“Charter schools were originally created to serve as labs of innovation, developing best practices, and then sharing them widely to improve the work of all students.”
— Shannah Varon, executive director, Boston Collegiate Charter School
The Charter School Exemplary Collaboration Award, a National Activities grant-award competition in the Charter Schools Program (CSP), is designed to provide just what Ms. Varon describes – an opportunity for high-quality charter schools with innovative ideas and a history of results to share their promising practices with non-chartered public schools and districts. The Collaboration Awards, funded for the first time in 2012, are grounded in a belief that trust and teamwork between high-quality charter schools and non-chartered public schools will accelerate educational excellence in all public schools. Additionally, successful joint ventures between schools can vary in their structures and objectives, while still remaining focused on the goal of strengthening a community and its schools.
Variation was very much in evidence when 12 educators representing the seven Collaboration Awards grant recipients attended a recent two-day gathering in Washington. D.C. The get-together provided an opportunity for these grantees to meet CSP staffers and each other, share ideas and experiences, and broaden awareness of national charter school trends.
In inviting the new collaboration applications last year, CSP encouraged entrants to think creatively – to develop partnerships that encourage cooperation between the chartered and non-chartered communities as a replacement for the competition that often typifies the relations between the two sectors and prevents mutual advancements in school improvement and innovation. In an afternoon of discussions and presentations, some lessons of these collaborations emerged:
- One charter school can partner with one non-chartered school to address specific challenges. Boston Collegiate, a high-quality charter school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, is collaborating with nearby Jeremiah E. Burke High School. The schools share similar demographics. But one-hundred percent of Boston Collegiate graduating seniors have been accepted to college since 2004; Burke is a “turnaround” school working relentlessly to improve student outcomes. To help to ensure that more Burke students are “college-ready,” the two schools are focusing on: teacher collaborations; alignment of Burke’s curriculum and assessments with Common Core standards; data-driven decisions to target additional instruction; and technology that allows Burke students to identify and improve in specific academic areas.
- One charter school can collaborate with one non-chartered school to provide intensive support in a wide range of areas. Eighty percent of the students attending Jumoke Academy in Hartford, Conn., receive free or reduced-price lunch, but in recent years Jumoke has closed the achievement gap between its students of color and their suburban, white counterparts. Jumoke is collaborating with Thirman L. Milner School, the lowest-performing Pre-K to 8th‑grade school in Hartford. Changes at Milner include: a more rigorous curriculum and improved instruction; a plan to engage more Milner parents and the community in school life; a school environment with focus on both academic and non-academic factors (students’ social, emotional, cultural, recreational, and health needs); a leadership model based on one used successfully at Jumoke; professional development to provide more effective teachers and support staff; and assessments that inform instruction.
- One charter school can share its expertise with more than one non-chartered school while tailoring its contributions to specific needs of each partner. Highlander Charter School in East Providence, R.I., is sharing its literacy model with five nearby elementary schools. The Highlander model is neither a program nor a curriculum, but rather an expertly tailored professional-development experience that organizes and enriches the literacy elements already existing within each partnering school. Students are assessed, teachers complete surveys and are interviewed about the school’s literacy program, and results are used to inform a leadership team of educators who craft a comprehensive literacy action plan for each school.
- One charter school can share its expertise in one area with more than one non-chartered school. The Arts and College Preparatory Academy (ACPA) in Columbus, Ohio, has three major strengths: high academic expectations and levels of student achievement, opportunities for artistic expression, and a positive school climate. ACPA is now sharing its culture, which emphasizes respect and compassion and zero tolerance for bullying, with many schools. ACPS’s theater teacher and students wrote “The Equality Project,” a play that explores inequality, exclusion, insecurity, and racism. To date, ACPA students have performed the play before more than 14,000 students in other schools, led follow-up discussions, and supported other schools integrating themes from the play into their school environments and curricula. ACPA plans to post additional information about “The Equality Project” on its website and will disseminate a manual for schools wanting project details.
The Collaboration Awards are only the most recent CSP initiative. Each year the Office of Innovation and Improvement invites grant project representatives from its CSP grant-competition programs to meet with CSP staff and one another at the ED headquarters. These get-togethers connect CSP staff with exemplary educators who make tangible the plans described in their grant applications to create high-quality charter schools and improve existing ones.
The benefits of these meetings flow two ways – grantees gain knowledge and new professional connections and the CSP staff returns to work with a richer understanding of life in the charter school trenches, a keener sense of the grantees’ challenges, and a better command of how OII can most effectively support not just the grantees, but all charter schools.