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An Inside View in the Development of an Independent Prospective Charter School: The Development of the �Idea�

By Lisa DiGaudio

New Dawn Charter High School, Founding Member

Someone passed a comment to me the other day when I was talking about the possibility of opening up a charter school, “Oh, YOU can try to open a school, but getting things changed within our school district is IMPOSSIBLE!” I didn’t know whether to be angry or flattered, but either way, I was slightly annoyed. Just the IDEA of opening a charter school is NOT EASY. It takes up, physically and emotionally, all of your time. 

I liken the process of opening a charter school to being a crab fisherman in Alaska, NOT EVERYONE CAN DO IT (Deadliest Catch, Discovery Channel).  The process in New York begins often YEARS before you actually even submit a letter of intent to the State Education Department (SED). The applicants who had final interviews with SED in June 2011 will not be notified formally of their application status until September 2011. For many, the long hours of work and dedication could come to an end, resulting in revisions and another round of submissions with the next pool for 2012. For those who are approved, the pace to open the school in September of 2012 is mixed with construction, budgeting, ordering and recruiting. You must have dedication, passion, capacity and strength to submit an application and see it through successfully. You have to have the courage to defend your beliefs to the public and demonstrate why you and your group can and will make a difference for children.  So now it’s my turn to wait with baited breath for September, fingers crossed for good news.  It is my hope that through this blog, I can share my experience, and my learning curve in charter school development.

How it all began...

I knew that I had always wanted to open my own school, and some of my friends and I had gotten together to start sketching out a plan to get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, at that time, there was still a cap on the number of schools allowed to be chartered in our state. I had met with several people who I felt were instrumental in helping charters get passed by SED, and I was told in no uncertain terms that the road is a long hard one.  Essentially we needed at least two million dollars in cash to get a charter off the ground, and that was before opening the doors to prospective children!  With this sobering news, it seemed as if our dreams of opening a school were going to be tabled while we figured out building space and funding options.

Fast forward one year...

I found myself sitting with our lead applicant Sara Asmussen, who was speaking the same language.  I met Sara in 2007 when I became a data coordinator for my school as part of the Federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) project called the Partnership for Innovation in Compensation for Charter Schools (PICCS). Student growth and teacher effectiveness became the cornerstone to the activities of the data coordinator group, as we were responsible to a large degree in guiding our schools’ development of Performance Based Incentives under the TIF program.  After meetings, we would often go for coffee and continue our conversations about student growth and programs of note that were making a difference. We both wanted to open a school that made a true difference for disenfranchised students. Often over aged and under credited students are forgotten in the mix of accountability and school performance, leaving them with a failed record and no options to graduate.

It was clear to both of us that this was the group of students we would want to work with. Sara and the prospective Board of Trustees President, Ron Tabano, have extensive experience working with this group and for several years I taught the evening program at a Long Island high school with this same cohort. We knew we could build a very strong academic program that could offer options and hope to these students.

The next step...

We had to start thinking about our “looks like, sounds like” ideas. What do these students need? They need real world, tangible solutions to many of the problems they face, the problems that keep them out of school to begin with. That meant developing a program that offered them options when they were finished with high school, such as trade work, college credits, and experience. They would need medical services to deal with psycho-emotional issues, along with physical issues. Often these go overlooked in poor neighborhoods.

The generation of these ideas was not a snap judgment that was made over a cup of coffee.  It took months of reading research on the elements we came up with. It meant talking through issues that would come from implementing these programs. It meant looking at models that were similar and WORKED WELL. It meant researching curriculum, looking at texts, and understanding the implications of Common Core on this cohort of kids. This was extensive work, which took months to sort through, piece by piece.  I didn’t even cover talking out the issues within our group--agreeing to disagree, working through differences of opinion,  and then finally getting a unified idea on paper in the form of our prospectus.

So the response to my friend who passed the comment about getting a charter is easy work? It was a resounding, “NO!”  Intense scrutiny, research, school visits, and dedication of time and money are all necessary elements. It is all consuming, and all encompassing. And worth every minute.

Next week: Researching best practices and the action plan


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