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Charter-school group seeks legislative changes to ease replication, ensure accountability

Because the legislation would force the closure of failing charters and make it easier to hire teachers with nontraditional credentials, it’s guaranteed to be controversial.

Shannon Blankenship

You know what Shannon Blankenship hates about running a pair of odds-beating urban schools? Choosing next year’s entering classes at the two Hiawatha Academies, Minneapolis charter schools where he is executive director. He’d like to find a spot for everyone.

There are more applicants than seats, so admission is done by lottery, which is fair, and the law of the land for publicly funded charter schools. The losers, Blankenship knows all too well, are likely to end up in schools where a third or fewer will reach grade level.

“We’re trying to find a way to meet the demand,” he said. “I’ve never in the 11 years I’ve been doing this met a parent who didn’t care about their kids. I take promises to kids and parents very seriously.”

And he can’t promise more seats until he can promise the kids in them will have the same quality of education as his current student body.

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Right now, the original Hiawatha Academy and its newer sister, Adelante College Prep, serve 453 students in grades K-4 and 5-8, respectively. The student body is 96 percent impoverished and 98 percent minority; 76 percent are learning English.

Strong record of progress

Despite this, Hiawatha’s scholars, as they are called, do twice as well on state standardized tests as kids in neighboring schools and about as well as students statewide. That still doesn’t mean all kids are working at grade level, but so-called growth model tests show they get up to two years’ learning each year, which suggests the gap will continue to narrow.

Hiawatha Academy opened in 2007 and Adelante in 2011. Each has expanded by a grade a year as its students grow up. The plan is for Hiawatha to eventually operate five schools serving 2,500 students in all grades.

There’s reason to think Blankenship will realize his goal of seeing each and every one off to college. His dream of providing this kind of game-changing education to lots more kids is more uncertain. Despite Minnesota’s history as the birthplace of the charter movement, it’s still a very tough place to “scale-up” a successful school model.

Passage of the Quality Charter School Act, a bill being introduced this week at the Legislature, would help a lot. Still, because the legislation would force the closure of failing charters and make it easier to hire teachers with nontraditional credentials, it’s guaranteed to be controversial.

Authored by Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, the bill is the creation of Charter School Partners (CSP), a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the quality of Twin Cities schools. Many of the metro area’s odds-beating schools, those closing the achievement gap in underprivileged populations, are part of CSP’s network.

(Full disclosure: CSP employs Katie Barrett Kramer, who is the daughter-in-law of MinnPost’s Joel and Laurie 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.)

Aiming for easier replication

In addition to its call to shutter underperformers, “Charters 2.0” [PDF] contains a number of seemingly technical changes that would make it much easier to replicate successful schools. By way of example, Blankenship might consider inviting lawmakers on a field trip.

“When you have some initial results and you show you can close the gap, the first thing people ask is, ‘What’s the secret sauce?'” he said. It’s a hard question to answer, because the sauce has a long list of ingredients.

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“One of the biggest challenges is startup funds,” Blankenship explained. The 60-40 shift in state funding last year’s Legislature used to balance the budget is particularly burdensome for charters, which do not have access to the same low-interest sources of credit to tide them over.

Add to this the recent loss of both state and federal charter startup funding and it can be impossible for a new school, which has had no time to build up reserves, to get off the ground. It takes an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 over three years to launch a school like those in CSP’s network.

Charters 2.0 would have the Minnesota Department of Education grant $200,000 to new charters to offset costs during the “pre-operational” year. Once a school is open, it should be subject to no more than a 90/10 shift for its first three years. Those that exceed state growth or proficiency levels for two years running should also be funded according to a 90/10 formula, regardless of age.

“Fund what works,” explains Brian Sweeny, CSP’s director of external affairs.

The next barrier CSP would like the Legislature to address is teacher licensure. Money notwithstanding, Blankenship could expand a lot faster if he could hire from a bigger pool of teachers who have the skill-set he and other odds-beating school leaders have identified as crucial.

‘A human talent game’

“This is a human capital, human talent game,” he said. “There are people who grew up here and got licensed as teachers elsewhere who are wanting to come back and teach here and they can’t.”

