The Importance of Charter-District Collaboration

ByRichard Buery (op-ed)

Read the full article at Education Week >

This week’s guest blog features Rich Buery, KIPP’s chief of policy and public affairs. In this role, Rich leads efforts to grow the KIPP network and speaks for KIPP on policy issues. He previously served as deputy mayor in New York City under Bill de Blasio, where he led key initiatives like Pre-K for All. This week, Rich will write about KIPP’s work on higher education and other critical policy issues.

In the late 1980s, American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker pioneered the concept of public charter schools as laboratories of innovation for great teaching and learning. He envisioned an ecosystem in which charter school teachers tried out new ideas, and the broader public school system adopted those that were successful. Shanker’s theory of action was that students in all settings would win by being beneficiaries of the best pedagogical practices schools could offer.

Of course, things haven’t quite progressed as planned. The politics of public education in America have only grown more complex since the 1980s, and conflict between charter supporters and opponents has prevented us from realizing the benefits of Shanker’s vision. Even as charter schools have grown, deep collaboration between district-led schools and public charter schools is rare. The lost opportunity here is tragic.

I’ve had first-hand experience on both sides of the district-charter divide. Prior to joining KIPP, I served as Deputy Mayor of New York City, where I led several key educational initiatives in collaboration with the City’s Department of Education. And before my city government service, I was a board member at several leading New York City charter organizations and founded an innovative Bronx charter school, the Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School.

During my time in City Hall, New York City experienced some of the most rancorous conflict between supporters and opponents of charter schools. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to bridge those divides—looking for opportunities to collaborate, or at least to communicate. It wasn’t easy. Too often, advocates on both sides focused on areas of disagreement rather than areas of alignment. This level of enmity is not just unpleasant; it’s unproductive. When we tell those on the other side of an issue that they don’t care about children, it makes collaboration and knowledge sharing almost impossible.

I am convinced that the best way to change attitudes is to get people working together. The more people work together, the more they will see the benefits of shared efforts. And the more they experience those benefits, the more likely they will be to seek out new opportunities to collaborate, creating a virtuous cycle from which all children can benefit.

One of the initiatives I led for Mayor Bill de Blasio was Pre-K for All. For the first time, New York City offers free, full-day pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old, expanding enrollment from 19,000 to nearly 70,000 children in less than two years. With Pre-K for All, we created new opportunities for charters to offer pre-k, collaborated on professional development for early childhood educators, and developed a streamlined pre-k enrollment system for charter and district schools. We also created Schools Out NYC, providing free after-school programs for all New York City public middle school students—including those at charter schools. The truth is that with both initiatives, we faced significant challenges in our efforts to collaborate. But we did succeed in starting up two innovative, sustainable education programs that are now available to students and families in New York City’s public schools: both district and charter.

I also have observed public charter school networks take the lead in sharing. Since 2014, Uncommon Schools has partnered with the New York City Department of Education. “Uncommon Impact” has provided professional development for almost 1,000 NYCDOE teachers and school and district leaders. As the leaders at Uncommon have explained, “We act on our commitment to all of the students in our community by sharing the best practices we’ve seen work well in our schools and schools across the country. We have a lot to share, and also a lot to learn from our district colleagues.” Uncommon Schools has also launched similar partnerships with Newark Public Schools and the Camden City School District.

KIPP has engaged in this same type of collaboration as well. In July, we held the KIPP College Counseling Institute in San Antonio with three partner districts: NYCDOE, Newark Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and one charter network—Aspire Public Schools—to share what we have learned about providing college counselling for high school students. In particular, we shared our approach to college match, which I’ve written about in an earlier post on this blog. We know that students need to “match” to the college that’s right for them—financially, academically, emotionally, and socially. When they do so, they’re more likely to thrive and graduate on time.

It’s worth celebrating the leaders of our district partners who participated in the College Counselling Institute—NYC’s Richard Carranza, Newark’s Roger Leon, Miami-Dade’s Alberto Carvalho, and Aspire’s Mala Batra. These leaders are taking a huge step to support their students in making it to and through college, and to promote knowledge sharing across public charter and district schools. Participants have already gotten a great deal out of the collaboration. Kelly Williams, a college counselor at Newark Public Schools who attended the Institute, had this to say about the programing: “The hands-on work, the networking, the support that I received from those in the KIPP network, it just put it into perspective for me…We’re ready to put this in motion and this is really going to be life changing for our students in Newark Public Schools.”

Education writer Richard Whitmire, who also attended the Institute this past July, wrote an op-ed this week in USA Today where he celebrated charter and district educators coming together in the name of progress for students. Richard wrote, “Maybe this new collaboration is a sign that things are changing….It’s hard to overstate the significance of this development. Maybe there’s hope that we can worry a bit less about our future.”

To achieve Al Shanker’s vision of charter-district collaboration, we will all need to come together. Mayors, district superintendents, and charter leaders will need to collaborate visibly and authentically. Front-line K-12 educators will need to be open to sharing what they know, and to learning from their fellow educators—regardless of what kind of public school they work in. To think that any one type of school has a monopoly on solutions is deeply flawed. The problems of educational inequity are too big for anyone to tackle alone. We need to connect as leaders and educators to share the best of what we have learned, using it as a lever to change what may have seemed impossible in the past. If we can do so, I know we will build a better future in our classrooms, our cities, and our nation at large.

—Rich Buery