This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2012 - With a new law in place that could lead to more charter schools across Missouri, the state association designed to help charters provide a quality education wants to make sure that everyone knows how to judge whether a school is making the grade.
But just because there's a new manual, that doesn’t mean the Missouri Charter Public School Association wants to see an explosion of new alternatives springing up all over the place, beyond St. Louis and Kansas City, where they have been allowed so far.
“What I hope we are looking for is very slow and measured growth,” Doug Thaman, executive director of the association, told the Beacon. “I don’t believe expansion needs to happen in any rapid-fire way. I think we will see some charter schools in other areas of the state, but I don’t expect to see growth like that in Ohio or California, where you had multiple schools opening every year. In Missouri, we are really focusing on quality.
“Too much growth at one time can make it hard to ensure that it is for the right reason. Opening a school just for the sake of opening it is the wrong reason. Opening a school because a community really needs choice or innovative options is the right reason. Five years from now, I project we will continue to have some really strong quality options in both Kansas City and St. Louis, and we will have added some new options. And some schools that have been struggling will have the opportunity to turn themselves around and move forward.”
To help those turnarounds occur, and perhaps prevent them from being needed in the first place, Thaman and a group working with the association has published “Quality Standards for Charter Schools.” It lists benchmarks in five separate areas that charters can use to check to see how well they are doing:
- Substantive academic performance, including high expectations, a challenging curriculum and support to help students learn in a nurturing environment that promotes achievement, character, responsibility and inclusion.
- Quality leadership that develops a school culture that promotes learning, uses a clear approach to meeting the goal of improved student performance and complies with all required laws and policies.
- Responsible governance that hires qualified school leadership, recruits a diverse and skilled governing board and monitors a school’s progress.
- Organizational financing and sustainability that ensures fiscal responsibility and keeps the public aware that money is being spent to further the school’s goals.
- Engaged parents and community, to guarantee that the school’s mission and vision grow out of the values of those members of the community with a stake in its success.
Thaman said the manual is the result of more than a year of work dedicated to helping schools and families identify what makes a charter successful, then providing the resources to achieve and maintain that level of success. After last year’s law expanded charters in Missouri, he said, the need for such a resource became evident.
“Listening to stakeholders and listening to legislators, we got the message loud and clear: Choice is important,” he said. “But it has to be choice that is meaningful. These need to be schools of quality.”
He puts that point of view this way in the introduction to the manual:
“Missouri’s charter school sector recognizes that they do not simply provide options; they must provide better options.”
With nearly 20,000 students already attending charter schools in Missouri, Thaman said, the group that put together the manual wanted to make sure it struck a balance between what schools should be striving for without being too specific in how they should get there.
“The goal is not to be prescriptive,” he said. “Charters can create programs that are in the best interest of their children and their families. But what we wanted to do was provide standards that need to be in place so schools would have something they are working toward.”
The most challenging part of the process, Thaman said, was defining a school’s culture.
“Ever school has a different culture and a different climate,” he said. “You don’t want every school to look alike because every child is different and every school is different.”
And, he added, the manual is meant to be a guide and a resource, not a report card.
“This is not an evaluation instrument,” he said. “Sponsors have the authority to evaluate the schools and to evaluate the schools’ movement toward their performance goals. We certainly hope that sponsors will use this as a resource as they are defining their evaluation methods and as they are working toward making improvements and establishing their performance goals and objectives.”