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District-Charter Collaborations on the Rise

Historic tensions are softening, allowing cooperation to take root, so long as funding doesn't become a distraction.
Kindergarteners at Synergy Charter Academy, which shares space with Quincy Jones Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, run on the shared playground. The schools also share best practices.

Synergy Charter Academy, which is one of three charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District operated by the husband-wife team of Meg and Randy Palisoc, spent its first six years (2004-2010) in a cramped church space in south LA. Equipment and supplies had to be packed up on a daily basis because the church needed to use the same space. The Palisocs, both former LAUSD teachers, opened the school there because they could not find another space in the heavily industrial community without incurring millions of dollars in environmental remediation costs.

Despite those facilities challenges, Synergy's more than 300 K5 students have generally scored in the top 10 percent on statewide tests in reading and math over the past seven years, in contrast with other LAUSD schools where achievement scores were significantly lower, generally in the bottom 30 percent, Meg Palisoc says. Synergy's mission is focused on eliminating the achievement gap, and its main goal is for students to meet or exceed the California content standards and be prepared to take college-preparatory classes in secondary school so that they can eventually attend the four-year university of their choice.

Meanwhile, when the district announced in 2009 that it would open up a new school, the Quincy Jones Elementary School, a block away in 2010, Synergy saw the opportunity for synergy. Palisoc went to LAUSD administrators and board members to see if her program could share space at the new school, share best practices with its teachers and administrators, and strengthen both schools on the same campus. Thanks partly to letters sent by and meetings held with Synergy's co-founders and other staff, LAUSD administrators knew about Synergy's test score successes, and LAUSD board members had visited the church space to observe Synergy's program in action and to see the challenges it faced in its cramped space. The administrators and board members agreed to the arrangement.

The arrangement required final approval from the superintendent of the local district, one of eight within LAUSD, as well as from the full LAUSD board. And Synergy now shares expenses, such as maintenance and operations, school police and property insurance. "It went really smoothly," Palisoc says. "We had gotten buy-in from the very beginning. That was key, to get the top leadership to want this to work."

Less Fear, More Trust

In the 15 years since charter schools first opened in the United States, fears that they would compete for public funds and drain away top students have kept attendance-area schools and districts from wanting to cooperate. At the same time, charter schools have feared the red tape that districts have to contend with.

An aversion to collaboration comes from misinformation that charters are out to "take all the money" from district schools and from a sense—sometimes legitimate—that charters are looking to present themselves as superior, says Janet Begin, co-founder and executive director of Hill View Montessori Charter Public School in Massachusetts. "It's all in your approach," she says. "Sometimes, charter schools come in saying, 'We're doing better,' and basically insulting the district or not acknowledging what challenges [districts] do have." Sometimes, she adds, money is in fact diverted from charter schools in the attendance area.

A classroom at Pentucket Lake Elementary School in the Haverhill Public Schools in Massachusetts. It's a traditional school classroom, but it can pass as a Montessori school classroom, thanks to charter school collaboration in the district.

District leaders' suspicions that charters are out to show up regular schools and prove they're better are giving way to a desire for mutual learning. "The relationship between charter schools and districts has been evolving over time," says Alex Medler, vice president of research and evaluation for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Referring to the greater acceptance charter schools now enjoy within districts, he adds, "Things that 20 years ago would have seemed like sacrilege and blasphemy are now accepted."

Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the National School Board Association's Center for Public Education, says collaborations thus far have been more likely to be around administrative services, such as shared facilities and food service contracting, rather than best practices in the classroom, although that's changing as the historic tensions are ratcheted down. "[Best practices] sharing is not going on to the extent anyone would want; however, that is improving," he says. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Education recently created a database of best practices where districts and charter schools can share information. "It's very important to get away from this debate about 'Are charters better than traditional schools?'" Hull adds.

Medler says the issue with food service is that districts often have a long-term relationship with vendors and have so much more clout and weight than charters for getting good deals in terms of price and food quality. Charter schools want to make sure their food service contracts are a good deal, Medler explains, and they don't want the initial charter approval process tied to those contracts.

Collaborations between charter schools and districts have thrived in cities like Chicago, Denver and New York, where strong mayors and strong superintendents have gotten behind them, says Peter Groff, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "It's going to continue to grow," he says. "Even the opponents will concede that charters are here to stay. Now that that's no longer the conversation, the question is 'How can we take some of the best of what charters are doing and give them to other public schools?'"

A teacher, above on right, works with eighthgrade physical science honors students at Terrace Community Middle School in the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools.

Funding Concerns

Hull of NSBA's Center for Public Education adds that when states directly fund charter schools without sacrificing dollars for public school districts, collaborations are much more likely. "The funding issue gets in the way of traditional public schools and charter schools coming together, when each of them is worried about the resources they're providing," Hull says.

