I am often asked by parents and teachers, “How do we start a charter school”? Although I have never started a charter school myself, I have observed a number of folks who have and here is my perspective on what it takes to successfully bring a new charter school to life.
There are two major components to starting a charter school. Those components are the mental aspects and the physical requirements. Both are equally important. The mental component begins with a single person and a vision – a vision for what a school should be, what students need to know and how they are to learn it. It is a vision of educating students differently to produce better results.
Going beyond academics, it is a mental picture of educating a student that often is about the development of a whole child. It is about ensuring a student learns to read and write and learns the skills they need to be a productive citizen. Dissatisfied with the education status quo, it is a vision about wanting to make the system better. It is about creating an educational community and a culture of educating students in a manner that encourages students to want to go to school rather than being required to do so. It is a vision of faith and hope that educating students should be, and can be, better.
Creating a charter school is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, effort, dedication and a passion for the vision. It is a process that takes months, and can even take years to bring the vision into reality. It takes relentless dedication to persevere through the hoops, hurdles and bureaucracy.
Passion is that deep-rooted, relentless faith and belief that the vision can be and will be accomplished. It is the urge to make it a reality and the dogged determination to do whatever it takes to create a new school. It is also the zeal and enthusiasm to get others engaged and to buy into that vision. The visionary engages people called “founders” who understand and support the vision, purpose and goals of the project and play an active role in the creation of the school.
Conveying the vision and passion to others is also a two part-process. After finding others to buy into the vision and develop that same passion, the second major component of starting a school is the physical component. The physical component of starting a school is the application process itself. It is transferring that vision and passion on to paper so that the readers, the application evaluators, see that vision and feel that passion. The application is bringing the school to life on paper within the physical structure set by the Public Education Department in the Charter School Application.
In essence, the application is a novel. It tells a story of what the school will be and how it will be different from other schools, and how the success of the school will be measured. The physical application is very lengthy and articulates the educational program, the governance structure and the fiscal plan for the schools. The vision and passion get transformed into the realities of the operational requirements beyond the teaching in the classroom. It details the evidence the founders are doing what they say they would do.
Starting a new charter school is not easy, and it should not be. A lot is at stake in terms of tax dollars and student time. It is imperative that it be done right the first time to ensure the school and the students are successful.
Bruce Hegwer, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, writes a monthly column for the Journal