01/10/2019 by Barry Rowland |

How Charter Schools Are Getting It Right

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It’s difficult to find many in education who are neutral on the question of charter schools. But there is no question that charters — schools that take public funding but operate independently of established public school systems — are becoming an increasingly important part of the nation’s educational landscape. Variations on charter schools have existed in other nations since the 1970s. In the U.S., the first charter school laws were established in Minnesota in 1991. Since then, the numbers of schools have grown steadily. Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charter laws. In total, there are more than 6,900 charter schools in operation nationally, with approximately 3.1 million students, a sixfold increase in enrollment since 2001.

Because they are independent institutions, charters fall into various categories — from nonprofit to for-profit, from progressive to traditional, from high-tech focused to arts based. Some have very high ratings. Others have been shut down for failure to live up to expectations. All in all, a number of studies make it clear that, on average, charter schools outperform public schools by a narrow margin in math and reading, based on standardized test scores. Some do a lot better.

As one who works to place excellent leaders in top positions in charter schools nationally, my interest lies in helping this community grow in quality. The good news is that I see great things being done in so many charter schools. And in line with the original idea for charters, these schools are not only serving their students sell, they are also contributing valuable ideas to the broader educational community about how we create high-quality, affordable schools that have the flexibility to adapt to the needs of their communities.

There are many types of exemplary charters. One the best is Princeton Charter School, a community organized charter in Princeton, New Jersey, that has developed and evolved its own program with great success. Another top charter is Scintilla Charter Academy in Valdosta, Georgia, which took a different approach. After initially struggling with student outcomes, the school partnered with EL Education — a nonprofit organization that grew out of whole-child research at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education — and has quickly become one of the top performing schools in the state. A charter school that has topped the list of best schools nationally — charter, public or private – is the Community Day Charter Public School in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is overseen by The Community Group, a regional nonprofit education organization that says it is “continually evaluating, modifying, and improving [its] academic program.” To do so, it uses as much data as it can generate, but also focuses on teacher collaboration and school culture. Still another path to success is taken by the network of BASIS Charter Schools, which regularly received high marks for its core academic program.

I mention these four because they represent different pathways to success. It has been my experience over 18 years of successful charter school leadership searches — urban, suburban, rural, language immersion, Outward Bound, IB, Direct Instruction etc. — that while charters schools may vary greatly, the best are offering unique, important and successful educational programs and services for young people.

The key to good charter schools is flexibility, accountability, and fairness. In other words, the focus is on the needs of the specific kids in the schools. For example, if students are having difficulty with reading, there are charters that have introduced Saturday school for added help. Instead of just assigning students randomly to teachers, some charters evaluate grade-level classes and teacher assignments early in the school year with the aim of reorganizing those classes to place the weaker performing students with the strongest teacher. In many charters, as a condition of enrolling their children, parents are also expected to contribute time and talent in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I’ve been particularly aware of the entrepreneurial approach to charter leadership, too. Indeed, the profile of successful charter school administrators has been changing as has the skill sets they bring.

In the early days, leadership primarily came from traditional high-performing public schools, many of which were working with an urban demographic. Most recently, however, along with traditional candidates, alternative candidates are presenting from other sources, including the independent/private school world, not-for-profit/for-profit organizations, and international schools. These leadership candidates bring with them new skills and experiences in areas such as strategic planning, professional development, community outreach, finance, fundraising and foundation development, marketing, curriculum design, and organizational management. Entrepreneurial in style, they embrace an educational model that emphasizes direct and constructive interaction with one board for effective decision-making, a lack of red tape, flexibility in staffing, and a laser focus on how every decision will impact kids.

As noted, not all charter schools are at the top of their game. However, in my experience, the charter community as a whole is learning and improving year by year. And it’s exciting to see this growth and influx of new perspectives and talent. As states refine their laws, more organizations step in to support charters, and with the influx of new leadership, the future of charters looks bright.

For me, getting it right as a leadership search consultant means introducing a process to identify and bring forward a diverse group of top candidates to the table, but also to introduce strategies to better ensure these leaders get the support they need to find success on the job.


Barry Rowland is a Senior Consultant with Carney, Sandoe & Associates, specializing in Charter School leadership. Prior to joining CS&A, Rowland served as Superintendent of Schools in the City of York, Toronto, Canada from 1985-1998 with major responsibilities in the areas of strategic planning, human resources, special education programs/services, school safety and security, supervision and evaluation of elementary/secondary principals, and secondary school staffing. Prior to that he served as a school administrator and teacher for 22 years. He can be reached at barry.rowland@carneysandoe.com.

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1 Comment

Nancy Cunningham 9/23/2019 at 8:49pm

Hello from Spokane WA!

I am a member of the board and am chairing the search for Spokane International School – a Washington Charter School – for a new Head of School. I would like to get more information about how Carney Sandoe could help us in this search. As a Charter School funds are somewhat limited so I need to know if working with you could be a possibility.

Many thanks!
Nancy Cunningham