The education programs funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have provided such an opportunity, says John Bray, communications associate with the National Charter School Resource Center, although he's quick to emphasize that the money involved is probably secondary. "I don't think it's mostly about money," he says. "Part of what the Gates effort is trying to emphasize is changing the tone of the conversation, so it isn't hostile but 'Where can we work together?'" In Massachusetts, until the past few years, collaborative efforts often occurred under the radar on a teacher-to-teacher or principal-to-principal basis, says Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. "You wouldn't see districts on the whole collaborating with charters, mainly for political reasons," he says. "Districts saw charters as a threat, in terms of reallocation of funds and because they're competing for the same kids. Instead of viewing us as partners, the initial view was that we were pirates."

Recent collaborative examples include the Match School in Boston, which houses AmeriCorps-affiliated teachers on its top floor who work in several Boston public schools in addition to the charter school, Slowey says. He also mentions a project among Prospect Hill Academy and public schools in Somerville, Mass., who have shared teachers to spread best teaching practices in the classroom. Hill View Montessori Charter Public School gained access to an empty building formerly used by Haverhill Public Schools and has collaborated with the district around busing, says Begin. Slight bus-route adjustments on the district's part to include an additional last stop at the charter school, and a scheduling adjustment on the charter school's part to start the day 30 minutes later, have enabled the charter students to ride buses with the Attendance-Area students. The total initial cost for adding busing for the charter students was $30,000, only 30 percent of what was projected prior to making the route adjustment.

The charter school staff also wanted to help the district's students as a whole learn the Montessori concept, because the hands-on materials and differentiated approach provide a unique and successful approach for teaching math concepts, Begin says. So through a one-year federal dissemination grant, Hill View bought Montessori materials for the district and provided training in Montessori methods for the principal at Pentucket Lake Elementary School, who wanted to improve student achievement in math and was willing to try the approach, as well as eight teachers from the school. The yearlong effort consisted of two three-hour formal training sessions, informal coaching and mentoring, and the production of a training video and handbooks on how to implement particular Montessori lessons.

"It's a process," Begin says of such collaborations. In this case, the effort began when a principal she knows referred her to the principal at Pentucket Lake. "It's about developing the relationships and spending the time and energy. It definitely takes time to do that. But compare that to districts that are fighting [against charter schools] and all the energy that goes into that."

Fifth graders at Learning Gate Community in Hillsborough reap the benefits of hard work in the school garden. The schools are among several charters for which the district set up a Charter School Advisory Council.

Success Stories

In Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, a district with 254 schools, the percentage of charters that have received an "A" grade from the state has risen to 67 percent in 2010 from 46 percent in 2008, in part thanks to streamlined access to district resources and information like student records. This streamlining frees up time and energy for instructional work, says Jenna Hodgens, supervisor of the district's 36 charter schools.

The district also has set up a Charter School Advisory Council, through which charter and district leaders meet monthly to address issues such as access to staff development resources and to the district's computer systems. Recent meetings have been more likely to address opportunities rather than problems, such as how charter schools will participate in the district's Race to the Top efforts. "It's easier to meet face-to-face once a month and be able to talk about what the issues are, or brainstorm how to fix something," Hodgens says. "When we started this collaboration four years ago, there were more issues. As we've worked together, there's been less and less on the table."

One resolved issue is over food service.  The charter schools in Hillsborough County were given the freedom to get their own service in response to complaints that district-provided services were too expensive and the food was not especially tasty. "They're able to work with outside catering companies, which provide—in their opinion— better food, plus they're able to work with them more on price," Hodgens says.

In Los Angeles, Palisoc says Synergy Charter Academy hasn't worked with Quincy Jones Elementary on the full range of issues it had expected to the first year, but she's hopeful they will expand their joint efforts in the coming school year to include greater teacher collaboration around curriculum and a busier schedule of classroom observations back and forth between the two schools. 

They did succeed in holding lunch and recess at the same time and providing organized physical education activities for students. Palisoc says this has provided exercise for those who normally sit around and talk during recess and reduced behavioral problems that students often brought back to the classroom.  They held several staff meetings together, including a year end wrap-up in grade-level teams where they talked about an array of areas in need of improvement. And they purchased the same literacy software and worked together on implementing it.

For 2011-2012, Synergy's middle school, also housed in a church space until now, has moved into a district building with two other middle schools, and Synergy has launched a new high school that is sharing space with two other high schools.  The middle and high school principals were hired last spring and have spent several months discussing roles and expectations for the schools, Palisoc says. 

Those sorts of meetings were not always so commonplace in Massachusetts, Slowey recalls, even in underperforming schools in urban areas. "The initial stages were almost 'Don't mention that we're doing this, don't let it percolate up the food chain to the superintendent level, or they might quash it.' It was almost done in secret," he says. Now, "because there's much more of an acceptance of charters as part of the solution, we're beginning to reach a critical mass in some of these districts.  They can't ignore us anymore."