by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By Lauren Holcomb
Anyone who has been involved in opening a charter school knows that it is an extremely challenging process. An incredible amount of time and effort go into preparing the charter petition alone, from finding dedicated board members and choosing a curriculum, to locating a potential facility, preparing a sound budget and, ultimately, submitting and defending the petition to one or more authorizers. At the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia (SCSC), we tell our petitioners that as rigorous and difficult as the petitioning process is, the hard work really begins after the petition is approved. Those who have done it certainly know this is true.
Once the petition is approved, it’s time to put the paper plan into action. Research tells us that how well the plan is operationalized during the first two years of the initial charter term will likely determine the school’s long-term success. In a national study of charter schools, researchers noted a strong link between the ability of charter school leaders to “organize a school to be excellent on Day One” and the long-term academic success of the school (Peltason & Raymond, 2013). The SCSC’s commissioned study, Starting Strong: Best Practices in Start-Up Charter Schools further explains this, stating that “early excellence leads to continued high performance, and new charter schools with weak performance in their first year are likely to continue to struggle” (Cannata, Thomas & Thombre 2014). “Day One” is challenging for any charter school leader, and SCSC-approved State charter school leaders have a number of additional responsibilities because State charter schools also operate as school systems.
Because the SCSC commissioners and staff believe that a school’s early success is critical to their future success, we have prioritized the “onboarding” of new schools, developing a suite of supports and resources aimed at building the capacity and preparedness of founding board members and principals of new start-up charter schools. We call this our “onboarding program,” and it addresses three phases of the start-up charter cycle: the petitioner phase, the planning year phase, and the start-up phase. These supports are offered to schools free of charge, and participation is completely voluntary.
To support potential new schools in the petitioner phase, the SCSC offers two Petitioner Boot Camps annually. The Boot Camp assists petitioners in understanding the petition process and developing a successful charter petition, focusing on governance and oversight; academic programming and performance standards; school finance and resource allocation; staff recruitment and hiring; facilities; and LEA requirements, among others.
Once a petition is approved, the founding board enters into the “planning year” which is the ten-month period before the new school’s doors open to welcome students. Support during this phase is designed to assist school leaders in opening the school on schedule and in an organized fashion. Resources include a New School Orientation, strategic planning assistance in budgeting and operations, a Pre-Opening Checklist, SCSC Guidance Documents on state and federal requirements and laws, SCSC Research, and access to trainings and resources available to existing state charter schools.
During the start-up phase, or the first two years of the charter school’s first contract term, schools have access to supports that ensure newly operational schools establish policies, procedures, and practices that will enable both short-term and long-term success. Available resources in Years 1-2 include membership in the SCSC Principal Leaders Cohort Program, strategic planning consulting, a comprehensive reporting timeline, and access to a number of SCSC trainings throughout the year.
The SCSC recently approved seven new schools that plan to open in the fall of 2015, and they will be the first to receive the support of the onboarding program. These schools are diverse in terms of the geographical areas they serve, the grade levels they house, the student populations they enroll, and the income levels of the surrounding communities; however, they all face similar obstacles as they prepare to open their doors. It our hope that the SCSC’s onboarding program will help these schools reach their full potential, and thus enable each student they serve to do the same.
Lauren Holcomb is Director of Organizational and Resource Development for the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia, a state-level, independent charter school authorizer. The SCSC has the power to approve or deny petitions for state charter schools and renew, non-renew, or terminate state charter school contracts in accordance with Georgia law.
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency