Charter incubation as a strategy for improving the charter school sector

Today, Fordham-Ohio and CEE-Trust are co-releasing a policy brief on charter incubation, “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector.” In this post, Terry Ryan and Ethan Gray, vice-president of The Mind Trust and director of CEE-Trust, explain the potential of the model and the characteristics of successful charter incubators.

There
are a small but growing number of organizations across the country
dedicated to creating better schools and attracting more talent to
public education through a strategic process called “charter school
incubation.” Charter incubators are organizations that intentionally
build the supply of high-quality schools and charter management
organizations (CMOs) in cities or specific geographic regions by
recruiting, selecting, and training promising leaders, and supporting
those leaders as they launch new schools.

Groups leading this innovative effort include New Schools for New
Orleans, The Tennessee Charter School Incubator, Get Smart Schools in
Colorado, Charter School Partners in Minnesota, The Mind Trust’s Charter
School Incubator in Indianapolis, and 4.0 Schools in several
southeastern states.

These organizations are united in their belief that the development
of great charter schools can be accelerated through the recruitment,
selection, and development of talented school leaders and the support of
those leaders as they open and operate charter schools. Incubators are a
potential game-changer; by providing an up-front quality screen for new
leaders and intensive support on the ground, incubators are increasing
the likelihood that new schools will succeed.

Public Impact’s crackerjack researchers Joe Ableidinger and Julie Kowal explain in their new policy brief “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector
that incubators are an important tool to help meet the demands of
parents and students for more high quality schools of choice. There is
an estimated 420,000 students on charter school waiting lists. There are
hundreds of thousands more students stuck in failing schools without
quality options available to them.

Yet, despite this demand, high quality charters are growing too
slowly. Ableidinger and Kowal cite statistics from 2011-12 that show the
country’s top five Charter Management Organizations – Uncommon
Schools., KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot and Achievement First –
together serve just 61,000 pupils.

How to grow better schools faster? Ableidinger and Kowal build on the
emerging lessons from current city-based incubators to show that
successful charter incubators share five main characteristics:

  1. Selective screening for high-potential school leaders. Incubators
    place an emphasis on the recruitment and selection of top-talent,
    restricting their services to a small group vetted for strong leadership
    potential.
  2. Strategic focus on leadership development. Incubators identify and
    develop promising leaders or leadership teams and help them open and
    operate schools.
  3. Expertise in new starts. While some charter support organizations
    provide ongoing services to charter schools no matter their age,
    incubators primary focus is on recruiting and supporting new charter
    start-ups or new school leaders, including by providing financial
    resources to talented leaders to develop and build new schools.
  4. Public accountability for leaders’ success or failure. As a result
    of their intense, direct relationships with school leaders, incubators,
    their funders, and the public tend to judge their success by the
    performance of the schools incubated.
  5. A focus on a specific geographic region. Local ties help incubators
    provide powerful support to school leaders as they open and operate new
    schools. Local assistance can include access to funding, introductions
    to other local leaders, technical expertise (e.g. financial, academic or
    organizational), or direct support to allow and encourage things like a
    school planning year, intensive fellowship programs and training
    activities.

Ableidinger and Kowal also highlight strategies that federal, state
and local policymakers can implement to launch, strengthen and expand
the work of charter incubators. The authors note, “targeted funding and
changes to key policies can help incubators thrive in their target
cities or regions, boosting the supply of promising leaders who start
high-performing charter schools and ensuring that these leaders are
adequately supported as they open and operate their schools.”

Both CEE-Trust and the Fordham Institute are excited about the work
of incubators and believe this is an important reform strategy for
states and communities to learn more about. As “Better Choices
points out, the cost of incubation is far lower than the costs of other
reform options and slight compared to the social and economic costs of
continued school failure.

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