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How Are Charters and District Schools Working Together? In Many Ways

Cleveland

Single enrollment systems. Shared school buildings. Common accountability. Joint teacher-professional development.

A decade ago, these types of collaboration between charter schools and traditional district schools were extremely rare.More often, the two sectors were at war over funding, students, facilities, and more fundamentally, whether the charter movement would help shore up, or tear down, traditional public schools. 

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But the number of school districts and charter schools that are interested in actively working together is on the rise, according to Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which researches district-charter collaborations and provides technical assistance to districts and charter schools looking to work together.

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Doing so makes sense for charters, districts, students, families, and communities because that means better coordination and delivery of services and smarter use of public resources, Lake said this week at a convening of a group of charter and district leaders in Cleveland. 

"If these conversations weren't happening, charters will still be growing in these cities," Lake said. "If you don't have these conversations, then the growth that happens is really disruptive for everybody. It's not good for the charters, it's not good for the districts, and it's certainly not good for the families."

With grant support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, charter schools and traditional school districts in 23 cities have formalized district-charter collaboration compacts. The participants include districts and charters in big cities such as Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Ind., and in smaller cities such as Central Falls, R.I.; and Grand Prairie and Spring Branch in Texas.

Other districts and charters are also forging stronger working partnerships, without formal agreements. 

Some of those relationships are still tinged with residual mistrust from the last two decades of rivalry and competition, and politics can still put a damper on cooperation.

Facilities, where to locate schools, and whether charter schools should be required to enroll students in the middle of the school year and at certain grade levels are among the still unresolved issues. And in many cities, funding remains a perennial source of tension between the two sectors.

Opportunities remain to forge stronger bonds around special education services, community engagement, discipline policies, and personalized learning strategies, Lake said. 

Beyond Single-Enrollment Systems

Charter and district officials from 15 cities gathered in Cleveland this week to share examples of how they are working together, the challenges in bringing together individuals from different schooling systems, and the growing pains inherent in creating and sustaining those partnerships. The gathering was also an opportunity to learn from those district-charter partners who are further ahead.

Representatives from Uncommon Schools charter network presented on a collaborative effort with New York City public schools sharing Uncommon's in-house professional development with teachers in two of New York City's most challenging districts in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York. 

Janice Jackson, the chief education officer in Chicago's school system, and Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, discussed navigating the challenges—and necessary compromises—of district-charter collaboration in the city and how the two sectors worked to develop a common accountability framework. The framework allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools—district and charter—using common measures such as graduation rates and academic performance.

Participants broke into small groups to explore misconceptions about why district schools and charter networks might be hesitant to work together.

In one panel, Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland district, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, and Ahmed Young, the director of the office of education innovation in the mayor's office in Indianapolis, discussed the extent of charter school-district collaboration in their cities, the hurdles, and how they envisioned their school systems in five years.

The three districts operate in different contexts. Cleveland, for example, has a school board that's appointed by the mayor, and the charter school sector in Ohio is loosely regulated. The district, which for years lost students because of low achievement, is seeking to rebound with the Cleveland Plan, a school transformation plan that aims to put high-quality schools—district or charter—in every neighborhood. But Gordon said that while some charter operators are part of the district-charter compact, others take the view that it's a free market and are less willing to cooperate. That can lead to complications for the district, such as when a charter school opened near an existing district school that the district had pledged to the community that it would rebuild. While the district has built a common-enrollment system, it cannot force charter schools to participate.

But, Gordon said, the tide is slowly changing, and city partners, which includes the mayor's office and local businesses, know that the city's future rests on a successful school system.

"One of the cool things that's happening here in Cleveland, because of collaboration, is the conversation has shifted from district versus charter to good versus poor," Gordon said. "The more we work together, the more we are able to shift the community conversation away from that false dichotomy of district versus charter and actually start saying 'is this a good option or not?' "

In the District of Columbia, the district and charter schools have a deep working relationship and a history of collaborating, including on a common lottery system and equity reports, Pearson said.

A task force convened through the mayor's office and consisting of representatives from the charter and traditional public school sector work to smooth details on contentious issues such as facilities and mid-year enrollment.

Pearson said that despite a history of working together, however, the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser has been less willing than past administrations to make unused or underused DCPS buildings available to charter schools.

