How to Start a Charter School

After two decades of preparing young dancers for professional careers, Hannah Raiken-Schulman was ready to challenge herself with something new. She didn’t want to give up teaching dance. That, she loved. But after a long stint at Buffalo Academy for Visual & Performing Arts in Buffalo, New York, she was comfortable. Too comfortable.

“I felt it was time in my teaching career to make a move,” she says. “I needed to do more, so that when I looked back at my teaching career, I would have a sense that I really pushed myself to do more than one thing—to challenge myself professionally and artistically.” So five years ago, when Raiken-Schulman had the chance to join the founding team of Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, she took it. With her colleagues—specialists in early childhood and special education, an attorney and a parent activist—she spent a year developing a detailed vision for Tapestry, which would integrate academic subjects with the performing and visual arts, including dance.

“The reason I got involved is my passion for the arts,” Raiken-Schulman says. “In so many public schools, that’s what gets cut. To me, it’s one of the most important parts of a child’s education.”

For dance educators who dream big, starting a charter school is the ultimate way to expose a broad range of students to the performing arts. Much like running for elective office, writing a charter takes months or years of hard work—and there’s no guarantee that your school will become reality. But if it does, as it did for Raiken-Schulman, perhaps nothing is more rewarding than designing your own dance program in a school you built from scratch.

Understanding Charter Schools
For anyone who is even mildly interested in founding a charter school, the first thing to check is simple: Does your state allow the creation of charter schools? Ten states don’t have a charter-school law.

If your state does have a charter-school law, the next step is to get familiar with the details. The definition of a charter school is the same nationwide—it is an independent, publicly funded institution that must meet the academic goals stated in its charter or stand at risk of being shut down. Still, some important details vary from state to state. For example:
-Who approves charters in your state? It could be local school boards, state-level policy boards, universities or another entity.
-What is the length of charters in your state? Most states grant charters of three to five years, which must be renewed at the end of the term.
-What percentage of your school’s teaching staff must be licensed? Charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools, which only allow for a certain percentage of the faculty to work without a teaching license. In the case of a performing-arts charter school, that would allow you to hire professional dancers to work as instructors.

Navigating these details can be tricky, which is why it’s good to turn to one of the many national and state-level organizations that serve as consultants for people interested in starting charter schools. These organizations can also help you meet political challenges you may encounter from many groups, such as teachers unions, school administrators and, often, local school boards, who believe that charter schools drain money from the districts in which they are located. The experts from charter-school resource centers can also help you understand how long it will take to plan, write, submit and possibly revise your charter. The general answer is a year or longer.

Crafting a Vision
You’ve reviewed your state’s laws. You’ve consulted a charter-school resource center. You’ve gathered the materials you need. You’re willing to devote a year of long, arduous planning to make your visions of a school come true. You’ve decided that you have the stomach to handle any opposition that might come your way.

It’s time to start writing the charter. Well, almost time. First, you need to get a team in place—unless you’re an educator, accountant, real estate agent and lawyer all rolled up into one politically savvy person who operates without sleep.
The ideal founding team includes:
-An academic expert: Someone who is very well-versed in curricular standards for the core subjects of language arts, math, science and social studies, says Eric Premack, author of The Charter School Development Guide and co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, California.
-A businessperson: While flawed educational programs can be fixed, says education author Joanne Jacobs, bad business management can cause permanent damage. “If you have lousy financial planning,” she says, “you may not have a chance to recover from [weak educational ideas].”
-Community leaders: These are the people who help navigate the politics and also help raise money. Starting a charter isn’t cost-free. Conducting research, hiring consultants, buying materials and traveling for site visits all cost money. And if your charter school becomes a reality, you’ll want to raise money to expand your programs.
-A lawyer: You’ll need someone to explain charter-school legislation and answer other legal questions. Either you recruit a lawyer for your founding team, or you pay one. Simple choice, isn’t it?
-A real estate agent: One of the biggest challenges of forming a charter school is finding potential buildings that are affordable. Get someone who knows the local market.
-Parents: These are your potential customers. Jacobs, author of Our School, a book on charter schools, recommends getting their opinions: “Say, ‘Who are the parents who are going to send kids to our schools? Let’s bring them into the planning process.’”
-Local performers: For anyone starting a charter school with a focus on dance or performance, Jacobs suggests connecting with a local performing arts company. “Make them partners,” she says, pointing out that theater groups, for example, may have a facility that is available for the school’s use during the day. “Work with the existing arts community to make it happen.”

Making It Work
Among the sections to be included in a charter proposal are the school’s mission statement, proposed instructional program, assessment methods, financial structure, and staffing and facilities plans. That’s a lot of work, and it’s best divided among your founding team. In Tapestry’s case, each member of the team contributed to sections that pertained to their respective specialties. It took a long year of work. “There were times I was up until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Raiken-Schulman says, “but there was an end in sight. You had a deadline; you knew it was not going to last forever.”
Tapestry’s first charter application was turned down because the review panel, which was made up of The State University of New York’s Board of Trustees, wanted a clarification of the school’s academic plans. In response, the founding team sharpened its description of how the school would integrate arts programs, such as Raiken-Schulman’s dance classes, with rigorous academics. “You need to have a strong stomach and not give up,” she says of the process.

After a revision, the charter was approved. Four years later, Tapestry’s academic scores rank it among the most successful elementary schools in Buffalo. For Raiken-Schulman, however, positive feedback comes in less measurable ways, such as when parents tell her on Monday mornings, amazedly, that their son or daughter was leading the dance floor at a family function that weekend. “I feel like what I’m doing is planting the seeds of creativity,” she says, “and I love that. They can go through life feeling that everybody dances.” DT


Tim O’Shei is the author of 24 books. He is at work on a book for teens who want to break into the entertainment business.

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