Research News

Be clear about purpose when starting a charter school

kids in class

A key to successfully launching a charter school is clear communication about the need and purpose for the new school, according to a report from researchers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

A well-defined vision, a primary recommendation in Starting Strong: Best Practices in Starting a Charter School, impacts decisions from programming to hiring to curriculum. The report was compiled for the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia by Marisa Cannata, senior research associate and director of the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools. Co-authors were Grant Thomas and Zaia Thombre, master’s students in public policy at Peabody.

The research team studied charter schools in three states — Georgia, Tennessee and Florida – and conducted interviews with leaders who work at Charter Support Organizations (CSOs) in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. They also reviewed existing literature of best practices for charter school startups.

The charter school concept is one of the fastest growing forms of schooling, with more than 6,000 schools currently serving 2.3 million students. With startups increasing at a rate of about six percent each year, there is a need for resources, such as the Starting Strong report, to help navigate the challenges — from acquiring facilities to hiring teachers to designing instruction, Cannata said. Information is particularly important for the two-thirds of charters that are either non-affiliated with a charter management organization or a stand-alone school.

“[rquote]Common across everyone we interviewed was the need to be clear about why you’re starting this school and what this school is going to be about,” Cannata said.[/rquote] “If you’re starting by yourself, you’re going to need to figure out all of these things on your own or with your board.”

Charter schools that close mainly do so due to financial problems. That’s why a second recommendation is to attend seriously to the business side of the school.

“Make sure there’s a person or a team of people with financial expertise,” Cannata said. Adding board members with business acumen could help, as long as those board members are committed to active participation, another area of strong recommendation.

Starting up a school involves “a multitude of simultaneous tasks that need attention all at once,” she said. But those tasks can be accomplished with purpose, thoughtfulness and hard work.

The report also recommended:

  • Working to attract teachers who are attracted to the mission;
  • Clarifying the board member role in governance rather than management;
  • Recognizing potential conflicts of interest when selecting parents for board membership;
  • Building strong alliances with parents, community members and teachers; and
  • Relying on external measures for accountability while using interim assessments in order to make mid-stream changes.

Transportation needs to be a key part of the strategy as well, Cannata said. A previous report prepared by Vanderbilt students showed that when one student leaves a school, those sharing the ride had to make a change, too.

“The place where choice works best is in cities with a really robust transportation system,” Cannata said.

In addition, parents and other stakeholders need to make sure the new option is a high quality option. “When you look at performance of charter schools, there are some really good ones and some that struggle just as much as the low-performing school they are leaving behind,” she said. “We don’t just want charter schools because we want charter schools. If we’re going to have choice, they need to offer a unique approach that is not already available, and they need to offer a high quality option.”