Scott Pearson: Learning lessons from charter school restarts

By Scott Pearson | Originially Published by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation 

This is part of a blog series about one way we can help our nation’s lowest performing schools. In this series, we will introduce the concept of restart and will highlight: Who’s doing it, how it works and, ultimately, does it work. You can find the entire series here.

School districts across the country are asking high-quality charter school operators to restart failing public schools.  In New Orleans, nearly every public school has been relaunched as a charter school. In Tennessee, the new Achievement School District is focusing its attention on a range of school improvement options, including charters, to boost the state’s lowest performers. The charter school model is popular because, as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently reported, increased flexibility in staffing, curriculum, time management, and resources allows charters to bore down on student achievement.

But what about when charter schools themselves aren’t meeting standards? Until recently, the only way to bring accountability to a failing charter school was to close it. While closure rescues students from persistent failure, it also puts them through a disruption that many families don’t welcome.

Now a new option is emerging: charter school restarts. This involves transferring management of an existing charter school to a new board and leadership team. Students can stay in their school if they choose to, while wholesale changes are instituted around them.

As the National Alliance notes, charter school restarts are occurring mainly in cities with a large number of public charter schools. Washington, DC, is one of those cities – 44 percent of our public school students attend charters. The DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) executed three charter restarts in 2013 and 2014, and two more in 2015.  The National Charter School Resource Center recently released a series of videos highlighting a successful restart in DC.

While there is no fixed formula for how to restart a charter school under new management, we are learning lessons that can help other cities considering the same option.

First, while this may seem counterintuitive, it is important the charter school’s board be heavily involved in the restart. As we began to implement restarts in DC, we closely examined a study by Public Impact, “The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform,” which concluded that a restart is more likely to be successful when the school being closed actively supports and participates in the takeover.

WHILE THERE IS NO FIXED FORMULA FOR HOW TO RESTART A CHARTER SCHOOL UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT, WE ARE LEARNING LESSONS THAT CAN HELP OTHER CITIES CONSIDERING THE SAME OPTION.

We have implemented this finding vigorously – sometimes to the dismay of the schools that are taking over the closing school. When we close a school, the closing school’s board remains in charge for the entire school year. We allow the current board to select which incoming school will execute the restart (within high-quality parameters set by DC PCSB). And the closing school’s board negotiates the terms of the restart.

We’re often asked why we would allow the board of a school that’s being closed for poor performance to dictate terms to the board of one of our portfolio’s best performers. The simple answer: It works. Our evidence shows that when the board and school leadership of the closing school are more engaged (even to the point of being overbearing), the restart is more successful.

The second lesson we’ve learned is that the new board should bring its best resources to bear on the effort. This includes putting an experienced principal in charge of the school, rather than bringing in a freshly minted principal, and “flooding the zone” with staff and resources rather than relying on the same per-pupil expenditures as their other schools. The restarting school and its students have been struggling; they need an extra push to pick up momentum.

Third, schools attempting to execute a turnover should focus solely on the restart rather than undertaking new programming challenges. One school involved in a DC restart was making its first effort at operating more than one site and managing a grade span it had never managed before. These extra challenges made the basic restart effort even more difficult. It’s best to stay focused on a single mission and accomplish that before moving on to others.

Finally, in Washington, DC, we’re running up against a limitation that is holding back restarts elsewhere – namely, it’s difficult to find great charter operators who want to take on restarts. The restart process is hard – much harder than the typical strategy of building a school’s culture one grade at a time. Many of the best charter schools achieved success by following a specific playbook, and restarts aren’t in it.

Faced with this constraint, we have turned to an unlikely ally – our city’s high-performing traditional public school system. This school year, DC Public Schools tried their hand at restarting two schools we closed. One – Hospitality High – was folded into a larger campus while retaining the school’s signature vocational program. The other school closed for fiscal, rather than academic, reasons. Taking over a school that was not already struggling academically will hopefully be a less daunting challenge.

While still new, charter school restarts offer a promising way to ensure accountability while minimizing disruptions to students. By keeping the closing school’s board involved, flooding the zone with resources, and avoiding unnecessary distractions, we’re learning how to implement restarts successfully. We hope more high-quality charter school operators will tackle this challenge with us.  Public Impact released the School Restart Authorization Process Guide, which offers practical and step-by-step guidance about designing and refining a process for implementing a restart that all authorizers, school operators and support organizations should read.

 

Scott Pearson is the Executive Director of the DC Public Charter School Board.  The Board is responsible for academic achievement for the 115 public charter schools in Washington, DC.

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