April 2014 Newsletter: Conversion Charter Schools: When Teachers and Parents Lead the Charge
Conversion charter schools are traditional public schools that have been authorized to take on charter status, often in an attempt to address significant school quality or progress concerns of the associated community. According to the 2012-13 data available from the National Association of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), conversion charters account for 11% of all charter schools nationally, up from 9% in the 2009-10 school year. The states of California, Iowa, Maryland, Georgia, Arkansas and Louisiana—comprising over 1,300 charter schools in total—hold the largest percentage of conversion charters.
2012-13 Data from the National Association of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS)
Total # of Charters
Conversion Charter %
The conversion of a traditional school to charter can be district-led, or spearheaded by stakeholders such as staff, parents or the larger community. Within the last four years “parent trigger” legislation—giving parents legal recourse to initiate transformative changes in low-performing schools—has been introduced in 25 states, of which seven have already enacted some version of the law. Such legislation often includes conversion to charter as an option for overhauling an underperforming school. The charged national debate on the conversion-to-charter option allowed by these laws, has resulted in high public interest in community empowerment for choice in education as well as the idea of conversion charters.
This feature of the National Charter School Resource Center monthly newsletter focuses on three successful school conversions led by staff, parents or the community, and highlights the reasons behind each motion for change, as well as common challenges faced during the implementation and key success factors for the schools during and after the conversion process.
The Schools: Background and Conversion History
All three charters profiled here have chosen to operate their schools independently without the aid of an outside charter management company and to maintain autonomy (further discussed below) from their school districts. They have also exhibited a culture of high achievement and progress in results since their authorization while adhering to their pre-charter admissions preference for students residing within the schools’ original attendance boundaries which include significant percentages of minority or socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
Granada Hills Charter High School of Granada Hills, CA converted to an independent charter in 2003, and currently serves a population of over 4,200 students, of which 72% are minority students. Brian Bauer, Executive Director at Granada Hills, shared in an interview that the conversion was initiated by the administration of the school in 2002 when he was the principal of the school. The key driver for conversion was greater autonomy in curriculum and program planning to maintain high student achievement and engagement as the district was moving to prescribed programs for all schools. The petition was ratified with an almost unanimous vote from administrators, staff and over 130 teachers and also received close to 3,000 signatures from parents. Granada Hills has achieved a California Distinguished School designation, with significant and steady gains in the California API measure of school achievement, which stood at 885 in 2013.
Lake Wales Charter Schools of Lake Wales, FL converted to a charter system of five schools in 2004 and is currently the only LEA charter system in Florida. The system includes four conversion elementary schools, one conversion high school, and a start-up middle school added to the system in 2008. Lake Wales serves over 4,000 students, including 70% socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Jesse L. Jackson, Superintendent of Lake Wales, described in an interview that the conversion of the five original schools was initiated by a diverse cohort of community members and parents concerned about lack of educational equity within the district between groups of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce served as a partner in the effort and helped commission an extensive feasibility study for improvement of area schools, resulting in a community-level recommendation to plan and implement a charter system. A majority of the teachers at five of the seven area schools voted in favor of the charter conversions, and over 70% of parents at each of those schools voted favorably as well. The schools in the Lake Wales system continue to meet expectations on the Florida measure of school achievement, with some schools in the system achieving an A grade.
Clayton Valley Charter High School of Concord, CA began to operate under charter status in 2012, and currently serves about 1,400 students, with over 40% of minority background. Spurred by significant declines in enrollment and an unengaged district and administration, the teachers and staff of Clayton Valley determined to petition for conversion to an independent charter school. Neil McChesney, currently Director of Administrative Services at Clayton Valley, was then a teacher at the school and one of the two lead petitioners. He describes in an interview that the petition failed at the district level, after a highly contentious process despite strong demonstrated support from the community and teachers, and was eventually approved in an appeal at the county level. In its first year since conversion, Clayton Valley’s overall California API score improved dramatically from 774 to 836, with even larger improvements among its traditionally disadvantaged student subgroups.
Interviews with the leadership of the three profiled schools reveal several drivers for potential conversion to charter:
- Ability to innovate in academic and professional development programs
- Ability to tailor the curriculum and policies to the needs of the student population
- Autonomy in budgeting decisions
- Freedom from bureaucratic or unnecessary regulation
- Reverse a trend of falling enrollment, attendance and/or grades
- Improved funding or resources for schools serving a lower socioeconomic status
- Emulate the success of other strong charter initiatives.
