Charter schools, traditional public schools should be cooperating


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From the beginning, the charter school movement was touted as a proving ground for innovations that could eventually improve traditional public schools. But friction between the two types of schools in California has largely prevented that from happening.

Not in San Jose’s Franklin-McKinley School District, which last week reopened two low-performing elementary schools in the Seven Trees area. The district had help from nonprofits and corporations, but it also had a unique adviser: KIPP Bay Area Schools, which has eight charter schools, two in East San Jose, and is part of a national network of 141 charters educating disadvantaged kids.

Chief growth officer April Chou began talking with Franklin-McKinley Superintendent John Porter early last year about a new middle school, which is set to open in 2014. They also discussed how KIPP could help the district with its schools; both want to help all kids, not just those at the schools they run.

That began a partnership in which KIPP shared most everything, including its academic model and its methods for developing a strong culture in new schools. A KIPP executive even sat in on interviews for new principals. Though KIPP is open about how it operates and even has a training program specifically for public school principals, Chou said she’d never worked with a district to this extent.

“They’ve been such a successful model in the schools they’ve created,” said George Sanchez, president of the Franklin-McKinley school board. “We wanted to pick their brains and make sure we benefited from the research and the work they’ve done.”

Two weeks ago, Los Arboles Elementary reopened as Los Arboles Literacy and Technology Academy, serving transitional kindergartners though third-graders with a laserlike focus on ensuring every child reads before graduation — a critical predictor of academic success. A few blocks away, Daniel Lairon Elementary has turned in to Daniel Lairon College Preparatory Academy. Its fourth-through-eighth-graders will focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math — the so-called STEAM curriculum that makes so much sense in Silicon Valley. (We’re especially glad to see the arts added to what used to be STEM. Creativity is so important in tech fields.)

As district leaders developed plans, they visited similar Los Angeles KIPP schools. Curriculum was not the focus. Culture was.

“John wanted people on the Seven Trees team to see what a high-expectations school looked like,” Chou said. That’s generally regarded as the secret of KIPP’s success.

“It starts with the right leader,” Chou said, “and extends to making sure every single adult — whether it’s a teacher, counselor, food service worker, janitor — everyone truly believes the kids are fully capable and has extremely high expectations for them and what they have the potential to do.”

So, Los Arboles and Lairon got new principals. Teachers who didn’t buy into the model went to other schools, and the principals chose their replacements. Porter says the schools will use about half the KIPP model.

Two weeks in, the change is obvious: “When you walk on the campuses, there’s a different feeling,” Porter said. “There’s a common level of expectations.”

There is also reason to hope that this kind of collaboration, more common in other states, might be expanded.

Franklin-McKinley and the Alum Rock School District are working with charter operators and the nonprofit Innovate Public Schools to develop what’s called a district-charter compact. The Gates Foundation provides grants for this, addressing things like how the schools will work together on training and on developing common methods to measure how students perform.

We hope the spirit is contagious. Only when districts and charters routinely work together for the benefit of all students can the movement live up to its potential to lift public education.