, assessment and school culture.

Having both been teachers and members of School Leadership Teams in conventional public schools in four different New York City districts, we know that this type of planning would be impossible for us without the charter law’s autonomy.  While as a charter we are constantly fighting to justify our existence and to scrape for resources (that the public often thinks we already have), we are thankful every day for the protection we enjoy from the political battles that constantly seem to engulf the operation of district schools.

As this is a hearing on oversight and accountability, we will share some thoughts related to each of these topics, which, of course, are related to the special freedoms we enjoy as a public school that is its own single-school district, and Local Education Authority, and can set its own hiring policies, negotiate its own work rules, approve its own budget every year and self-perpetuate its governing board.

With three examples and one final note on my experience, we shall show you that our authorizer, the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute (CSI), has been transparent, consistent and rigorous in holding us accountable over the years.  The oversight and accountability we have had from CSI stands in stark contrast to the culture of gamesmanship, evasion and dog-and-pony-show that pervaded the DOE when we were teachers (and, we would hazard a guess, probably still does).

2006: Opening Year Accountability

In 2005, Harlem Link opened with a lot of great ideas but lacked in the leadership experience and structures it needed to be successful.  Classes were not uniformly orderly, and even as conditions improved, basic student safety was still an issue.  As novice school leaders, we had been putting Band Aids on some of our biggest problems and were not in complete agreement on the prioritization of steps to improve the school.  But when the members of CSI’s visiting team assessed Harlem Link during the Institute’s annual inspection on March 15, 2006—a date we still remember because of the impact of their words and tone—they did not mince words.  After observing every classroom, interviewing every staff member and reviewing a trove of documents, the team members came to a disconcerting conclusion about the state of our school.  They threatened corrective action, demanded a plan of action to prioritize improving the most important areas of school culture and ultimately predicted that, if things did not improve, they would pull our charter and shut down our school at the end of that year or the next year.

And all of us in the room knew that despite the harsh word from CSI, our school was already safer, more orderly and richer in learning than most of the surrounding schools in the district, including the one right downstairs with which we shared space.

Since we are still open, you can guess the tale: prompted by their words, we sprung into action with a new plan, and a new sense of order that eventually led to the calm, focused and joyful school environment we currently know and love.

2007: A Contrast with DOE Accountability

The following year, the DOE expanded its initiative to hold schools accountable by providing Quality Reviews (QR) across the city.  Charters could volunteer to undergo a QR, so, as part of our quest to learn as much as we can about our school, we asked for a QR, which was scheduled for the spring of 2007.

Having both taught at the district school downstairs prior to opening Harlem Link, we were surprised to see lesson plans posted outside classroom doors one day in December.  We learned that that district school was going through a QR that week.  When the QR ended, the lesson plans for that week remained up on the wall—for the rest of the year.

This ersatz approach to accountability made sense after we actually went through the review.  The reviewer sat and spoke with one of us for about fifteen minutes and then as we recall, he said, “Sounds like you have a great school here.  Which classroom do you want me to see?”

So we steered him to a classroom that, at the time, we felt was a strong one.  After a brief visit and a few checklists, he was ready to go.

“Wait,” we said.  “You’re not going to see the rest of the school?  We only have five more classrooms.  We really want to learn from you, not just show you what we already know how to do.”

Half an hour later, the reviewer was alarmed.  “There is uneven quality across the classrooms,” he stated.  “If I had known that every classroom wasn’t functioning the way the first one we visited was, I would have felt very different about making my comments.”

The feedback was nonspecific, nothing we did not already know, and it did not help us improve.  The school downstairs received top marks.  We were labeled “Developing.”

2013: Renewal Nine Years Later

Nine years after the SUNY Board of Trustees approved our charter—and nine stressful and thorough school visits later—our school found itself up for charter renewal for the second time.

Are state test scores the primary driver of our authorizer-mandated Accountability Plan?  Yes, but as a CSI official told one of us and we documented on our school’s blog, “I can’t defend this system.  But it’s the best one we’ve got.”

The point is, the visitors were willing to be transparent.  But most of all they were consistent.  The Accountability Plan agreement we drafted in 2004 was, basically, the rubric by which we were evaluated in 2013.  It was like an old critical friend making good on a promise made literally a decade earlier.  Is there anything in the district public schools about which that can be said?

