Voices of experience help charter-school board members

On November 30, the Fordham Foundation, in partnership with the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Ohio Department of Education, the Franklin County Education Service Center, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, sponsored a charter-school board governance training program for about 85 charter school board members, operators, and sponsors. (Materials from the event can be found here.) Following is a report on a panel discussion that stressed the importance of hiring good leaders and teachers and getting parents involved in schools.

Unfortunately, as we have come to learn (see the editorial above), calling a school a charter doesn't automatically mean it is a good school. That's a shock to many novice charter-school board members who think that just about anybody can govern schools better than traditional public school boards.

The key to success, according to veteran charter-school board members, is to find and keep "roll-up-your-sleeves" leaders and teachers who can manage a classroom well and really know their subject matter, said Luther Brown, board chair for the Phoenix Community Learning Center in Cincinnati. Brown was puzzled why the poor, black children attending his school weren't doing better when he first helped to open the Cincinnati school in 2001. Good leadership and teachers may seem a no-brainer but experience has taught Brown over the years that teachers and principals are not effective teachers and principals just because they say so.

"It comes down to finding high-quality teachers," said Richard Penry, a 40-year veteran of public education and a board member of the Alliance Community Schools in Dayton and Springfield. The lack of more progress at his charter schools was especially befuddling to Penry because he works with a high-quality board of trustees, the schools are run by the country's largest school management company--Edison, Inc., and the sponsor of the schools is the Fordham Foundation.

Panelists also noted the importance of reaching out and developing strong partnerships with parents. Sometimes parents must be coerced, said Patricia Hughes, who oversees charter schools for the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation in Columbus. Panelist Judy Hennessey, director of the Dayton Early College Academy, said parents must attend a minimum number of research presentations and teacher-parent conferences. The high school goes out its way to make it easy by having presentations and conferences after regular school hours to accommodate parents' schedules.

School principals also ought to consider setting up a parent volunteer room or corner and, if they have the money, hiring a parent liaison to work with parents, said Sally Perz, a partner in the charter-school consulting firm JVS Group. "In one school it worked so well, the chief parent complainer became the parent coordinator and the school's biggest booster," she said.

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