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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

How to Plan a Charter School

Lessons from the Community Involved Charter School, a grassroots effort in Jefferson County, Colorado, are instructive for others with an alternative school vision.

In January 1991, Arnie Langberg and I visited Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado, at the request of the Advisory Board to present a class on alternative education theory. As experienced practitioners of alternative education, we were invited to share information with parents who wanted to know more about the topic. At that time, Jeffco Open School, one of the most well known holistic alternative schools in the nation, entertained a waiting list of more than 1,100 students, and the district did not appear inclined to open another school.
As a result of our seminar, 12 parents, community members, teachers, and student educators formed a committee to create a new alternative school. Since that time, our discussions in one another's living rooms have led to a vision for the Community Involved Charter School to open on September 6, 1994. Through inventing this new school, made possible through Colorado's charter school law, we have learned valuable political and organizational lessons. These lessons come from the public alternatives school movement, as documented by Mary Anne Raywid of Hofstra University and from our own practical experiences.

1. Envision the School

In developing your school's mission and philosophy, take the necessary time for discussion and to reach consensus. In the visioning phase, be sure to include students, parents, community members, and educational practitioners. Those implementing the program will have more ownership if they have been involved from the beginning.

2. Define New Roles

At our school, we have clearly defined the roles of students, parents, teachers, and community members. As members of the Advisory Board, they will provide direction for the school.
Students will be involved in the governance of the school, actively learning about democracy through practice. After choosing to come to the school, they will continue to make decisions about what they will learn once they begin the program.
Teachers will be responsible for 18 students. Teachers as well as students will complete Personalized Learning Plans and will be held accountable by an Evaluation Committee composed of two students, two parents, and two staff members. This yearlong process will provide the teacher affirmations as well as feedback in areas of concern. The Evaluation Committee will make a recommendation to the Personnel Committee about further contracts.
Parents commit to the program in varying ways. For example, they may participate on the transportation, personnel, curriculum, or administrative steering committee. They may also volunteer to serve as sponsors or apprentices.

3. Decide How to Administer Your School

How will you manage your charter school? Will you experiment and flatten the hierarchy? Will you ask for waivers from state and district policies?
At the Community Involved Charter School, we decided, after much discussion, to designate one person, much like a lead teacher, to coordinate the many activities of the school, subject to the direction set forth by the Administrative Steering Committee. This person teaches, participates on committees, writes grants, and builds partnerships with recreation districts, local seniors, businesses, and job service centers.
Central office employees are a valuable resource for charter school efforts. It's important to build positive relations with district employees whenever possible. In order to experiment with new structures, you will need flexibility and cooperation from the district and the teachers union. In addition, experts in curriculum development, transportation, budget, food service, and facilities may lend insightful suggestions.

4. Decide on Specifics

Determine what your optimal size will be, and then plan to add to your program in phases. Our school will open in September 1994 with 500 K–12 students, and we will maintain this size, adding a preschool the second year. To build a sense of community, keep programs as small as possible, and allow students room for choices within the programs.
Your curriculum should be a distinct, themed program. Provide for personalized and collaborative learning opportunities, and give teachers adequate planning time. The theme for our first year will be Health/Whole Person Development, with a focus on five areas: intellectual, physical, aesthetic, social, and affective.

5. Gain Power in Numbers

Finally, use the charter school opportunity to think out of the box. For example, we are seeking partnerships with various resources, including a recreation district, a health clinic, senior citizens, businesses, job corps, and social service agencies. We intend to make use of already existing services as much as possible.
Seeking out creative partnerships will maximize your services. For example, speak with representatives from local parks and recreation departments to access facilities and services during their off-peak times instead of duplicating already existing opportunities.
Charter laws provide the leverage to initiate new programs and schools within districts that have not previously been taken seriously. Because of new charter school laws, innovative efforts are taking place in 11 states, and other states will soon have opportunities to act on their educational dreams. In Colorado, the 16 approved charter schools have formed the Colorado League of Charter Schools to support one another and to exchange information about planning and implementing our programs.
Join with other groups in your area that are also starting new programs or building upon existing ones. Small is beautiful, but there is power in numbers. Use one another for political power, for moral support, and to exchange ideas.

Mary Ellen Sweeney has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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