Oversight and Fraud

In public education, as the famous Roslyn, Long Island embezzlement scandal showed, there is always the possibility of fraud.  When school officials operate outside of the law, it feels like even more of a betrayal of the public trust than other instances of public corruption.  We members of the public send our children along with our tax money to these institutions, and we expect them to be upstanding.

Because the vast majority of educators we know (independent, district and charter) are well-meaning, good people, we don’t think there is a greater risk of fraud in one community than another.  We believe that charter school educators and board members are just as much at risk as their district school counterparts—and vice versa—of betraying the public trust and cheating our kids.

There is one crucial difference, however, and one advantage the charter system has in preventing and uncovering fraud: our model system of governance, which is the true innovation of the charter law.

Here’s the thing: with charters, it’s one board for one school; with NYC DOE, it’s one board for 1,400 schools.

Anti-charter rhetoricians complain that there is no elected official ultimately responsible for making sure charter schools are honest.  We reply: does having elected officials choose the members of the Panel for Education Policy (or did having locally elected Community School Boards in past decades) ensure that officials are doing the right thing, that parents have a voice, that there is no fraud?  The system is so unwieldy and large that a skilled fraud could siphon resources without anyone noticing.  A parent whistleblower would have a hard time getting the attention of the PEP (and so, probably, would the marginalized Community Education Council) amid all the other business the panel has to conduct each month.

At our charter school board monthly meetings, the board reviews financial reports for our one school each month, questions me and other staff members about what’s going on and has the power to use the four committees that meet in between board meetings to question any suspected wrongdoing.  Most of all, our board members are motivated to uncover fraud because they put their professional reputations on the line by representing our school.  Cheating by one of us would turn their community service into a blight on their careers.  And at the end of the day, CSI is there as a check on the behavior and diligence of our board.

When parents attend our board meetings, our board chair has always given them the floor and asked them to speak up on whatever issue is on their minds, within time constraints.  In this public meeting (guided by the NYS Open Meetings Law), parents have direct access to my supervisors, the ultimate authorities of their children’s school.

One of our board members sat on the PEP for almost a year in 2013 and 2014.  What did he have to say about parent participation in PEP meetings?  “Screaming and police protection.”

Which governance model sounds more reasonable and effective to you?

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Charter vs. Public: Misconceptions

I’m writing with Margaret Ryan on the eve of a forum about inequities in public education that we are hosting at Bank Street College of Education.  We chose specifically to focus this panel discussion and roundtable on public school education, and not just charter school education, even though we have been running a charter school for the past nine years.  We have heard some concerns such as, “So this is a charter school panel.  When is the public school panel?”

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: inequity in public education is not a charters vs. public issue (it’s much bigger); and charter schools are public schools.  Charters and district schools are indeed administered differently, and charters can do some things that district public schools cannot do.

Below are a baker’s dozen of popular misconceptions about charter schools that we would like to clarify.

Claim 1: Charters aren’t publicly accountable

This misconception usually falls into two categories: concerns that district schools are in danger of closing more easily and thus are under more pressure to achieve; and concerns over lack of transparency on how public funds are spent.

Prior to the Joel Klein era, closing a district schools was a near impossibility.  But charters have been closing around the state since the movement was in its infancy.  While Mayor de Blasio has declared a moratorium on district school closures, charters continue to face a high level of scrutiny and must meet achievement goals in order to stay open, every five years; in fact, it’s written into the law.

At its best, since it is written into the law this way, charter school accountability is predictable, straightforward and reasonable.  At Harlem Link, our authorizer helped us write an Accountability Plan in 2004.  We used it in 2010 when we received a three year renewal and a revised version last year when we gained our five year renewal.  Even with tweaks based on changing state standards, expectations laid out 10 years ago by our authorizer are still in effect.

Regarding finances, much has been made about the state comptroller’s attempt to audit charters four or five years ago, an attempt that was thrown out in court as an overreach of the office’s duties.  Why?  Because all charter school board meetings are public meetings, guided by the state’s Open Meetings Law, and charters are required to submit themselves to an external, independent audit each year.  Unlike individual district schools, charters also file a 990 tax return with the Internal Revenue Service every year, which is available publicly online.  Figuring out how charter schools spend their public dollars is a heckuva lot easier than doing the same for a district school!

