Charter school restarts: Let’s give them a try

Harlem Day is one of the oldest charter schools in New York City—and, historically, one of its most troubled. It has had nine principals in the nine years since its founding in 2001, and fewer than 25 percent of its students could read and do math at grade level. This was a case study for closure, but the school’s founder, Ben Lambert, made news when he proposed something radical to his authorizer, the State University of New York: He would step aside and replace his entire governing board just to keep the school alive and give his students a chance at salvation.

This compelling account comes courtesy of Public Impact, which has held up Harlem Day and a few other similarly positioned charter schools as paragons of what it calls the charter school “restart.” The restart is an alternative to closure—an alternative that Daniela Doyle and Tim Field at Public Impact say in their new report ushers in new leadership at problem-plagued charter schools but still manages to serve the same students.

It’s a good concept to promote but one that’s tough to pull off. The reason why Lambert’s move made headlines is because his act of self-sacrifice is so rare. Bad schools manage to survive often because their leaders and their governing boards won’t let go and someone (an authorizer, a friendly power broker) has accommodated their failure.

Doyle and Field aren’t so Pollyannaish that they don’t see that; they concede that one of the most oft-cited reasons to keep a bad charter school open is because every other public school in its vicinity is worse. What they want out of a restart is for charter operators and board members of underperforming schools to realize what Lambert and Harlem Day came to see: that closure was, at some point, inevitable. To serve the students they care about, and to avoid the stigma of a shutdown, isn’t it better to get out of the way and let someone else do the job better?

It’s the stigma that could ultimately stick and that could put these recommendations from Public Impact into practice. How else do you encourage the boards of these troubled schools to initiate their own dismissal, as Doyle and Field suggest?

The board, however much it has failed, is closer to the school’s students than an authorizer and is better positioned to more quickly develop a transition to new governance and leadership—if for other no reason than to avoid the blot of a bad headline (Lambert won a favorable profile in the Wall Street Journal, no less, for his selfless act). Moreover, a restart minimizes the disruption to the students the board ostensibly cares about and, as Doyle and Field note, upholds the commitment to accountability at the heart of the charter school bargain.

There are caveats, however: A pipeline of skilled and talented principals and board members exists in places like New York, New Orleans, and other cities where charters enjoy a sizable share of the public school market, but that isn’t the case in cities such as Lansing, Michigan; Saint Petersburg, Florida; or any other mid- to large-size city where charters have gained a foothold but have energized neither educators and business executives with governing experience nor community members who care about the fate of the charter sector.

It is also hard enough, as Parker Baxter from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers notes, to start a new school from scratch. “It is an entirely different undertaking,” Baxter says, “to start a new school by taking responsibility for educating an entire population of students who have, in some cases for their entire school careers, been denied access to a quality education.”

But a restart is worth a shot in places where the conditions are right and where entrepreneurs are up for the challenge. “A new school operator and board can dramatically improve academic outcomes,” Doyle and Field write. “And when charter school boards are able to reflect on their struggles and proactively pursue a restart strategy, students get the opportunity to improve even more quickly.”

In its first year after hitting the reset button, students at Harlem Day (now known as Harlem Prep, because the Democracy Prep network took over the school in 2011) achieved the highest proficiency growth in reading and math in New York City. That data alone isn’t enough to justify the restart strategy, but it’s enough to keep trying it.

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