That's one of the areas that the joint task force is working on. Another area of focus is taking a neighborhood's needs into account and how to ensure that students who enter D.C.'s schools during the school year are distributed among all the schools and not just to traditional schools.

Pearson sees more room for collaboration, particularly around services for students with disabilities, teacher recruitment, expulsion, and transportation. He envisions that in the next five years, student achievement will continue to grow and that student enrollment in the two sectors combined would surpass 100,000 students.

But Pearson expressed concern that this period of comity may blunt the competitive edge that he says drove innovation and growth in both sectors in past years. 

"Sometimes, I wonder if it was actually the sharp-elbowed competition that was the drive for the real quality improvement," he said, "and whether this new phase is going to make us all feel a lot better, but whether we are not going to feel the same competitive intensity to keep improving."

That is something that Young also thinks about in Indianapolis, where the mayor's office is a charter school authorizer and the school district, which has embraced charters and autonomous schools as school improvement strategies, is not.

A close working relationship with the school system, state legislators, and the state charter school board is necessary to solve problems around facilities, funding, and building a talented education workforce for all schools, Young said.

"It's not the sharp-elbowed competition that was there during the zero-sum dynamic that we used to operate in, but there is a level of competition that I think is healthy," Young said. "That competition doesn't define who we are and how we operate as organizations. It's not an either-or proposition, and I think that's the healthy dynamic in which we are operating."

He hopes that in five years Indianapolis would have created a sustainable system and eliminated the stigma associated with public education in the city and with charter schools.  A robust community engagement strategy that includes not just allies but those who are leery about charter schools is a key part of ensuring continuity, he said. 

Figuring out how to convince the community that the policies being put into effect are in the best interest of the city's children and attracting and keeping talent are also hurdles partners are working to overcome, he said.

Will Collaboration Stifle Innovation?

An underlying concern for some in attendance was the extent of collaboration: Where do you draw the line?

Gordon said Ohio provided an example of what unfettered competition looked like and that collaboration has been essential to improving all public schools in his city.

"We know after 20 years that simply being competitors did not drive up the quality of education," Gordon said. "We had lots and lots of low-performing charter schools even as district schools continued to struggle. As we have begun collaborating and bringing together those of us who are really working hard to get it right, we have seen more kids in better seats —district and charter—and fewer kids in poor seats, both districts and charter. I don't have a fear, at least in my market, which is Cleveland in Ohio, that collaboration is going to disincentivize achievement. I actually think it is enabling achievement."

Tom Boasberg, the superintendent in Denver, which was named the nation's top school district for choice by the Brookings Institute in its 2016 Education Choice and Competition index, said that districts and charters need to strike the right balance.

"I think we are trying to figure out where that balance point is and how do we best get there—where we are both maximizing cooperation and collaboration across schools and at the same time encouraging schools to come up with new and different and better ways of doing things," he said.

"You can't say you have to choose [that] you're either going to collaborate or you're going to try to allow for innovation and differentiation," Boasberg said. "You have to do both, and you have to figure out [if] you are providing something that makes sense to families, that works for kids. I think it makes sense to have, for example, a common enrollment system. But for academic programs or teaching methods, I think you want to really encourage innovation at the school or at the network level."

Lake, from CRPE, said that she has heard concerns about co-option from both sectors. Others have complained that collaboration can take up a lot of time and energy.

Lake herself prefers the term "cooperation" to "collaboration." 

"It's smart to put boundaries on the collaboration so that you maintain a healthy level of competition and push each other," she said.  "And yet, the reality for both districts and charters is that they need each other. That's just not going to go away."

And it's fine for districts and charters to set up "rules of engagement" and know when to walk away, she said.

"Set some clear boundaries... and know at which point it's no longer going to be worth your time," she said. "It doesn't have to be about being nice to each other. It doesn't have to be about a long-term commitment to work together on everything. It can be very transactional, and it can be temporary if need be."

Photo: Paraprofessional Ivana Jakovljevic helps 8th grader Cristina Amaya, who is visually impaired, navigate the halls at STRIVE Prep-Federal, a charter school that partners with the Denver district to serve students with significant disabilities. --Nathan W. Armes for Education Week

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