Claim 2: Charters can kick out students

Charter schools are bound by the same statutory laws and common law that district schools face with regard to suspensions and expulsions.  Within these laws, charters are free to establish more or less liberal policies with regard to expulsion, but that is a matter of policy and not law.  Districts adopting “zero tolerance” policies over the years is an example of how this issue comes down to following the law and making a choice—the same laws and choices faced by both charters and districts.

One key difference is that charters, as individual districts, make their own policies, while districts make policy decisions for the dozens (or hundreds) of schools within their district.

Charters that “kick out” or “counsel out” students without following through on the due process protections and procedures built into the law and described by Goss v. Lopez are simply breaking the law.  Is there any accountability for this possibility?  Yes – remember that charter board meetings are public, open meetings, and groups such as Advocates for Children can point to or provide legal resources to protect children’s rights, the same as they would for abuse by traditional school districts.

At Harlem Link, we went through a lengthy and wrenching expulsion process during the last school year.  We worked with our attorney, and a Legal Aid attorney, to ensure that the process was fair and legal.  We did nothing differently than any school district is able to do in order to enforce its code of conduct.

Claim 3: Charters don’t serve special education students or English Language Learners

Charters are in fact required to serve special education students as well as English Language Learners.

This issue is a complicated one, because the very definition of a special education or English Language Learner student, which governed by law, is potentially fuzzy.  Charters and districts have varying approaches to identifying and serving students so that they enter and exit these categories.

Generally, our state has recognized that this issue is enough of a concern regarding charters that when the charter law was reauthorized a few years ago, the new version required charters to ensure their percentages of students in these categories reflected the local community.

In some cases, charters actively seek students in these categories, giving them preference in the annual student enrollment lottery because of the school’s mission.  Examples include Mott Haven Academy Charter School and Opportunity Charter School; the latter has a charter mandate of a nearly 50% special education population.

At our school, we have a comparable rate of special education to the local district schools—around 17% of our population (and, with Collaborative Team Teaching on every grade level, most of those students are in the “high cost” category of receiving special education services more than 60% of the day).  This fact is true despite the fact that we have multiple protections in place through our Response to Intervention process, preventing over-referral.  We rarely refer students to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) for special education services, and one year we actually de-certified more students than we referred.  Our ELL students tend to exit out within a couple of years of enrolling in our school.

Claim 4: Charters raise millions of dollars, while district schools can’t

This claim is simply and unequivocally not true.  Charters are 501(c)3 nonprofits, meaning they can raise philanthropic dollars—but the same is true for school districts, as well as Parent Associations.

It’s true that some charter schools, notably the larger networks, are able to raise millions more than almost all parent associations.  It’s also true that some parent associations are able to raise millions; they just do so less publicly.

District school principals and school district officials are also able to go out and write grant proposals, bring in major donors, etc.  The star entertainer Vanessa Williams “adopted” PS 46 in Harlem some years go.  Why not?

Do you think that district school principals and officials are stretched thin with limited resources?  The same is true for charters, but charters have the flexibility for strategic planning and, when they choose to seek philanthropic support, organize and plan around it.  Districts and principals choosing not to do so is not a valid excuse for feeling left out of the philanthropic community.

Harlem Link had a fully functioning fund development department when we opened in 2005, but strategic decisions led to us closing it down a few years ago.  (These are the kinds of decisions about resource allocation that facilitate charter schools’ focus on their missions, impossible in a district setting.)  With renewal as well as the Common Core transition behind us, and a long-term goal of being in a private space in view, our fundraising department is back—so click here if you’d like to give.

Claim 5: Charters have budgetary flexibility for things like smaller class sizes or co-teaching in every class

When comparing charter schools to individual district schools, this claim is absolutely true, and is one of the great advantages of running a charter school.  Comparing charters (which are separate, single-school districts) to traditional school districts, it’s not true at all.  Districts make budgetary decisions; they have the same range of choices charters have.  Budgets express priorities; it’s up to districts to be flexible and creative in their budgeting.

This past year, the NYC public school pie was about $25 billion, for about 1.2 million children.  In other words, the city spent over $20,000 per child.  In comparison, charters received $13,527 per child.  The Independent Budget Office estimated the additional benefit of charters in district building space (something like two-thirds of charters in the city) as about $3,000 per child, not even close to closing the gap.

Where are the rest of the district dollars going?  As noted above, it’s darn hard to tell.  At our school, we have jealously guarded our personnel expenses, but also budgeted conservatively over the years, to the point where we were able to run a deficit in 2012-13 for the first time (and budget for one in 2013-14), knowing that we will come out of the recession soon and continue to build our small base of reserve funding.

