With Number of Failing Schools Growing Nationally, Charter-led School Turnaround Movement Offers Hope

By Sajan George, CEO & Founder of Matchbook Learning

With the number of failing schools in the United States growing rapidly each year – some estimates indicating as many as 20,000 nationwide – our education system faces new and significant challenges. Even as states like New Jersey strive to develop new concepts, there is no national consensus on how to turn around these failing schools.

But there’s hope. A turnaround movement has begun to form among charter school operators. For the first time, leaders from all parts of this field – 134 charter management operators, authorizers, policy leaders and funders – gathered in Philadelphia for a two-day conference to discuss the challenges we face, share strategies, and seek to answer the question: “How do we catalyze a national charter-led school turnaround movement?” Matchbook Learning, which operates Merit Preparatory Academy out of Newark, NJ, was proud to be one of the organizers.

Through our round table discussions, we identified these as our top three issues:

  • Operator recruitment
  • Community engagement
  • Accountability

Recruiting operators to take on a turnaround is a challenge. Numerous barriers exist for charter management organizations to enter this space including access to human capital, lack of planning funds, political instability associated with brand new governance structures, the low quality of facilities and poor accountability systems.

Conversation from Charter School Turnaround Conference

Conversation from the first-ever conference on Charter School Turnarounds found operator recruitment, community engagement, and accountability among key challenges.

While numerous states are forming various types of “turnaround districts,” there’s not enough focus on the supply of CMOs, both prepared and ready to take on this challenge. Policy makers and authorizers should consider how to establish a timeline and resources to support a turnaround incubator to help develop local CMOs and other homegrown locally-based solutions.

Community engagement, another key issue identified by the conference, needs to begin before the CMO match is announced, and may be the most challenging aspect of school turnaround work. When done right, can go a long way to set the operator up for success. Conversely, it can be a big setback when not approached thoughtfully.

We agreed that CMOs must take the time to engage the entire community when communicating their vision for the future and incorporate community input into development of the plan. Supporters in the community should be mobilized to the fullest extent possible.

Operators should understand that in turnarounds, “community” means more than just the school community – it means the entire neighborhood. While family meetings at school are important, operators must go to where the community is – door-to-door, houses of worship, community centers – and engage as many community leaders as possible.

Then comes the issue of accountability. In the early years of turning around a failing school, a substantial foundation must be rebuilt in terms of culture, climate and capacity, along with decreasing the large educational deficits in students. Considering this, we felt strongly that achievement should be measured, at least initially, by growth rather than proficiency, with proficiency used more in later years to measure the impact of the intervention.

Without considering culture, climate, capacity, and growth, data comparisons between school turnarounds and other schools can result in misleading interpretations of performance and be a disincentive for CMOs to take on a turnaround school.

Other key issues we identified included enrollment, which typically drops in the first year of a turnaround, and thus affects the schools initial funding, and special education, where small CMOs may need to pool resources to be able to provide a full range of services. A full copy of the conference summary can be found here.

While we did not agree on every topic discussed, the conference summary highlights the areas of convergence between funders, policy makers, authorizers and operators regarding the improvement of operator recruitment, community engagement, and accountability, among other issues.

These are all areas on which policy makers at every level, including those here in New Jersey, should pay particular attention.

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