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Last week I hosted an OPEN MINDS web briefing titled, Creating, Launching & Growing A Charter School: The Lena Pope Home, Inc. Case Study. Chief Executive Officer, Todd Landry, of Lena Pope Home was our presenter and did a fantastic job in helping us to understand the mechanics of starting and implementing a charter school. For those of you that could not attend this 90-minute event, I thought that you would find it interesting to hear a summary of what was presented. In addition to this summary you can download the entire web briefing complete with audio at https://www.openminds.com/market-intelligence/resources/growing-a-charter-school-recording/.

Background on the Charter School Movement

I began the web briefing with an introduction of charter schools and talked about charter schools as a distinct legal entity. Charter schools are public schools financed by public funds that are governed by their own specific charter and not by the regular public school regulations. The charter school movement became popular in the 1960’s, but it was not until 1991 that Minnesota passed the first legislative approval of this type of school in our nation. By 1995, nineteen other states passed similar legislation. By 2015, charter school legislation grew to 42 states with approximately 6,700 students involved in this type of educational programming.

Charter schools are a unique form of education. Their proponents believe that almost total independence from the constraints of regular public schools is required for success. They believe that improved learning will occur when students are provided with a choice in the educational approach offered.

There is no one “typical” charter school model. Many charter schools serve mainstream populations with a distinct academic approach, while others may be specialized by programmatic focus or students served, such as: student populations with specific disabilities, those who are categorized as “gifted,“ or prior drop-outs. Charter schools have been at the forefront of serving disadvantaged and other special-needs populations since the movement began.

Charter schools are found in all geographic locations, and some are even available online. Since charters are considered public schools, they are funded by allocations set aside for education; however, it is common for charter schools to receive less funding than the traditional public school. Charter schools often supplement their educational revenue through fundraising activities.

Charter schools are held accountable for specific standards and must produce educational outcomes to continue to exist. Charter schools must be non-discriminatory in admissions, serve all students including those with disabilities, and partake in their state’s required testing and accountability systems. The most common model of charter school board governance might be thought of as a combination between school district boards of education (without local elections) and non-profit boards (though not generally private).

Outcomes for educational achievement are often measured in math and reading with some charter schools measuring improvement in student behavior. Research results on charter outcomes revealed that charter schools help low income students reach higher test results in both math and reading than students in public schools. However, there is little evidence that behavior is improved in a charter school setting. After a review of research, it is important to note that more studies are required to more confidently assert that children in charter schools achieve higher scores in math and reading than their counterparts in the traditional public schools.

Charter schools face many challenges in their industry including: the need for additional public school funding, better community fundraising to help in the purchase of facilities, the need for recruitment/retention of adequate teaching staff, political questions with the quality of charter schools, threats of unionization, and the lack of timely closures of charter schools that are not meeting standards thus marring the reputation of the charter school movement.

Lena Pope Case Study

Now that a foundation of information on charter schools was laid, Todd Landry launched into a specific discussion of how Lena Pope Home changed from a Texas non-profit dedicated to residential treatment for emotionally troubled youth to a program focusing on early childhood education and the provision of charter school programming.

He explained that his Board of Directors and leadership staff were engaged in a multi-year discussion on the benefits of working with youth at earlier ages and the need for specialized education to meet their needs. After much research and exploration, Lena Pope Home became convinced that better outcomes could be achieved with prevention/early intervention programming. He also mentioned that counties in Texas began investing in early intervention to reduce out-of-home and detention placements, particularly for juvenile offenders. And lastly, their own experience in working with lower levels of services revealed better results when the children were younger.

Todd shared the history of the charter school movement in the state of Texas, and we learned that legislation authorizing charters began in 1995. Charter schools receive state funds based on the “average daily attendance” of students which is the same as traditional public schools. The maximum number of charter schools is also dictated by legislation; in Texas, 255 charters in 2016 were authorized to exist. We also learned that Texas charter schools grew quickly between 2001-2009; but in 2010, Texas began a more aggressive stance toward closing low performing charter schools and initiated a “two-step” process for charter approvals. This resulted in a steady decrease in the number of charter holders and an increase in the number of students attending those charter schools that were performing well.

Texas, like many other states, has specific categories that charter school applicants can choose as their focus. Todd pointed out that, in starting a charter school, the founders of the charter should be aware of their state charter school categories. Texas categories include:

  • College Preparatory: Usually in higher income, suburban areas of the state
  • Alternative: “Credit recovery” programs usually in urban areas
  • RTC/JDC/JJAEP: Charters within residential treatment facilities or county alternative education programs.
  • Special Mission: Everything else, including university based charters

Lena Pope Home’s charter school is called, Chapel Hill Academy (CHA), and they are allowed to have up to 520 students. This charter is considered a “Special Mission” charter school that focuses on serving economically disadvantaged students. Their additional focus is on serving children with “learning differences.”