Claim 6: Charters can hire whomever they want

This is another claim that is, generally, absolutely true.  Charters are not bound by complicated negotiated contracts that require the “dance of the lemons.”  Staff members aren’t working out, or do things to harm children?  They are fired.  Staff members don’t like the working conditions?  They can organize and collectively bargain.  Labor laws require charters to be fair (and the National Labor Relations Board has been involved to ensure that’s true).  But that does not mean that charters have to agree to obtuse policies that erect barriers to getting the best personnel possible in front of children every day.

Like Claim 5, this issue is a key reason that many educators choose to work in and start charter schools.  At our school, we receive hundreds of resumes for each position we hire.  We have the luxury of watching between five and ten demonstration lessons (depending on the year) before making a hire, so that we know a candidate will truly fit in with our mission and vision.

Claim 7: Charters can “cherry pick” or target certain populations of students

The state law requires that all students have equal access to admission to charter schools, with preference given to siblings and to residents who live close by the school.  Similarly to Claim 2 above, charters can choose to break the law just like any district school could do so, but there are layers of accountability: the school’s board of trustees, the state authorizer, and any private citizen including parents or members of the press who can attend any of the 10 to 12 open, public board meetings that occur every year.

Much has been made about charter schools marketing their schools, including buying advertisement slots and sending out mass mailings.  One idea behind the charter law was that parents would vote with their feet, but charters don’t have a natural constituency or “zone” from which to draw students.  Charters need to make themselves known in order to become an option for members of the community.

At Harlem Link, we try to distinguish ourselves by sending out an annual mailing and visiting day care centers and school fairs.  However, word of mouth is by far our most powerful recruiting tool.  Certain buildings in certain housing projects, and certain families among West African immigrant groups, have pooled enrollment at our school as people pass on the word to their families and friends.

Districts, by the way, are also free to market, brand, advertise and otherwise target potential students.  The fact that a “zone” usually exists for district schools while none exists for charters is often another impetus for charter schools to spend their time and budgetary resources raising philanthropic dollars, so as to compete for students’ and parents’ attention.

Claim 8: Charter teacher evaluations aren’t public, but district schools’ teacher evaluations are

This claim comes down to a matter of local policy as well.  Some charter schools chose to participate in the value-added teacher evaluation analysis program that was published—name by name—in the New York Times and other media outlets.  Some charters (like Harlem Link) chose not to participate, for a variety of reasons.

Our understanding is that New York City opted in.  At Harlem Link, we did not; we found it marginally relevant to our work, since we have our own teacher evaluation tool that satisfies the state law but doesn’t reduce a human being to a number.  If we’re remembering right, it’s a simple policy decision whether or not to opt in to this system.  If not, there’s another reason why we’d rather work in and run a charter school than a district school!  (But don’t blame us for bad policy decisions; tell the chancellor, the mayor or your state senator.)

Claim 9: Charters can demand things from parents that district schools cannot demand

Examples of this claim include signing contracts, showing up to school on time, showing up for detentions including parent detentions, and school uniforms, among others.  Like Claims 5 and 6, this issue is a policy one.  Charters are bound by the same education laws that district schools are.  If districts choose not to enforce their attendance policies by focusing time and attention to it, that’s their choice.

Our understanding of the law is that charters cannot force parents to sign contracts.  If they do (and exclude admissions on those grounds), they are breaking the law.

Our sense is that district school folks who make this claim are frustrated by the overwhelming nature of the work we all face, and have not allocated resources adequately to express basic priorities to families and follow up to ensure that there is compliance and understanding.  At Harlem Link, we struggle to keep up with the enforcement of our own policies for things like uniforms and attendance, and we like it that way because it means that the policies are strict and that the follow-up required is laborious and thorough.

Claim 10: Charters don’t work with district schools; they adopt a “holier than thou” attitude

We can’t argue with this claim, in many cases, but then again, we don’t know the history of every district-charter relationship.  We know that in the case of our school (and in the cases of many of our colleagues) we have adopted a collaborative, shared ethic around school improvement.  We have received a reciprocal approach in return at times, and we have received the cold shoulder at other times.

