Preparation for Replication: Case Study of AECI
More than 4,000 charter schools around the country operate as independent, “mom and pop” schools without the supports of charter management organizations (CMOs).1 These standalone schools, which make up 65% of charter schools nationally, are often deeply rooted in the local neighborhood or are designed to serve specific community needs.2 For some successful independent schools, replicating – opening a second school – is a way to serve more students in their communities.
What do we mean by ‘replication?’
- Charter school replication: to open a new charter school, or a new campus of a high-quality charter school based on the educational model of an existing high-quality charter school, under an existing charter or an additional charter if permitted or required by State law.3 Opportunities for replicating high-quality charter schools vary by state and local context.
- Replication is important because it allows high-quality charter schools to experiment with new adaptations on their models (for example, adding an additional career focus or testing a successful model in a new setting) while increasing the number of seats available to students in high-quality schools.
This case study considers the key decisions and processes that contributed to one school’s successful replication. The report, videos, and resources below provide charter school stakeholders with examples and tools to guide the replication decision-making process.
This case study focuses on the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Industries (AECI), a charter operator. AECI operated a single high school from 2008-2019. In the 2019-2020 school year, AECI opened AECI 2.
Video 1 (Defining Success) explains AECI’s history and the learning and adaptation that contributed to the success of AECI’s first school and its preparation for replication.
Elements of AECI’s successful replication
Knowing, defining, and providing evidence of success
AECI leaders began talking seriously about replicating AECI 1 only once there was a consensus that the school had achieved success. This success was defined by multiple data points that centered around academic outcomes for students.
- Student success – After several years of operating one school, AECI consistently graduated students at a rate greater than the New York City average. Multiple leaders also reported increased rates of students taking accelerated courses, going to college, and persisting in college.
- Success serving underserved populations – Leaders and parents noted the importance of a school in the South Bronx that demonstrated success preparing Black and Hispanic students for college and careers. As one board member and parent described, the school served “children in the community who would not have an avenue to pursue those careers otherwise” and provided “cutting edge technology” in fields including architecture, engineering, and computer engineering. This perception was backed by the school’s capacity to increase proficiency and graduation rates.
- Internal capacity for growth – The organization experienced “a rocky start,” common among new schools. AECI’s leaders and board were able to reflect on challenges in the early years and develop systems to mitigate them going forward. For example, the school was successful in improving its teacher supports, leading to improved teacher retention.
The capacity to make it happen
The capacity of the board to support a replication process and capacity of school leaders to develop sustainable, scalable systems to serve multiple schools were key factors in AECI’s successful replication. Preparing the application for the second charter, engaging in community outreach, developing a plan for replication, and preparing for the capacity interview with the authorizer all required extensive time from board members and school leaders. Once the second charter was awarded, there was a massive amount of work to obtain a facility and prepare a new school to open in a matter of months. Multiple AECI team members and the organization’s authorizer referenced the importance of having a thoughtful, scalable human capital plan that considered how resources and professionals would be spread across two schools to ensure an efficient use of funds while maintaining a high level of quality at both schools. For an organization used to operating a single school, the shift to operating a second building requires thoughtful consideration to how resources and time will be allocated.
Understanding what made AECI 1 a success was important for three reasons.
- It enabled the school to review its mission and whether it was achieving its goals for the first school.
- It forced leaders and board members to define “success.”
- It started the process of considering what exactly the school did to achieve that success, creating a roadmap that would be the key elements of replicating into a second school.
Learning exactly what was successful about the AECI’s model informed the decision about what to replicate. This knowledge was essential as AECI began building a productive relationship with the new school’s potential authorizer and engaging with the community around the possibility of replication.
In Video 2 (Challenges and Timing), AECI and authorizer leaders reflect on the evidence that prompted replication, supports and resources provided by the authorizer, and the role of community feedback in the decision process. Community engagement – a crucial part of AECI’s model – is explored in more detail in Video 4.