All three schools mention challenges with being part of a large school district that was perceived by them to be unable to engage with the needs of their individual school communities. Mr. Jackson of Lake Wales explained that before the charter conversion process, the schools in Lake Wales, which comprise a rural agriculture and mining-based population, did not feel they received the same level of resources and focus from the district compared to schools in more affluent communities within the district. Since the conversion, the Lake Wales schools have been able to make numerous budgeting, policy and curriculum changes that specifically address the needs of their student population. As an example, Mr. Jackson highlighted current plans in progress for an art-based learning program that is expected to help Lake Wales’ students with alternative learning needs.
At Granada Hills, Mr. Bauer described tension with the district over curriculum and professional development approaches. He says that “the straw that broke the camel’s back for the staff was the attendance policy.” This innovative approach at Granada Hills allowed students a more generous number of excused absences over the schools year than the average district policy, but then associated strict consequences with further or unexcused absences. The approach was used successfully by the school to ensure high attendance and student commitment for several years, but suddenly lost approval at the district level. Mr. Bauer also highlights the Granada Hills freshman summer transition academy as a major initiative that could not have been launched under the district, and describes the reinstatement of the school’s attendance policy as “an anchor” for a disciplined and engaged school community, boasting a 98% attendance rate.
Mr. McChesney of Clayton Valley said that control over operations, facilities and fiscal management “has been massive for us. Seemingly aesthetic updates have translated to school spirit and belief in the institution.” Focused budget management has allowed the school to fund significant professional development and staff reward programs. Mr. McChesney talked about the frustration previously felt by disenfranchised teachers who put in time-consuming effort toward local and targeted ideas for improving their school. Given the broader evolving requirements imposed by the district, these teachers often felt that their efforts served only as temporary “band-aid solutions.” Since the conversion, Clayton Valley has managed to modify and reenergize academic programs, as well as introduce freshman transition programs and targeted intervention for students in need. Mr. McChesney believes these are key to their significant improvement in overall student scores, and even higher jumps for subgroups that tend to have achievement gaps.
Conversion Challenges and Critical Success Factors
The combined experiences of the three profiled schools reveal several success factors that enable a thriving charter school, as well as several common challenges faced during the conversion process. Many of these lessons align with conclusions drawn in other recent studies on effective school and district turnaround models (see resources below).
Key success factors for conversion and ongoing implementation include:
- Teacher buy-in and continued involvement. All three schools ensured teacher approval of the movement to convert, and described the importance of ongoing empowerment of teachers as professionals and administrative cooperation with the faculty.
- Ongoing community engagement and awareness of needs. The Lake Wales schools have continued to maintain an energized community supportive of its mission over the last ten years, and Mr. Jackson mentioned that philanthropic contributions to the schools from the community are notable. Among factors that help maintain ongoing support, he cites the long-term engagement by the initial cohort of community members who were involved in the conversion, as well as a focus on highlighting the progress and impact the schools have made. Mr. Bauer described a parent engagement plan at Granada Hills that tracks the number of overall parent contacts with the schools and helps identify opportunities for further community engagement.
- Autonomy in operations, finances, human resource management and policy and program strategy. Community-led charters, as opposed to district-led charters, have the option of defining their level of independence from the district within the charter they submit for approval. The schools surveyed here each spoke to the significant value they derived from a high level of autonomy in these areas, allowing for freedom to innovate and tailor programs to fit the specific needs of the school. Even though Lake Wales is a system of six schools, Mr. Jackson attributes a large part of the progress in student achievement at the individual schools to the administrators’ ability to manage each of those schools independently, while participating in a supportive and collaborative community of schools.
- A shared culture of focus on the student. Participants in the charter conversion process bring along with them the initial underlying goal of student success. Mr. Jackson at Lake Wales continues to encourage this focus by maintaining “a high level of trust between staff and administration and a shared end goal—the success of the students.” Mr. Bauer said that the staff at Granada Hills “have bought into an owner mentality,” and feel ongoing mutual accountability for student achievement.
