Charter Schools, Explained (Part 1)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I hope to provide a short series of posts that provides facts about charters and how they are an additional choice for parents in DCSD.  This post discusses what charters are, how they are created, and how they are accountable to families.

A charter school is a public school that is operated under separate accountability rules than a traditional neighborhood school. Charters are usually begun and operated by parent, teacher and/or community groups who have a particular vision for the education they would like to see their children receive. Colorado law allows these groups to charter, or to enter into a contract, usually with a school district, to realize this vision. The forward-thinking Colorado General Assembly noted that charters could act as a vehicle for public schools to provide more innovation in education. The result has been schools of choice for parents and children, where the community has far more flexibility and control.

Getting a charter approved by a school district is a very thorough process for those who apply. The school district and the applicant should work together to ensure that not only are all statutory requirements met, but also that a good working relationship is established. In DCSD’s case, we want to ensure that any new charter school is a success. Our highly qualified and experienced staff, as well as our strong community of charters, can help new applicants have the best outcomes possible. Note that private schools or non-public homeschool organization cannot apply for a charter. For-profit organizations such as education management organizations are prohibited from entering into any Colorado public school charter contracts. They may, however, contract with charter governing boards to provide educational services. The charter remains in the hands of the not-for-profit board running the school.

Although a family must apply to a charter school, charters are tuition-free and cannot discriminate against anyone who wishes to enroll, nor can they establish “test-in” requirements. Charters can and do serve many different demographics, including students who are disabled or have special needs, students who are low-income, students who are low performers and students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Colorado law does not place a cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Any group can come to its district of choice at any time with a charter application. Districts cannot refuse to hear applicants, or place a moratorium on hearing applications. DCSD is committed to offering choices to meet parent demand; we work with charter applicants to build successful schools. Any charter applicant who believes their application was rejected unfairly can appeal to the state Board of Education, and many groups have prevailed there over local school districts.

Charter schools have a fair amount of autonomy, but remain accountable in numerous ways. The charter made with the school district authorizer is a binding contract, and the school is required to adhere to it. The school, overseen by the governing board, is accountable most importantly to parents and students. Charter schools receive increased scrutiny and must renew their charter every few years. Students take state assessment exams, and the results by school are made public for purposes of additional accountability.

For more resources, see the Colorado League of Charter Schools, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) charter school website, and Colorado Charters, a blog run by the Charter School Solutions group.

Still to come in my charter school series:
  • Charter school funding
  • Accreditation and teachers
  • Charter information in DCSD and statewide
  • Additional resources from the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado League of Charter Schools


Aspen View Academy Breaks Ground

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the groundbreaking ceremony for Aspen View Academy.  Aspen View is a new charter school in DCSD that will be opening in fall 2013.  Parents, kids, school district officials and community members came to stand in a field under and around a small tent to celebrate the fulfillment of several parents' dreams.  These parents decided that they wanted to open a school, with their choice of curriculum, location, and a particular vision for their kids' future.

The excitement in this group was palpable.  The Cub Scouts who presented the colors, the parent leadership who spoke, the elected officials who congratulated the entire school community--all seemed to understand that this was an extremely exciting moment that will culminate in a new set of opportunities for kids' education.  The recognition of the partnership with the District and our efforts to maximize choice, by numerous people at the ceremony, was particularly gratifying.  I am continually impressed by the tremendous talent and innovative spirit we have in our community.  I am so proud to be part of this District.

I have had several very engaging conversations lately with people who want to know more about charter schools.  There's a lot of needless mystery surrounding these public schools of choice.  A decade ago, DCSD was the first district in Colorado to open a charter school.  Today we are approaching a dozen.  This week I will write a series of posts describing what charter schools are, how they work in Colorado, and how they are different from neighborhood schools.

Parents in DCSD want to be informed and involved in their kids' education.  They can determine whether a charter school is right for their individual family.  No matter what type of school a family chooses, we want to be there for them to help facilitate this.  Today's ceremony, with children energetically digging with shiny shovels and hard hats, represents a new chapter in our endeavours.


Sunday night briefs


The DAC met on Tuesday evening, October 9.  There were a lot of really substantial topics on the agenda, which made for an excellent discussion that overran the clock with the greatest of ease.

The DougCo Parent Alliance has a good update of the meeting in general.  I am pleased to see the work that has been done by the three directors of elementary education on the Elementary Progress Report (EPR).  This has consistently been a topic of confusion and frustration for parents and teachers alike.  The changes that have been and are being made should alleviate this, allowing the EPR to serve as it was originally intended--a tool for parents to see the growth their student is experiencing.