Hiawatha fields frequent inquires from teachers who have several years of experience elsewhere, student test results that demonstrate their effectiveness, and often a master’s degree. Because the process for determining whether they will qualify for a license here is long and uncertain, Blankenship can’t promise them they won’t move here, start work and months later learn they need to undertake another degree.

It’s too hard a sell, he continued. “Not only are they working longer hours” — like other odds-beaters, Hiawatha students are in school 40 percent more time — “they’re coming back here from New York, California, Texas, and we’re asking them to go back to school?”

On top of the flexibility created by last year’s alternative certification law, CSP’s bill would give charters where at least half of students are impoverished the ability to hire teachers who are licensed in other states and those who have completed alternative licensure programs in other states and taught for at least two years in high-poverty schools. All candidates would have to pass Minnesota’s licensure exam.

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The bill would allow a charter operator such as Hiawatha to elect one board to oversee all of the schools operating on its charter or to operate with a parent-teacher advisory council in place of a board. Right now, a separate board must be drawn up for each school, even if they are part of a network.

Paying charter authorizers’ fees directly from a school’s allocation of state dollars would ensure that the overseers get their funding, allowing them to focus their efforts on schools’ performance.

A “blended-learning” provision would allow paraprofessionals and others working with a teacher of record to use online and digital learning technologies in the regular classroom. A topic deserving of much more in-depth exploration, this would give schools the ability to “differentiate” instruction in subjects like math for students who are working at different paces.

Would require yearly posting of assessment results

The Charter 2.0 provision that’s likely to spark the most protest is the requirement that every fall charters post results of all of their assessments, not just state-mandated tests, on their websites, broken down demographically. Ideally, this would include both proficiency — data showing the number of students working at grade level — and growth, much like what Hiawatha posts.

Those where fewer than 35 percent of students score proficient or don’t meet state growth averages for three consecutive years will automatically lose their charters. Schools with special-ed student populations of more than 50 percent and so-called credit recovery schools, where high-school students get a second chance at coursework they failed or didn’t complete the first time around, would be exempt.

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed an unprecedented charter oversight reform aimed at shuttering the lowest performing schools. The new law put the burden of holding schools accountable on their authorizers, the organizations providing their charters, and the burden of overseeing the authorizers on the state.

One result was supposed to be that schools that posted poor test results year after year would have a hard time finding authorizers, who would become much more selective. As the deadline for implementing the changes drew near, however, backers of schools that faced closure began lobbying for an extension, which they ultimately won.

Longtime charter sector leaders complained that the reform was a politicized step toward ensuring that all charter schools engaged in the same “kill-and-drill” instruction, resulting in good tests scores but not necessarily critical thinking or other skills. CSP and other reform proponents countered that they were “agnostic” about which instructional methods were used to close the gap, only that they be effective.

Ohio led, in 2006

If Charters 2.0 passes, Minnesota will not be the first state to mandate closing underperformers. Ohio has had such a law on the books since 2006, and New York City and Washington, D.C., have followed suit.

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Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, praised the proposed changes. The D.C.-based organization has authored model legislation [PDF] that looks a great deal like the local bill.

“It’s crucial to ensure to the greatest extent possible that the schools that are opened and stay open are of high quality,” said Ziebarth. “The bill takes pretty good steps in the direction of increasing the quality and the size of the charter sector in Minnesota.”

One of the original intents of the charter movement was to foster innovation, Ziebarth added. When large numbers of charters fail to perform as well as the failing mainline schools they were supposed to be an alternative to, it threatens the entire sector, he said.

“Not only are we undermining the charter school movement, we start looking like traditional schools that don’t perform and yet stay open year after year,” he said.

Part of Gates ‘compact’

What’s in all of this for the students who lose Hiawatha’s lottery and end up in struggling neighborhood schools? Plenty, CSP’s Sweeney and others note. The nonprofit, several of its highest performing schools and Minneapolis Public Schools are part of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded district-charter “compact.”

Rivals a decade ago, leaders of both sectors now are collaborating to replicate each others’ successful strategies. Students and teachers in Hiawatha’s neighboring schools may get a taste of its secret sauce.

In the meantime, Blankenship would like the ability to serve more kids — perhaps enough that he can do away with the lottery. By 2020, the year he will send his first high-school graduates to college, he would like to have 2,000 students.