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Incubator strategy aims for across-the-board charter excellence

In the two decades since Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter-school law, thousands of the privately operated, publicly funded schools have sprouted up all over the country. Originally conceived both as alternatives to lackluster mainline schools and as laboratories for innovation, charters’ record has been decidedly mixed.

The majority has failed to outperform traditional public schools but, particularly in recent years, a few have pulled off miracles. A small but growing number are graduating most of their disenfranchised, low-income students. Some send all to college.

How then, to get the majority to be more like the exceptions? Here again, Minnesota may turn out to be ahead of the curve.

Last week, the Minneapolis-based Charter School Partners (CSP) received national attention for being one of a handul of organizations succeeding in replicating winning charter formulas via a strategy known as incubation.

(Full disclosure: CSP employs Katie Barrett Kramer, who is the daughter-in-law of MinnPost’s Joel Kramer. I have never met Barrett Kramer or heard Joel talk about her work or CSP’s. Other individuals from the organization contacted me independently a couple of years ago to talk about their work. I learned of the Kramer connection via the group’s website some time later.)

Success in CSP network
Most of the schools that turn up on the annual lists of Twin Cities schools that post impressive test results despite serving impoverished, disadvantaged populations belong to CSP’s network of charters. Each reflects the philosophies and approaches of its founders, and all employ a number of winning strategies.

Indeed, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently agreed to fund a novel effort in which CSP and other education advocacy groups and Minneapolis Public Schools have joined forces to identify practices that can be “scaled up” for use in mainline public schools.

Last Wednesday, in the wake of the release of a report entitled “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector,” [PDF] CSP Executive Director Al Fan took part in a forum at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank.

Al Fan
Al Fan

Minnesota, Fan explained to an audience that included advocates tuning in by webcast, has “a good system of [school] choice. But we need to convert it to a system of good choices.”

The CEE-Trust
Fan shared the podium with leaders from several similar organizations, all of which belong to a national, education reform network called Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust). CSP recently joined the group, which includes similar organizations serving Colorado, New Orleans, Tennessee and other areas.

The creation of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Mind Trust, it is a network is composed of 18 city-based nonprofits, foundations and mayors’ offices “committed to promoting entrepreneurial education solutions to some of the country’s toughest education challenges.”

What that looks like on the ground varies by locale, but the idea remains the same: To have one place where efforts to drive improvement, identify successful practices, recruit and train top talent and help those new educational leaders create odds-beating programs.

The goal is to rapidly increase the charter sector’s capacity to create and sustain schools that can make a dramatic impact on the achievement gap, while encouraging policies that shutter persistent underperformers — something that’s not likely to happen without a formal, coordinated effort.

“Without intentional strategies for improving charter leadership pipelines and supporting new leaders as they open schools, charter growth will remain haphazard, and the quality of the charter sector will likely remain mixed at best,” noted the Fordham report released last week.

Which is bad news for the nearly half a million kids on waiting lists for charter seats around the country, and bad news for the overall goal of chartering in the first place.

Equipping new charters
As envisioned by CEE-Trust members, a deliberate incubator strategy will reduce the risk that new charters will fail, academically or organizationally, increases the odds that they will start with educational practices that are already working in their home communities and will rely on a funding stream that enables stability.

According to the Fordham report, incubation is a bargain compared to other education reform strategies. “Total costs of incubation for established and emerging incubators range from $200,000-$500,000 per school,” researchers reported.

“By contrast, although evidence from outside education suggests that turnarounds need not always be resource-intensive endeavors, grants to low-performing schools under the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program are up to $6 million for one school over three years, with the average total grant of $2.59 million per school in 2010.”

Incubators provide salaries for the school leaders they recruit and a range of supports as they make the transition from teacher or administrator to school founder.

Starts with a leader fellowship
In Washington last week, CSP’s Fan described his organization’s approach, a two-year school leader fellowship. Early on, fellows draft the business plans that will eventually turn into their charter applications.

Once a governance structure and charter are in place, they focus on curriculum and instruction and how the school will operate. Their charters, presumably high-quality right out of the gate, then become CSP “Partner Schools,” where future CSP fellows will learn the ropes.

The first year, CSP provides a stipend for fellows; by their second year, they are expected to replace it with start-up funding.

CSP’s first three fellows began the process last May. If everything goes as planned, they will launch 10-15 schools in the next five years. All will share some of the traits that distinguish CSP’s current member schools, which include Harvest Prep/Seed Academy, Hiawatha Leadership Academy and Lighthouse Academy of Nations in Minneapolis, and Concordia Creative Learning Academy and the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts in St. Paul.

If the approach sounds as cookie-cutter as the worst of the mainline schools charters were supposed to be an alternative to, it doesn’t, Fan told Fordham’s audience. “We’re not trying to stifle innovation, but we are trying to put the emphasis on quality.”

Last year, Minneapolis’ 40 charters served 18 percent of the community’s students. “But it doesn’t matter what the market share is if we’re not delivering high-quality alternatives,” Fan said. “We need to transition to a market that supports both quality and choice.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/12/2011 - 06:04 pm.

    “But it doesn’t matter what the market share is if we’re not delivering high-quality alternatives…”

    True, but how is “quality” being determined? If it’s by the same sort of high-stakes “objective” tests that are routinely used throughout the country, I’ll remain skeptical about the efficacy of the charter model as it’s currently implemented, just as I’m skeptical of any measurement of “quality” in which the students who take the tests have no stake whatsoever in the outcome. That’s especially true when “traditional” schools are being starved for funding in Minnesota while teacher-bashing continues to be a widely-practiced recreational pursuit.

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