As the BOE liaison to the DAC, partnering in this role with my exemplary BOE colleague (and former DAC chairman) Kevin Larsen, I will work to keep the community updated on the happenings with the DAC.


Dr. Fagen, DCSD Superintendent, has an extremely thorough update on the Continuous Improvement of Teacher Effectiveness (CITE).  This program has been in development for several years and there is a wealth of information out there for those who would like to know more.  The District has a number of pages and videos of information available.

The update explains the most recent information and facts associated with CITE.  We've made it clear that standardized test scores are not what this system is about, and we are all better off for it.  We're looking at what really matters to us.  More on this as time goes on.

Scrambled Eggs and STARBASE

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast held by the Airman & Family Readiness Center at Buckley AFB.  The A&FRC invited superintendents, BOE members and other staff members from school districts across the metro area.  From DCSD, Dr. Chris Cutter, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education, and I both attended.

Various presenters discussed a number of programs designed to assist servicemen and women from all branches in their personal and professional lives.  Of particular interest to me is a youth program known as STARBASE. The leadership at A&FRC are working to bring a STARBASE program to the Denver metro area.  Local school districts could partner with Buckley to have interested children attend.   The program is entirely funded by the DoD and is at no cost to schools.

STARBASE is a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) oriented program.  The DoD recognizes that the United States will have substantial future needs in this area, and so it has chosen to create STARBASE to help motivate kids, especially those who are underrepresented or at-risk, to explore the STEM subject areas.  They work within the framework of national standards to provide hands-on experience using the unique resources available on military installations.  Servicemen and women can be positive role models for these kids, and also can benefit from such volunteerism.

Wright-Patterson AFB produced a video that describes their local STARBASE program.

I believe that if DCSD has the opportunity to partner with Buckley AFB on this effort next school year, we should inform parents and facilitate the choice to attend for those who may be interested.  I am enthusiastic about any opportunity that expands STEM exposure for our kids, especially no-cost opportunities!

In my various readings about STARBASE, I came across a few concerns about the idea that the DoD has involved itself in K-12 education.  As a huge proponent of local control, I can see why perhaps there might be some individuals who do not want their children to participate, for this and other reasons.    
Parents should always be informed and in control of decisions affecting their kids' educational direction.  From what I have seen, this partnership has many benefits and can be a very fulfilling choice for interested families.

(Full disclosure: although I attended the breakfast in my capacity as a BOE member, I am a DoD employee; I do not work at Buckley AFB.)


Students: The whole point

Earlier this evening, I found myself at one of my all-time favorite activities as a BOE Director.

I serve as the liaison to the Student Advisory Group (SAG), one of the Board's official committees.  The SAG is made up of juniors and seniors from each high school, and can be a two-year commitment for those who start as juniors.  Once a month, these high-performing students get together and talk about issues of concern to them and to our District.  The Board is extremely fortunate to have these young people on hand to advise us from a true student perspective.

The meeting took place in an elementary school library, which provided comic relief as the near-grown students tried to fold themselves into primary school chairs.  It worked, but not without much merriment as they noted the inability of some of their knees to fit under the tables.  The agenda included a presentation from Denny Ingram, principal of the new Douglas County Outdoor Education Center.  High school kids can satisfy part of their community service requirements working with younger kids at camp at the center.  The students were not only told about this opportunity, but were given the chance to provide feedback on how it could best meet their service hour needs.  It is great that it is not a novel concept in our District to ask our students what they think--and then to pay attention to the answer and figure out how to integrate it into offerings for them.

We also discussed heavy topics such as the budget and their perceptions of their new class schedules.  The feedback ran the gamut.  Our society likes to lament about how kids these days just don't pay attention.  Not so, if SAG students are any indication.  They have strong opinions about taxes for schools, a realistic view on the vagaries of fellow students having free periods, and keen insight into what is effective for them in the classroom--and what is not.

I was able to spend 15-odd minutes talking with them, gaining feedback, and listening to their ideas and concerns.  It suits me just fine to spend more time listening than talking.  They spend enough of their time listening to adults guide them through their young lives.  Is it perhaps a novel concept for them to have an adult ask them to guide us toward being effective at helping them?  I hope it becomes less of a novelty and more of something with which they feel confident, which is where I think we can all make true gains.

A Welcome

Welcome to my blog!  This is a place where I hope to pass on writings about everything from my philosophy on education, to matters of policy, to informational posts about happenings within the Douglas County School District.  It's easy to become entrenched in administrivia and to end up wishing that more time could be spent in conversation about things that really matter instead.  This will be my effort to have that conversation.

I welcome you along the path with me.  The journey is half the fun--and where the learning takes place.