In 1992, when the California legislature approved the establishment of 100 charter schools, many educators expected that long lines of staff and community members would be eagerly waiting to sign on by the legislation's effective date of January 1993. The deluge never happened. At first only a few schools sought charter status. But interest grew, and now California has almost 50 charters, with more in progress. But why has the movement been so slow? To answer this question, one needs to consider the fiscal and educational milieu in which schools have operated.
Mindless adherence to rules has been the norm in factory-model schools. Teachers who have wished to experiment with new models have often been hampered by pressure from local labor leaders, both teaching and non-teaching. Fears about seniority, tenure, and hiring rights have been the issues leaders focus on. In some cases, anonymous mailings threatening teachers who wish to pursue charters with loss of retirement benefits and other benefits have been enough to stop the development of a school.
In other cases, parents who fear the lack of external regulation have stymied charter development. But most often, it has been the inability to envision the possibilities that has proven the largest barrier to becoming a charter school. Only a few schools have been able to imagine that vision; yet the potential that exists within the charter movement is enormous. A charter school is an alternative, not only for students but for parents and staff as well.
Hallmarks of Charter Schools
To become a charter school in California, each school must address 13 points: educational design, outcomes, assessment methodology, governance, staffing qualifications, procedures to ensure health and safety, strategies to achieve racial and ethnic balance, admission requirements, retirement benefits, rights of employees to return to the regular district, procedures to conduct an annual financial and programmatic audit, procedures for pupil suspension and expulsion, and attendance alternatives for those who choose not to attend.
As schools identify their reasons for developing charters, most express frustration with the existing system. Many wish to change the hours and the ways credits are determined. Others wish to select their own instructional materials and supplies, and almost all desire autonomy in the hiring and firing process.
Charter schools often see significant fiscal savings in new staffing arrangements, especially when the credentialed teacher serves as a leader and coach managing a team of non-credentialed staff. Schools also find that they can reduce the adult-child ratio by hiring more non-credentialed adults at lower cost.
New uses for technology, including distance learning as a cost-saving strategy, are part of most charter efforts. For example, one school committed to teaching its students several languages uses distance technology to connect students with foreign language teachers located at other schools.
Finally, charter schools provide a public-sector alternative to the voucher proposals surfacing in many states. Charters give parents and staff choice without taking away substantial amounts of money from the public schools. In most charter schools, and in all of the ones in California, teachers may choose to stay or leave, and all parents are free to move their children in or out of a school. For students, the potential exists for more powerful learning because the educators are freed from the regulations that have thwarted their reform efforts in the past. So what are some schools doing with this newfound freedom?
Darnall—New Requirements for Teachers
Darnall E-Campus in the San Diego City Unified School District has completely redesigned its organization, governance, and fiscal practices. Responsible for employing its own staff, Darnall requires teachers to be committed to a developmental learning model and work as part of a team. Although they do not necessarily need to possess teaching credentials to be hired, teachers must maintain portfolios to document their performance at Darnall. The Darnall teachers hope to be sheltered from the district's staff reduction process, thus creating an oasis of stability that will enable the school to sustain its change efforts.
Organized in multi-age, developmental teams, students progress through Darnall based on performance and skill need. Instruction emphasizes thematic integration and active learning. Within the regular school day, teachers have ongoing planning time to refine their lessons and meet with colleagues. Darnall's development as a charter school was not clear sailing—union representatives informed the classified staff that they would no longer receive their benefits or seniority rights if they stayed with a charter school. The staff was not deterred.
For Jingletown Middle School in the Oakland Unified School District, becoming a charter school has also been challenging. Parents and some staff members at Lazear Elementary broke away from the district in order to create a special environment for the largely Latino middle grade students. The teachers wanting a charter were deeply concerned that their school district lacked a transition program that would sufficiently ensure that their Spanish-speaking students would learn English while maintaining their own language and learning about their culture. Despite strong district resistance, former Lazear principal Clementina Duron led the charge and last fall opened her charter school in some vacant rooms in a neighborhood church.
Unlike Darnall, Jingletown started from scratch, securing its own facilities, hiring staff, and negotiating legal and fiscal agreements. Jingletown is unique, not only as a school, but also as a very old and closely knit community within the urban confines of Oakland. Gang problems, drugs, and poverty plague the students and their families, so Duron wanted to create a haven within the community that would not only educate children but also would provide positive models.
The first significant change was to require all students to wear uniforms. As one student said, “Now, no one is wearing gang colors.” In addition, the school is organized into interdisciplinary teams with an emphasis on cooperative learning and real-life activities taking place in the community. A bilingual transition program enables students to continue learning all subjects using their native language while also learning English.
Jingletown staffing is also unique. Of the five full-time teachers, two hold credentials and were teachers in the Oakland system, while three have neither teaching experience nor credentials. Under an innovative partnership with a local university, the three non-credentialed teachers have been participating in student teaching seminars. The university will also place its teachers-in-training at Jingletown, thus significantly reducing the teacher-student ratio.
With funding another significant challenge, the principal has garnered corporate support to pay start-up costs, and the school opened as a nonprofit organization with a formal board of directors. Recently, however, governance struggles have hampered the school's efforts. Jingletown will continue to operate in the 1994–95 school year, but with significant staff turnover.
Jingletown's struggles have shown the need for advanced planning for schools that start from scratch. With adequate upfront time, Jingletown would have been able to carefully select and train staff and set up its fiscal and governance practices. Instead, it was forced to operate and organize at the same time.
San Carlos—Business Partnerships
Slated to open in the fall, San Carlos Elementary District is a K–12 school that is based in the business community but draws a diverse population from several neighboring cities. This school is the product of superintendent Don Shalvey and an active community base of leading citizens.
Because there is no high school in San Carlos, 53 percent of San Carlos children transfer to private high schools after completing the 8th grade. Shalvey hopes to alter that trend by establishing a school that will include joint ventures with community businesses. Plans include housing a student-run branch of the local bank in the school and working with city agencies to provide the school with before-and-after care as well as instructional programs.
Written into the charter school's design is another unique staffing arrangement: 40 students to 3 teachers (one professional educator and two “associates” with a differentiated pay scale). Finding the instructional staff has been a creative process. San Carlos has been holding “Grand Conversations,” much like jazz sessions, to bring interested educators together with the original charter designers. Through these informal dialogues, the charter planners will choose their “Founding Educators.”
Superintendent Shalvey views the charter school as a laboratory for innovative practices, freed from regulations. He believes that the district as a whole will learn from the charter school and the resulting knowledge will inform future practices throughout the San Carlos schools.
Where Charter Schools Are Going
Some charter schools are doing well, saving money on operations, and investing more in instruction. Others, like Jingletown, are struggling to survive. Still, interest remains high, and with the number of permissible California charters growing, private citizens and even businesses are attempting to open their own charter schools.
The success of the charter school movement will depend on the quality of education provided by the first pioneers and visionary leaders. It will require a covenant among all segments of the educational community—unions, boards, teachers, and administrators—to do the business of education in a new way, focused on the needs of children, not on the needs of old bureaucracies.
Linda Diamond is a Senior Analyst at BW Associates, a research and policy analysis company that is currently working to support charter school development in California. She can be reached at 819 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94710.