Top 12 school startup lessons, part 1

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Tina Long, Dennis Tiede, and Ben Lindquist

Over the last twenty-six years, a growing number of entrepreneurial educators have begun reinventing public education by starting thousands of public charter schools. These new schools have helped school districts nationwide—who authorize four out of every five charter schools—build the capacity to serve the most heterogeneous cross-section of learners in the world. As the school-age population continues to diversify in rural, suburban, and urban communities alike, more excellent public education options are badly needed. What will it take to create these distinctive, high quality options? 

Combined, the three of us have started ten new public charter schools in three regions of the country— the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and the Mid-South. These schools have been authorized by such public agencies as the Reynolds School District in East Portland, the Chicago Board of Education, and the Arkansas State Board of Education. At least seven of the ten schools have opened in the highest poverty neighborhoods in their respective metropolitan areas. Through our experiences, we have learned—sometimes the hard way—how best to engineer a strong school startup.

Here are six of the twelve school startup lessons that we agree are key to success (click here to read the other six):

1. Community standing. The startup team must have significant, positive standing in the target community. It is possible for experienced managers from other communities to make important contributions to a startup effort, but at least one central member of the founding team must have an exceptional reputation and sphere of relationships in the community where the school will open. Without such leadership, the school may struggle to attract families, command the influence of key decision-makers, and navigate local political, social, and cultural dynamics. At the same time, a startup initiative that relies exclusively on local leaders may struggle to bring the depth of expertise, specialized knowledge, and robust support necessary to open a great public charter school.

2. The “who” before the “what.” A charter school is a regulated public school, resource-constrained business, and school district combined into one operating entity. As such, team members must be able to handle finance, compliance, governance, human resources, fundraising, authorizer relations, facilities, procurement, and other key non-academic functions. The team must be well rounded with varying skills sets, taking responsibility within their own domain areas, yet mission aligned and working together towards a clear shared organizational vision.

Right now, authorizers tend to vet charter applications with a heavy emphasis on whether all of the necessary plans are in place. They rely heavily on words—the “what”—and don’t pay enough attention to the leadership team’s pattern of actions—the “who.” The best charter application on earth provides little assurance that the founding team has the dedication, resilience, and capacity to engineer a strong startup. Authorizers should consider which team members live locally and are involved in the startup day-to-day, and which team members live remotely. They should learn about the team’s advisors, technical assistance partners, financial contributors, community advocates, founding board members, and other key allies.

3. Academic expertise matters more than academic design. A school can have a well-conceived, strong, coherent academic design, but without an experienced site leader with a deep-held commitment to the design who knows how to properly implement it, the strength of the design doesn’t matter. You can’t hire a principal without command of Core Knowledge to start a Core Knowledge school. A director cannot start a strong Montessori school without being a master Montessori educator. A director without deep Direct Instruction experience cannot start a strong DI school. The principal of a startup Expeditionary Learning school must possess deep, direct experience implementing the Expeditionary Learning model. Yet such specialized academic leaders with the breadth and range of practitioner experience are in very short supply, so far too many charter schools have opened with the wrong academic leader at the helm.

4. Intentional plan to invest in your team. People join a startup with varying beliefs, backgrounds and experiences. These differences can lead to major setbacks if every team member is not operating from the same playbook. A major investment must be made in structured professional development to create clarity and alignment around desired outcomes as well as the student and teacher behaviors required to obtain those outcomes. Given all of the startup demands, it can be tempting to cut short the team building and training that happens before opening, but there is no more important investment in success. Explicit methods must be utilized to communicate, model, role-play, observe, monitor, and re-communicate desired norms and practices. Every member of a startup school, from the office manager to the principal, is a co-founder who must be able to promote and live the school’s mission and vision. There must be a high value on equipping the team to be ambassadors for the school’s mission, core beliefs, chosen practices, and desired educational outcomes.

5. You cannot start strong without a rigorous school performance agenda. Founding leadership must have a strong agenda for defining, measuring, and achieving performance. From the get-go, every school should utilize a performance dashboard to examine its performance on leading indicators of student engagement, behavior, achievement, and learning. The dashboard enables the school to aggressively track and improve its performance relative to such indicators as student attendance, timeliness and retention; minor and major behavior infractions; quarterly achievement gains relative to state standards; and student homework completion and classroom participation. A good dashboard provides a relatively simple but visually meaningful instrument for tracking trends and making data-driven decisions that drive focused implementation and continuous improvement.   

6. Enrollment cannot be a guessing game. If you have put forth the necessary effort to canvass neighborhoods, meet with families, collect enrollment forms, and hold orientation events, there should be no question about whether enough students will materialize. With that being said, the best rule of thumb is to enroll 15 percent more students than necessary to make the budget work. In today’s increasingly competitive choice environment, a growing number of families enroll their children in more than one school, watch to see if waiting lists for their top pick will yield an opening, and make final decisions on enrollment several weeks into each academic year.

In part two of this series, we will describe six more lessons learned for starting a successful public charter school. Over the past two decades, we had to learn these lessons through trial and error, so we are hoping to save our fellow education entrepreneurs the hardship of learning these valuable lessons for the first time.

Tina Long is superintendent of three schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dennis Tiede is chief operating officer of Exalt Education, a non-profit network of public charter schools. Ben Lindquist is president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.