Deciding what, why, and how to replicate
When asked why they wanted to replicate AECI 1, nearly every board member and leader referenced elements of the school’s mission as a driving force. Leaders were committed to providing students from historically underserved groups with access to rigorous academics and career preparation. Expanding this access to reach more students was a primary driver for replication. While questions of timing, political context, and financial sustainability were important to the replication decision, these questions were always framed within the school’s mission and the drive to serve more students through a high-quality charter option. In other words, business considerations were framed by the school’s mission instead of being a driving factor unto themselves. AECI leaders already knew what and why they were replicating – the next decisions were how and when.
Centering students and the school’s mission as the primary reasons for replication had three key implications:
- The decision to replicate was driven by data demonstrating student success, opportunity to do the most good for the most students, and thoughtful consensus-building;
- Replication was intended to serve the local community and prioritized community needs and feedback; and
- The replication process was not driven by a solo individual but, instead, by developing capacity and relationships across all stakeholders, including board members, school leadership, and the authorizer.
Video 3 (The Decision to Replicate) demonstrates how AECI decided what, how, and when to replicate.
Community engagement: a comprehensive and inclusive process
AECI’s strategy for community engagement went far beyond a compliance exercise or checking the box. As part of the authorization process, New York State Education Department (NYSED) requires schools to demonstrate that there is substantive support from the community and that the school is capable of addressing any community concerns or questions. AECI 1 was intentional about recruiting board members with community ties to support the first school’s planning and direction, and the school developed a comprehensive approach to engaging families and other members of the community. These structures of family engagement would become key to AECI’s replication process.
AECI engaged external expertise to support an inclusive approach to community engagement that ensured community members had a variety of methods to learn about AECI’s plans and provide feedback. AECI engaged with local, state, and federal elected officials; community education councils; and families, students, and other community members. Community members received surveys and emails, saw flyers, and had the option to participate in town halls and focus groups to ask questions and share their opinions and needs for neighborhood schools. Materials were provided in multiple languages, and events were scheduled and designed to accommodate working parents. These meetings took their tone from AECI’s Parent Teacher Organization meetings for families of currently enrolled students. These meetings were intentionally held in the evenings, with food and childcare provided, to ensure working parents could attend and engage with meeting activities.
AECI depended on community feedback to determine the academic focus for the second school. After researching job market projections and career tracks, AECI leaders consulted community members on what type of academic focus they would prefer for children in their neighborhood. Computer science was identified by the most community members as career track of interest, which ultimately became the focus of AECI 2. This data collection was essential for AECI to continue its goal of serving the needs of its community.
The early and strong continued connection to the community ensured that:
- Replication was centered on the needs identified by families and local stakeholders,
- Key decision points in the replication process, such as the new school’s academic focus, were tested and vetted using the rich data collected from community stakeholders, and
- The inclusive approach to community engagement, refined in AECI 1’s operations, ensured that all families and community members had a stake in the school’s replication and success.
Video 4 (Community Engagement) explains AECI’s intention to serve the unique needs of its community, the outreach program designed to inform the replication process, and the school’s relationship with community organizations and families.
AECI was identified due to its high performance on key academic indicators and the school’s population of predominantly Black and Hispanic students from a historically underserved neighborhood – both key elements of the Charter School Programs’ goal to increase access to high-quality schools.4 In addition, the school’s leadership demonstrated a capacity and willingness for reflection and dissemination of lessons learned.
NCSRC researchers interviewed AECI board members, school leaders, and current and former parents of AECI students. The resulting data were coded using key analytic topics determined through a review of the literature on school replication and expansion (see “For Further Reading”). Coding topics were continually revised to accommodate the evolving themes that inform this report.5
For Further Reading
- Merriam, S.B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass.
The content of this case study does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), nor does any mention of curricula, trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsements by the U.S. government. This case study does not constitute a formal statement of federal law, legal requirements, or ED policy and should not be construed as creating or articulating the legal requirements or policy from ED.