What Does it Mean to be an Independent Charter School?

This past week I had the opportunity to participate in the first ever Independent Charter School Symposium in New York City.  The symposium was sponsored by The Coalition of Community Charter Schools and The Center for Educational Innovation.  On Thursday I was a member of a panel discussion entitled “Getting Beyond Management and Labor”.  I shared with the audience the Northwest Passage High School organizational structure.  NWPHS has maintained from its inception a teacher majority school board, something that doesn’t often happen in schools outside of Minnesota charters, and provides teachers the control and direction of the school that professionals should be permitted.  NWPHS has also committed to being a Teacher Powered School.  Teacher Powered Schools strive for a “flattened” hierarchy where teachers run the school, not only making decisions such as what curriculum to use, but having a true say in the big decisions like staff hiring, budgets and school mission and vision.  

 

After the panel I had the pleasure of having lunch with one of my heroes in the progressive education movement Deborah Meier.  Deborah wrote one of the most influential books in my early development as an educator,  The Power of Their Ideas,  Deborah taught me about the value and power of student choice and voice in education. I think much of the design and success of NWPHS comes from Deborah’s design and commitment at Harlem East.

 

As great as day one was, day two was even better.  I had the unique opportunity to help craft the direction for independent charter schools for years to come.  The morning started with a conversation between some of the true pioneers of the charter school movement.  The panel shared the history behind the meeting on Gull Lake in 1987 that shaped the creation of charter schools.  Members of that original group included the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Sy Fliefel, director of alternative education for NYC’s Community School District 4, Ted Kolderie, Center for Policy Design and Education Evolving, Elaine Salinas, current President & CPO MIGIZI Communications, Joe Nathan, Director Center for School Change, and Ember Reichgott Junge, former Minnesota State Senator, and author of Minnesota’s 1991 first-in-the nation charter school law and the memoir Zero Chance of Passage.  Also at that meeting was John Merrow, PBS NewsHour Education Correspondent, who acted as the moderator.  On Friday John once again moderated a discussion with Ted, Elaine, Joe and Ember, drawing out the histories and stories from more than 25 years of charter school creation.

 

The panel was followed by a caucus style discussion between geographic regions to craft a resolution for the future direction of Independent Charter School in the United States.  After much discussion within regional groups and eventually with the entire constituency a manifesto and resolution was agreed upon.  The opening statement of the manifesto reads:

“We are united behind the original ideals of the charter school contract.  We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, peoples of all faiths, and the GLBTQ community.  We aspire to be great community schools of choice for the families we serve.”

The Manifesto also includes eight agreements for all independent charter schools to strive towards: 1) Equity; 2) Autonomy & Accountability; 3) Collaboration; 4) Diversity; 5) Innovation; 6) Respect for Teachers; 7) Governance & Community; and 8) Quality.

 

I had the distinct honor to cast the vote to approve the Charter School resolution for the state of Minnesota.  I stood up and proudly stated, “The great state of Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, and home of the nation’s very first charter school votes – YES.”  The final resolution reads:

“The students, their families, the educators (and indeed the entire country) need a national independent, democratically organized charter advocacy group to advocate for independently managed, financially transparent, community oriented public charter schools as articulated in our manifesto.”

 

The group, with representatives from 24 states, has a goal of nationally advocating for true independent charter schools outside of both the school districts and charter management organization chains.  I felt as though I was a part of history last Friday that will have long term positive impact on the future of the independent charter school movement.