- A collaborative management approach and knowledgeable leadership. Mr. Jackson cites an “engaged leadership across the board, involving all service areas” as well as “an inclusive and open mindset of joint problem solving” among the staff and administration as key to ongoing improvement at Lake Wales. At Clayton Valley, Mr. McChesney said that hiring quality leadership with a history of success in school leadership, as well as an “administrative team and school board governance body that were of like mind and shared vision” were instrumental to achieving their goals and turning visionary ideas into practical implementations over the school year.
- Persistence and commitment from those involved in the conversion process. The charter conversion process is labor intensive, requiring extensive research and persistence through the approval process. Besides time spent in organizing, communication, and developing alliances with supportive stakeholders and institutions, this also includes knowledge gathering around district and state processes, legal requirements, the charter approach as well as the community’s interests. “This is not for the faint hearted,” explained Mr. Bauer.
Challenges other communities considering charter conversions should be aware of include:
- Resistance from districts out of concern around loss of control on finances and resources, or loss of credibility for the district if schools choose to convert to autonomous charters. The schools interviewed consistently mentioned such concerns as significant contributors to the pushback they received from the districts during the conversion process.
- Loss of consistency within a feeder pattern. If some schools within the feeder pattern of the converting schools do not choose to convert, the charter schools might have to plan for accommodating incoming students to their new approach, or helping them catch up from an achievement perspective. Lake Wales launched an open enrollment start-up charter middle school to partially address this issue in their feeder pattern, and Granada Hills and Clayton Valley both have summer transition programs for incoming freshmen.
Two recent reports related to community organizing for education reform and effectiveness of conversion schools summarize the positive potential for conversion charter schools if handled effectively:
A Nellie Mae Foundation report from 2011 concludes that “Community organizing for school reform has the potential to advance equity, create innovative solutions that reflect the interests and experienced of disenfranchised communities, and build the long-term social capital of under-represented communities both to support schools and districts and to hold them accountable for improving achievement.” Additionally, recent California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) research on conversion schools shows that “autonomous conversions have not only increased academic performance with underserved students, but have achieved this even as the proportions of underserved subgroups increased at a higher rate than at traditional schools.”
Mr. Bauer of Granada Hills summarizes the experiences of the conversion schools: “This is an earned and acquired status. It comes with a tremendous sense of responsibility and liberation that can’t be taken back and you don’t want to give up. Conversion comes with incredible responsibility that is accompanied by great flexibility and resources.” As the national conversation around parent empowerment for choice in education continues, communities looking for lasting solutions for their low-performing schools will need to accumulate a reserve of requisite knowledge and resources and develop a mindset of long-term commitment to the effort.
- CCSA Brief, 2012: Conversion Charter Schools: A Closer Look
- Nellie Mae Education Foundation Report, 2011: The Strengths and Challenges of Community Organizing as an Education Reform Strategy
- MASS Insight Brief, 2010: School Turnaround Models
- Public Impact Brief, 2014: “Extraordinary Authority Districts”: Design Considerations—Framework and Takeaways”
- Granada Hills Charter High School Profile
- Clayton Valley Charter High School Accountability Overview
- Lake Wales Charter Schools FL Annual Report
On January 8, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly published guidance on student discipline (Dear Colleague Letter: Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline) to assist public schools, including public charter schools, in meeting their obligations under Federal law (Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) to provide all students with equal education opportunity. A press release from the Department of Education announcing the guidance stated, "Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school. Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices.”
The guidance focuses on helping public elementary and secondary schools administer student discipline that does not discriminate on the basis of race, while reminding schools of the need to ensure compliance with all applicable Federal laws prohibiting discriminatory policies based on other factors including disability, religion and gender. The need for compliance with this new guidance has implications for both charter policy and school-level practice.
In developing the guidance, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has determined, based on current Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) statistics, that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be subject to disciplinary action, suspended or expelled more than their peers. The guidance indicates that according to research, the demonstrated racial disparities in discipline administration are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of affected ethnicities. According to the guidance, CRDC data showed an increasing loss of important instructional time for such students due to exclusionary discipline. Additional studies cited are also said to show a correlation between exclusionary discipline practices and an array of educational and social problems for affected students, including school avoidance and diminished academic engagement, increased behavioral problems, increased likelihood of dropping out, substance abuse, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.
