Category Archives: Charter Schools

The Accountability Wars Are About to Begin

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states not to expect a waiver on state assessments this year. Some in education will surely push back with the argument that COVID-19 upended metrics historically used to hold schools accountable — student performance and engagement in particular — and, as a result, schools can’t be held accountable at all.

But the question of assessing students shouldn’t be if testing should happen (and yes, states should give assessments this school year), but rather how should we assess teaching and learning in COVID-19 and beyond. 

For charter schools, authorizers can and must continue to hold schools to high standards, especially in this time of uncertainty, by assessing school performance using new metrics and existing metrics defined in new ways; and by rethinking the authorizer role in helping schools meet the needs of students and families.

Assess school performance using new metrics and existing metrics defined in new ways

Authorizers historically measured school performance using proficiency and growth on state-level annual assessments. But real questions exist on what a missing year of data nationwide means for comparing data from previous years. Similarly, past student engagement metrics, previously measured through attendance, or student’s physical presence in the classroom, aren’t possible in a virtual environment.

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A New Way to Classify — and Learn From — “Alternative” Schools

Nearly every district in the country uses the term “alternative” to describe a broad swath of schools, including those that serve students who are pregnant and parenting, students who are new arrivals to the United States, adult learners, youth in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, or students who have previously dropped out. In short, it’s a way to classify schools that serve students who have needs that are not met or addressed by typical K-12 learning environments.

These and many other “alternative” schools meet student needs that are not going away. In the wake of COVID-19, in fact, these needs are more acute than ever. But because these schools are poorly understood by many sector leaders, their distinct strengths are at risk of going unnoticed and untapped. Rather than remaining the quirky outliers, these schools should become models for modern ways of learning, especially when flexible, hybrid, part-time, and distance learning programs are more relevant than ever. 

The reality is that within the big bucket of “alternative schools,” programs differ widely: some may be quasi-virtual or residential programs while others offer evening classes or deliver two-generation support for parents and young children. Ultimately, the big label of “alternative” obscures more than it illuminates. I would like to offer a more sophisticated definition and challenge the idea that these schools are fungible alternatives to conventional education opportunities. 

I have identified three defining features of alternative schools based on my research and experience, including many visits to schools across the country:

  1. They align to an otherwise unmet need for services. For the most part, the alternative to many of these schools is not attending school at all. 
  2. They are intentionally designed to meet a set of specific student needs. This may be a complex constellation of needs, but the designers of the school’s programs and services are guided by the needs, wants, and constraints of the young people that they serve. As a result, they may look much different operationally from a traditional school.
  3. They set mission-aligned learning and outcome objectives (e.g., improved parenting skills, increased school attendance, or developmental milestones of social and emotional learning) and may adjust the thresholds or timelines for traditional metrics of school success (for example, using a six-year graduation rate rather than a four-year measurement).

I believe that schools meeting all these criteria can safely be called “alternative,” but even within that category, I’ve discovered further useful distinctions. Below I offer an overview of three common types of programs, each with its own real-world illustration. 

Schools that offer intensive in-person services

Although many charter models tout their unique in-person school culture and the intangible learning experiences that they create in their buildings, few programs offer the kind of in-person service delivery that a school like Monument Academy, a five-day-a-week boarding school in Washington DC, delivers. With a weekday boarding program for nearly 100 youth, many of whom are in formal foster care or informal kinship care, the physical aspect of the program model is foundational.

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“Not All Children Learn and Develop in the Same Way”: Q&A with Asia J. Norton of Newark

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

When education policymakers, legislators, and lawmakers operate in isolation, they can seem distant or removed from the communities they serve. So what happens when a policymaker is also a teacher and a parent?

In advance of the summer 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with Asia J. Norton, a third-generation Newark teacher and parent who serves on the Newark Board of Education.

As a young student, Asia’s struggles with literacy led her mother to switch Asia into a different school. In this conversation, she talks about ensuring that every Newark parent has the opportunity to choose a school that is the right fit for their child.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become so deeply involved in education at multiple levels?

I was born into education. Both my grandmother and mother were teachers in Newark. But as a child, I wasn’t served well by my local public school. By the time I reached fifth grade, I barely knew how to read. My mother, being a parent and an educator, recognized that I needed something different. She pulled me out of my public school, used the social security money she received from my father’s death, and enrolled me in a private school.  That experience prompted me to observe the differences between my school and the school where my mother taught — it felt like two different education systems.

I knew policy was driving a lot of the inequities I saw, so after college I [got] involved in education policy. But I knew that if I truly wanted to make an impact on education policy, I needed to be in the classroom and have the practitioner perspective.

Being a teacher is definitely different than talking about teaching. Although my grandmother and mother were teachers, I wasn’t a teacher until I was in front of kindergarten students teaching them how to read. And because of my struggles as a student, I developed a passion for literacy education. As a teacher I continued to see the differences in school quality in my community. I saw how getting the right seat can make an enormous difference. Continue reading

How Recent Federal Coronavirus Legislation Impacts Charter Schools

It’s now been about a month since U.S. public schools began closing in response to the novel coronavirus. During that time charter school leaders have scrambled to put in place distance learning, get kids fed, support staff in learning to work virtually, communicate with parents, and navigate numerous other unanticipated challenges. Leaders juggling so many competing demands hardly have time to pay attention to what’s coming out of Washington. But federal coronavirus response legislation passed in March has numerous implications for charters, along with other public schools and education nonprofits. 

Banner from new resource: "WHAT CHARTER SCHOOLS NEED TO KNOW<br /> Federal COVID-19 Response Legislation and Charter Schools"

That’s why Bellwether teamed up with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools on a new resource to help charter school leaders and support organizations understand how recent federal legislation might affect their schools and students. This resource looks at five areas in which the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) affect public charter schools, including: 

  • New paid sick and family leave requirements that affect charter schools as employers
  • Financial assistance for small- and mid-sized businesses and nonprofits that charter schools may be eligible to access 
  • Provisions that support elementary and secondary schools and state education systems in preventing, preparing for, and responding to effects of the novel coronavirus
  • Non-education funding streams and flexibilities that charter schools and other public schools or education nonprofits may be able to use to cover costs associated with responding the novel coronavirus or better serve children, families, and communities during this public health emergency
  • Provisions related to student loans and the Corporation for National and Community Service that may affect some charter school employees

The “paycheck protection program” loans available to small businesses (including nonprofits and sole proprietorships) through the CARES Act have drawn considerable attention, but most analyses do not address the unique considerations that charter schools must take into account in considering whether or not to pursue these programs. Further, numerous other CARES Act programs and provisions that have gotten less attention can be used to support coronavirus-related costs incurred by education organizations or meet needs of children, families, and communities they serve. For example:  Continue reading

Five Themes, Plus Video, From Bellwether’s Webinar on #COVIDandSchools

Yesterday we hosted a robust webinar conversation about what’s been happening on the ground in American schools and what school leaders need to think about as they meet the remarkable challenges posed by COVID-19.

Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham shared the virtual stage with four pivotal sector leaders — Dan Domenech, American Association of School Administrators; Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools; Nina Rees, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools*; and Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools — each of whom candidly talked about the challenges they’ve faced as school founders, district leaders, and organizational heads. While the conversation sometimes traced a grim reality, there were also shared stories of hopefulness, innovation, and success.

If you missed the webinar, a complete video recording with captions is available here and below: 

Here are five key themes that came up in the conversation (quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity):

Students’ humanity comes first.

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