Todd informed us that the first couple of years of opening and operating a charter school was extremely challenging. He listed and discussed the major challenges as:

  • Building/Site Selection
  • Building Improvements (i.e., the “build out”)
  • Program/Curriculum Development
  • Staffing
  • Funding (Building, Improvements, etc.)
  • Student/Family Recruitment
  • Governance Structure
  • New Partnerships

He then highlighted the specific challenges his organizations faced during the past 8 years of operating their charter school. He emphasized the importance of understanding the deficits that organizations might face in the early years of launching the charter school. He advised that it is extremely important to anticipate and plan for the cost of startup including the costs associated with building acquisition and student recruitment. In the Lena Pope Home charter school, deficits were experienced in year one and two. We learned that larger deficits were due to unanticipated costs (special education requirements, higher behavioral needs, etc.) and lower than anticipated enrollment. Todd also shared that he financed the opening of the charter school with a 1.5 million dollar bond.

Other areas of advice to meet the challenges included the awareness of recruiting the “right number” of students that will allow the revenue to exceed expenses. He also mentioned the importance of their efforts to raise money to support the income being generated from public school reimbursement and to expand the number of children toward their state legislative enrollment cap.

When asked what made Chapel Hill Academy unique, Todd discussed the following:

  • Strong Literacy Initiative
  • Social-emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum
  • Comprehensive child and family services
  • High quality setting with caring, supportive staff
  • From day one, CHA students are instilled with an attitude to be college bound
  • High degree of parental investment and involvement

In describing the population he was serving in the charter, we learned that the student body consisted of:

  • 53% males, 47% females
  • 56% African Americans, 23% Hispanic, 14% Caucasian and 7% Other
  • 54% Free Lunch Plan (low economic), 10 % Reduced

In regard to outcomes, Lena Pope Home conducted a longitudinal study of student performance tracking students after they leave Chapel Hill Academy through high school graduation. Todd reported that the trend line is consistent among students:

  • For students attending traditional middle schools – CHA graduates declined in academic achievement, but also significantly outperformed their new traditional middle school counterparts
  • For students attending charter middle schools – CHA graduates declined in academic achievement, and also performed about the same as their new charter middle school counterparts

An important part of any case study is the lessons learned. Todd offered the following lessons learned by Lena Pope Home in creating, launching and implementing their charter school:

  • Mission alignment: Make sure that your leadership staff and Board are in support of the mission to start a charter school and align it with the values and principles that are inherent in your mission.
  • Start early with planning and preparation: Be aware that it takes a great deal of time to plan to open a charter school. Be aware of the legislation that your state has implemented, understand the competition, gain support of staff and Board, prepare for startup expenditures, and expect the unexpected barriers.
  • Find an academic niche to make your application and marketing compelling: Find what niche you will provide in the way of curriculum, focus, type of students recruited, services offered, and academic goals you hope to achieve. Expect to spend resources on marketing to your chosen families.
  • Identify location beforehand: Seek a location in the neighborhood of the students you are going to recruit. Find a building that can be expanded to include more students if you intend to grow. Assess the expenditures needed to make the educational atmosphere conducive to your expectations.
  • Hire well: Hiring the right staff is extremely important. Look for staff that are aligned with your mission. Your charter is as good as the staff that implement the curriculum
  • Prepare to learn a new bureaucracy: If you have been a health and human service provider, be prepared for an entirely new bureaucracy. Educational systems and staff at the state level must become supportive of your endeavor, and you must align with these new systems. There will be new meetings to attend and new rules and regulations to meet.
  • Be prepared and plan for major early financial losses and likely facility debt: Starting a charter school is expensive. Be prepared to seek financing and expect that it will take a couple of years to financially break even.
  • Be aware of your breakeven points: Anticipate expansion and seeking the breakeven number of students needed to meet budget. Understand the number of students you can have in your charter and create a strategic plan to expand to that number

Closing Thoughts

This web briefing and case study on charter schools was highly informative and extremely relevant to those organizations that are looking to diversify their service delivery. It is advised that you view the slide presentation to get a deeper understanding of how Lena Pope Home started and grew the program during the past 8 years: https://www.openminds.com/market-intelligence/resources/growing-a-charter-school-recording/.

I wanted to mention that I am a true supporter of early prevention and intervention. Lena Pope Home’s charter school is an impressive effort at reaching young, low income students, and their families seeking educational achievement and opportunity.

Because this charter school has a large waiting list, a lottery is conducted each year to fill vacancies. I specifically loved Lena Pope Home’s focus on allowing all children of the family to be eligible to attend their charter school by giving them first choice at enrollment openings prior to the lottery. I also was impressed with Lena Pope Home’s community and family services that supplement the charter school program. Todd’s description of their focus on social determinants to improve the entire family was something that we all should embrace in seeking to improve the lives of our clients. Lastly, I was thrilled to hear that the charter school, after the first couple of years, is profitable as a cost center! Meet your mission and exceed your expenses…. Who could ask for more?

A big thank you goes out to Todd Landry and the Lena Pope Home staff for putting this presentation together. I will keep you posted on how organizations like Lena Pope Home are diversifying their offerings to positively affect the lives of our nation’s children.

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