The guidance educates schools on the various cases in which discipline policies or practices could be determined under the law to be intentionally discriminatory towards students on the basis of race, or to have a disparate penalizing impact for students of a particular race even if facially neutral. As per the guidance, schools hold the responsibility for proving that their discipline policies are intended to be nondiscriminatory, are necessary to meet important educational goals, and have been determined by the schools to be the least burdensome to students of various racial groups among comparable policy options. Schools are also reminded that non-discrimination laws apply not only to school employees (including school resource and security officers), but also others the school exercises control over, such as contract employees. Descriptive examples in the guidance explain situations schools should consider when evaluating their compliance with equal opportunity and non-discrimination laws.
Also highlighted in the guidance are artifacts and records the Departments might refer to for evidence of compliance, and possible remedies the Departments might require in case schools or districts are found to be in violation of these laws. To aid schools in compliance, the guidance lists illustrative recommendations on various areas of relevance in school discipline policy. These include suggestions for strengthening positive school climate, discipline issue prevention, professional training and appropriate use of law enforcement, appropriate expectation setting around nondiscriminatory discipline policies and effective communication within the school communities, with an emphasis on positive interventions over student removal. Schools are also guided on approaches for self-evaluation and monitoring, and the importance of discipline-related data collection and responsive action.
Charter school practitioners can begin the process of further understanding this guidance, and taking proactive steps to ensuring compliance by
- Referring to the resources listed below and reviewing their schools’ discipline policies and procedures. Of particular note for review is the impact of exclusionary disciplinary sanctions, as discussed in the guidance.
- Informing faculty, staff, students and parents about associated expectations and the discipline policy.
- Training all school personnel, including school resource and security officers, on evidence-based techniques in classroom management, conflict resolution, de-escalation approaches that decrease classroom disruptions, and the school’s discipline policy.
- Tracking data on disciplinary action, proactively analyzing the data to identify any racial disparities and developing action plans to address apparent issues.
- Guiding Principles [PDF]: U.S. Department of Education resource guide for improving school climate and discipline.
- Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources [PDF]: U.S. Department of Education index of the extensive Federal technical assistance and other resources on school discipline and climate available to schools and districts.
- CRDC Discipline Data 2011-2012 [PDF]: Recent school discipline data gathered by U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
- Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations [PDF]: Document describing an online tool that catalogues the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 States, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states and compares laws across states and jurisdictions. Access the tool online here.
- Developing Policies That Support a Positive Schoolwide Culture and Creating Fair Discipline Processes: National Charter School Resource Center Webinars
- NCSRC webinar “Legal Issues Impacting the Public Charter Sector: Student Discipline – Policy & Practices in Public Charter Schools” (March 18, 2014)
In February 2014, the Department of Education’s National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC), in conjunction with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), conducted a master class titled “Sustainable Support for High Quality Charter Schools.” Held in Washington, D.C., the session was attended by leaders from Charter Support Organizations (CSOs) from over 25 states. The master class was aimed at a strategic review of the CSO sustainability model for high quality charter schools with an eye on regionalization of shared services across two or more states.
Based on an overview of the current landscape of CSO programs and services as far as demand, capacity and overall effectiveness, group discussions among CSO leaders explored lessons that could be learned from successful association models in other sectors and from CSO regional discussions. Major opportunities identified by the groups included:
- The potential for leveraging the support of larger regional interest groups and grassroots efforts that have shared goals across states; and
- Combining best practices across states to create a strong baseline of service offerings, which CSO’s can then further refine to match their state-specific context and needs.
One CSO leader presented a case study of CSO regionalization in action, discussing the significant characteristics of its model. Material lessons from this collaboration included observations that:
- Increased scale due to such a collaboration may not in itself be of significant value, but if leveraged over the long term, could allow for a stronger ability to engage in advocacy for charter members, as well as the ability to utilize shared pools of professional talent for optimal impact across the region.
- A merged regional association should plan to have a presence in each state to ensure continued local support for effective advocacy and PR.
- Each member state in a regional collaboration must be ready to contribute so that the effort is a win-win for all involved.
CSO leaders shared that they valued the opportunity to discuss the considerations for such partnerships and looked forward to using this session as a springboard for further work on how to proceed towards such collaborations. The NAPCS and CSOs are continuing action on this topic with plans in progress for future meetings to be held with interested stakeholders
The NCSRC presents several master classes and webinars annually focusing on substantial topics relevant to state charter associations and other charter support organizations. Major themes to be addressed include improving accountability, promoting high quality charter schools, increasing collaboration and disseminating promising practices to the charter community. Upcoming master classes include webinars in March and May, and an in-person session in September.