There are examples all of the city of charter schools that have reached out to their co-located or district partners to work together.  When Joel Klein put on an event to mark the 100th charter school to be approved in New York City a few years ago, he chose Brooklyn Charter School to host.  The principal, Omi Escayg, asked the co-located principal of P.S. 23K to attend the event, and to stand up and receive a standing ovation from the charter school crowd for her support in their collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship.

Members of the media like to portray the angry fights, but this example is the tip of a very collaborative iceberg.  At Harlem Link, we have a supportive co-location, with four other school sharing our campus.  Three are district schools, including a District 75 school site.  We have found ways to work together with, and learn from, each of them.

Claim 11: Charters are all part of cold, businesslike networks that don’t care about communities

It’s true that something like half of charters in NYC are members of networks—contracting with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) like Uncommon Schools or the Success network, or Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) like Victory Schools or even Edison Schools.  But that doesn’t preclude individual schools from interacting with community institutions and members of the community at large.

It seems to us that some charters (like us – see the word “link” in our name, and the many charters with the word “community” in their names) make a point in their mission statements and practices of working to establish community ties and to use community resources to support their aims.  In our view, choosing not to do so is not very different from district schools shutting out members of the community and erecting signs like “No Parents Allowed Past This Point,” which proliferate in underserved communities like Harlem.

Claim 12: Charter leaders make more money than the chancellor

While some charter school leaders (particularly those who head networks of upwards of two dozen schools) earn salaries that look like they belong to a lower tier executive of a Fortune 500 company, most of us labor in the shadow of our schools’ meager resources.  Remember: $13,527 per child is not a lot of money.

Here’s one point about the stratospheric salaries of some charter network leaders.  They bring resources to public education.  You can’t tell us that New York City does not benefit from the 500-seat building built with private resources for Harlem Village Academies Charter Schools, led by Deborah Kenny, whose compensation is one of the most oft-cited examples of excessiveness.  Taxpayers should be thanking Ms. Kenny for bringing in the resources to build a presumably state-of-the-art building with those seats that would otherwise not be available for low income New York City students.

At Harlem Link, we have a fair compensation program in place, but no one is confusing any of our employees or school leaders with Bill Gates.

Claim 13: Charters are seen as a silver bullet

Anyone who thinks this is true is probably not fully engaged in the fight to eradicate educational inequity.  Charters are only part of the complicated answer to our shared problems.  On our Bank Street panel, you will find three people who have founded charter schools, but you will not find one who believes this claim is true.

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I Don’t Care (but I Do, and It’s All about Trust)

I’ve been happily telling colleagues about the recent controversy concerning Cathie Black, Mayor Bloomberg’s choice for New York City schools chancellor, “I don’t care!”  It goes against my core principles to say those three words about, really, anything, but in this case I felt a profound joy in being insulated from the opposition, the defense and the general vitriol that defines the tone in this conversation. 

Did the mayor abuse his authority in choosing one of his publishing friends without consulting or even previewing this choice with the public?  Is a private-sector executive without even a modicum of public school experience (and even a questionable role in school nutrition as a corporate board member) an appropriate appointee to lead the nation’s largest school system?  Is a ‘world class management’ skill set needed to shepherd the $22 billion system through the remains of the financial crisis?  Is she really the Harriet Miers of education and if so, what looms beyond?  And perhaps most importantly, what reforms from the Joel Klein era and prior administrations would Black as chancellor undo, and what impact would her decision making have on the day to day life of school staff, students and families?   

I’ve been telling my colleagues, “None of those questions matter to charter schools (except maybe DOE-authorized charter schools, but my school isn’t one of those!).”  In fact, most of my charter colleagues and I left the system purposely to insulate ourselves from the swing of the pendulum on all things governance-related and political.  Why should the whim of the mayor (or for that matter, the commissioner, or even the mood of the public) force our teachers to change what they teach or the way they teach?  We have not only a competent staff but a learned one; our team is loaded with burgeoning experts in the various disciplines that make up elementary instruction.  We don’t need Cathie Black, Joel Klein, Harold Levy, Rudy Crew, or any of them, for all their good or ill intentions, telling us otherwise.  The public need not worry about these outlandish claims; their accountability is written into our charter and our school will be closed by SUNY if we don’t meet the expectations we set together.

The truth is, I can’t help but care.  Of course I consume all of the news articles that come out, and wait with bated breath for the next development in the commissioner’s advisory panel, the celebrities for and against Ms. Black, the protests and petitions, the polls, the mayor’s response to disappointing results. 

