Putting kids first, having robust communication, eliciting buy-in from stakeholders at every level, and establishing a strategic planning process are key to creating meaningful district-charter collaborations, said a panel of charter and district leaders who are involved in such a partnership.
The discussion took place on the last day of the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference.
Spring Branch ISD in Houston entered into a partnership—called SKY—with both YES Prep and KIPP charter schools this year in order to help boost college readiness and help more of their students graduate from 4-year colleges, said Mandele Davis, the project manager of the SKY partnership. The partnership affects two of the district's middle school campuses directly. The Northbrook Middle School now shares a building with YES Prep, and Landrum Middle School shares a building with KIPP Courage.
But sharing buildings is just one element of the partnership, the leaders said. The schools also share elective classes, athletic opportunities, transportation, professional development, and other resources.
"We knew that we needed to support students from high-poverty areas of the district," said Davis. "KIPP and YES Prep are very successful with the same demographic of student. That was the first thing we could learn from our charter partners."
The district also embraced the charter partners' systems of teacher progression from novice to advanced and a culture of high expectations, Davis mentioned.
The charter partners also gained many advantages by working closely with the district, said Ken Goeddeke, the head of schools for KIPP Houston. "When you're a much smaller organization and entity, a lot of times people have dual roles," he explained. But in the district, a much larger organization, "our thought partners have very specific deep knowledge on certain things that we could bounce ideas off of."
In addition to gaining benefits from district employees' knowledge, KIPP Courage was also able to tap into district resources to provide its students with a more robust array of elective classes, such as orchestra, that they would not have had access to in a typical KIPP environment, said Goeddeke.
Goeddeke also mentioned that KIPP was able to learn from YES Prep. "YES Prep has an amazing teacher development program," he said. "We were hoping that [through] this partnership ... we could learn best practices around their teacher development."
Ellen Winstead, the director of strategic initiatives for YES Prep, said she felt her organization could learn much from the technology provided by Spring Branch ISD, which far outpaced the types of technology currently used at a typical YES Prep school. "We have learned a ton in just one year about the benefits of putting technology in the students' hands," she said.
Establishing buy-in from the superintendent and the school board all the way through to parents, teachers, and students was essential to the success of the partnership, all the panelists emphasized many times.
But how was that culture established?
"We have to make sure that when we come to the table, it's all about the kids," said Davis. That sentiment—that decisions had to be made based on what's best for kids' education rather than what was in the best interest of adults—was repeated over and over throughout the session.
As the partnership continues, there are plans to create a similar partnership in a high school in Spring Branch ISD. Working committees are currently tackling what that partnership will look like, said Davis.
Although the first year of the partnership was well-received by teachers, students, and parents in the district, it took a lot of hard work to make it happen, said Goeddeke, from KIPP. "There was a lot of time we had to invest up front," he said. "But if you don't put the time in up front, you're going to have to put the time in at the back end, and it's not going to be as much fun."