“Technology is a tool, not the panacea,” says Rick Ogston, founder and CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systems (CDLS), in an interview with the NCSRC during which he shared the approach and vision for the full service education management organization launched in 2012. CDLS operates two physical campuses, Carpe Diem-Meridian in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Carpe Diem-Aiken in the Cincinnati Public Schools district in Ohio. Both are urban public charter schools serving student bodies that are over 70% minorities and over 60% economically disadvantaged. In 2014, CDLS plans to begin operating its first school in San Antonio, Texas.
CDLS leverages a proprietary blended learning model combining a digital curriculum with face-to-face instruction to personalize learning, and values investing in culture and relationships at the schools it operates. The CDLS operational model is based on the successful example of the first blended learning Carpe Diem public charter school in Yuma, Arizona. Since it’s inception under this model in 2005, the nonprofit Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma has been regionally as well as nationally recognized for its student success. According to Mr. Ogston, the Yuma campus has also consistently demonstrated measurable costs savings per student compared to traditional public schools in the region.
The CDLS Meridian campus’ first-year academic results show significant reduction in learning gaps among students. CDLS Aiken campus in Cincinnati proved to be an exceptionally challenging environment, according to Mr. Ogston, who explained that almost two thirds of the students were between five and nine years below grade level at the start of the school year. To address the severity of this gap and turn around a school culture that was not conducive to academic achievement, Mr. Ogston and his staff modified the newly implemented CDLS program. They utilized two months of instructional time on cultural realignment towards academic achievement, and on relationship building between students and teachers to ensure ongoing productivity.
Mr. Ogston reemphasized that technology enables curriculum personalization at scale, but cannot substitute for the value teachers provide to students in targeted academic guidance and ongoing motivation towards success. “Just because kids in a given grade have chronological commonality, [it] doesn’t mean that they align academically. Personalization starts with assessing their needs and helping them progress at a pace and instructional level that is comfortable,” he explains. He said that the baseline instructional model for all the CDLS schools is the same, but lessons learned from each implementation are fed back into the approach continuously.
CDLS is fully engaged in the operations of the new schools it has contracted with, including instructional management, facilities maintenance and leadership and staff hiring and evaluation. According to Mr. Ogston, the contractual relationship that CDLS maintains with the school boards differs from that maintained by most nonprofit charter management organizations in that CDLS operates under a performance contract and does not own the facilities or staff.
According to data available from the National Association of Public Charter Schools, about one third of the nation’s charter schools are managed by external organizations. Mr. Ogston believes that CDLS’s model allows it to operate the schools without reliance on ongoing philanthropic investments, and with an entrepreneurial spirit committed to positive outcomes for the schools it operates.
Bipartisan Charter School Reform Legislation Approved
The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10), a bipartisan charter schools reform legislation, was approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee on April 8, 2014.
H.R. 10 streamlines and modernizes the existing Charter School Program and Charter School Credit Enhancement Program. According to the text of H.R. 10, the consolidated program aims “to promote high-quality charter schools at the state and local level, and allows states to use federal funds to start new charter schools as well as expand and replicate existing high-quality charter schools. Additionally, the bill authorizes a Charter Management Organization (CMO) grant program to support CMO successes in opening quality charter schools nationwide.”
NAPCS Releases Updated Charter Enrollment Data
The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) released current figures for the number of students attending public charter schools. The numbers show that charter school enrollment is up 13 percent over the last year, with the additional 288,000 students accounting for the largest increase in 14 years.
New Orleans Organizations Announce Charter School Entrepreneurial Challenge
New Schools for New Orleans and 4.0 Schools, with the support of Khan Academy recently announced the NOLA Future of School Challenge inviting entrepreneurs with innovative ideas for student-centered schools to test their ideas, prototype their designs, and vie for funding and support to become a charter school that opens its doors in fall 2016.
May 8-9: The first annual Washington Charter Schools Association Conference will be held in Seattle, Washington. Find out more information or register here.
June 29-July 2: National Conference of the National Association of Public Charter Schools is the largest gathering of the charter school movement at over 4,000 participants and is being held at Las Vegas, Nevada. Find out more information or register here.
October 20-23: Annual conference of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers brings together the nation’s charter school authorizers and operators, policymakers and education leaders in Miami. Find out more information or register here.