Why?  Because the mayor’s decision and the public reaction is a window into the relationship between home and school within individual school communities.  And it’s all about trust. 

In a perfect world, the mayor would make the right decision and the candidate would be perfect.  Everyone would agree and see the mayor’s logic, but if they didn’t, they would have enough faith in the administration to make the right call and suspend judgment until they see the Black chancellorship unfold.  Dreaming that dream is similar to dreaming of one day running a school without any parent complaints.  But the truth is, despite our school’s overt and sometimes extraordinary efforts to bring families into the building (through monthly meetings, weekly celebrations, open door policy, curriculum nights, special events, and more), I have still had a couple of parents tell me they did not feel they had sufficient opportunities to get involved in the school.  I can only assume that there is a trust gap and we are not doing enough, yet, to overcome it.  I’ve been a teacher in this community, and I’ve seen some of the things that parents and children are told by colleagues who are less than scrupulous and hold lower expectations than any of us would want for our own kids.  After years of that treatment, I have seen some families become hardened to the idea that, even if seeking out an alternative like a charter school, “that’s the way schools treat us.”  It’s all about trust.

In a sense, this so-far-six-year journey of opening and operating a high performing charter school in Harlem has been a journey about repairing trust with families.  It takes that extraordinary effort to build bridges in a community where in recent memory, corrupt school board members were elected, resources were unevenly distributed and the most vulnerable students were shunted aside.  And the message, “All of the children in this school deserve the opportunity to go to the college of their choice” was nowhere to be found.  It takes time, but I’m still learning.  Clearly the mayor is, as well.  Reading the headlines, I think I’m doing a little better than he is in this category right now.  But no matter how much I pretend not to care, for better or for worse we are all in the same effort, and each conversation I have with a parent who doesn’t yet understand that our arms are open and not crossed is a microcosm of the mayor’s appointee debate.

I wish more people were talking about the achievement gap in terms of the trust gap.  If we named this problem, we could avoid some of the unproductive vitriol and set down to doing this important work for children together.

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The Quiet Governance Revolution

Last week was a banner week for governance at our school and it reminded me that, with all the talk about secret formulas in the classroom and Superman teachers, the “governance innovation” is quietly the revolution that is really driving charter school reform.

Let me explain.  Our board of trustees, an independent group of volunteers with backgrounds in education, finance, human resources, law and more, had its monthly meeting last week.  At that meeting, our board reviewed the latest updates on our school wide plan to respond to last year’s student achievement data and get closer to meeting our mission.  There were insightful questions, some provocative debate and clear priorities established about the challenges we have set forth for ourselves this year.  It’s a board that has worked hard at distinguishing between governance and management – not an easy task for a room full of successful people with busy day jobs who are so passionate about this work – and one that takes its accountability role seriously.  Harlem Link is up for charter renewal in a few years, as part of the cycle that every successful charter school goes through, and the board is going to do whatever it takes to make sure that the school is ready and is truly adding value to the community as its charter promises.

The board also agreed to issue a challenge grant, with some members stepping up anonymously to pledge matching dollars from other members of the school community who donate.  And at the meeting, the school met its expectation of 100% board giving earlier than in any other fiscal year, a key measure of support in this time of fiscal uncertainty.  Harlem Link’s board has served as a responsible fiscal steward of public funds, with another clean audit almost wrapped up and a conservative budget that helped the school end 2009-10 with an operating surplus for the fifth consecutive year.  All this despite the promise of a per-pupil allocation from the state still frozen at 2007-08 levels!

Finally, this is one board full of talented individuals who could be doing anything with their time.  Because they care deeply about education reform, they are choosing to focus their energy on one single school.  They drive the vision of the school, understand the challenges that the school has faced, the plans it has to overcome those challenges, and the minutiae of policy and its enforcement that is a major part of their role as governors.  I don’t think charter schools are a miracle, and the national data certainly don’t paint such a picture.  We’re talking about isolated instances of success and some glowing best practices that we can hope will find their way into the larger system.  Here’s hoping the governance method is one such best practice.

After decades of bureaucratic growth in the district schools, and at a time when many public school staff members feel like they don’t have access to decision makers or a voice in a large system, at our school the buck stops in the board room at our monthly open meetings.   Why shouldn’t every school community have such a privilege?

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