Having spent the last few months visiting public charter schools and discussing growth, it is abundantly clear that the landscape is evolving. With over 100,000 students waiting to attend our public charter schools, networks and independents alike feel compelled to grow. Competition in places like Dallas and Houston between public charter schools and independent school districts (ISDs) continue to heat up, while jockeying for scarce resources, land, talent, and students is ever present between charters.
That being said, this blog is intended for our independent charters, especially those established in the early years of authorization.
In the first five years of authorization, when public charter schools were first opened, it was enough to simply be “an alternative” to the local school. Parents were likely so frustrated by local schools that any alternative was better than the status quo. Over the course of time, public charter schools enrolled more students, stabilized financially, witnessed academic gains, and then began to hear from parents who wanted more; robust athletics, fine arts including, music, dance, and theater, a slew of extra-curricular activities, and more recently, dual credit courses or additional Career and Technical Education offerings. Schools met the demands of the market and adjusted, perhaps applying for an increase in overall enrollment cap or generating surpluses to open a new wing. If this narrative resonates and you are thinking about growth, consider the following:
- Is your school truly that much different from the local ISD;
- Are your programs so much more innovative or are the approaches so different that your academic results are leaps and bounds above neighborhood schools;
- Do teachers receive superior professional development that sets them apart in the classroom;
- What offerings are truly unique and innovative vs. what is simply being copied;
- Is there fidelity to the mission, vision, and core values? Does that matter anymore? Should the mission and vision evolve to meet new challenges?
- Is your current operating paradigm sustainable, transferrable, operationalized, and replicable in another campus or context?
Obviously there are no right or wrong answers; rather, these are just some of the questions that organizations should grapple with as they think about expansion. While many charters want to grow, their approaches tend to be incomplete. Strategy must be valued above opportunity. Too often charter leaders indicate that they are growing because of availability of land or facilities nearby. Digging deeper, enrollment may be spotty, teacher turnover is high while morale is low, a leadership pipeline has not been established, and capacity has yet to be assessed. And these are just some of the factors that schools have not yet addressed.
Charters may have successfully expanded under these conditions five or ten years ago, but that is no longer the case. With an increasingly challenging (and changing) accountability system, intense pressure from ISDs, a shifting political environment, more charter competition, and very high bars for socially-focused dollars, charter superintendents and board members together must undergo the strategic planning process. Define (or redefine) who or what the organization is and is not; predict the future state of the organization and what it looks like; clearly establish goals, objectives, and priorities to get there. Codifying the strategic plan demonstrates a commitment of all parties and shows the way forward, even if there is transition within the organization.
As your school looks forward and considers the highly complicated task of growth, take a step back to reflect. Ask the hard questions to truly understand purpose before moving forward. As your Charter Support Organization, we are here to help guide you along the way. We are not afraid to ask tough questions, push thinking, and challenge assumptions. In fact, we look forward to engaging with you and helping you think about the next phase of your school’s life.