What You Know is What You Do: Colorado’s Charter School Institute

 

Knowledge is power.

 

That’s why many of us will press pause on our regular schedules and come to Denver in a few days.

We seek knowledge. We need to connect with others doing similar work. We want to figure out how to apply our new knowledge back home.

Knowledge is power—so powerful that, for many of us, it has changed our career paths, leading us to work in the charter sector.

We know that charter schools can reduce the persistent achievement gap among public school kids. We know it because we’ve seen it and we want more of it.

For one authorizer who calls Colorado home, using improved knowledge of achievement gaps is at the center of their work to shape students’ futures.

“As an independent chartering board, we are driven by a couple of things,” says Ethan Hemming, executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute since 2012. “First, we’re set up to be a model authorizer, so our practices matter, not just to our schools, but to other authorizers around the state who we partner with.”

“Second, we are driven by data, especially achievement data that shows gaps between at-risk kids and their peers,” Hemming emphasizes. “Our staff, board, and schools are all committed to closing those gaps. In fact, CSI’s statutory mission includes a focus on at-risk students. But not all schools are having success in actually doing it.”

That’s where the power of knowledge is front and center. CSI ensures that school leaders have accurate achievement data to guide their school toward improvement. CSI staff, using their skills in statistics and research methods used for in-depth analysis, help schools identify truly significant trends or disparities. “This especially helps schools with limited resources adapt their programs to bridge gaps,” says Hemming.

Then, CSI goes a step further, to encourage and reward successful efforts to reduce the gap. Opportunities being explored include financial incentives or funding for pilot programs proposals; encouragement and guidance for weighted enrollment practices that increase accessibility and opportunity for service; and evolution of the CSI performance frameworks to augment the attention and weight given to performance in this area.

In sharing this knowledge and rewarding success, and in their other tasks as authorizer, CSI prioritizes school autonomy. “We have some strong schools who understand their student populations and have created recipes for success in educating them. They need our support to do that, they need feedback they can use, and then they need us to step back and let them do their work.”

It’s working. CSI-authorized schools are up six percent on the state’s performance framework. The number of students served in these schools is up 40 percent since 2011.

And the gap? Hemming says recent analysis revealed the achievement gap in reading and math between traditionally underserved populations and their peers was less than half of the disparity between these groups observed statewide.

CSI broadens its impact through partnership: currently it has MOUs with seven Colorado districts and provides informal support to several more. Annually, CSI hosts other staff for one-day authorizing practice discussions and tool sharing.

It’s not all feel-good growth, though. Hemming talks about the challenge of tough decisions. “We take knowledgeable risks when opening new schools—that’s how we get some of our best schools,” he shares. “But when it comes to renewals, risk tolerance must be low when the data points to the need to close a school that’s failing kids.”

NASCA has worked with CSI on creating the performance frameworks needed to make knowledgeable opening and closing decisions. “But first, NACSA provided grant support and professional guidance on evaluations and planning that was essential to course corrections about five years ago,” Hemming relates.

“More recently, as part of NACSA’s Leaders Program, Quality Practice Project, and Heads of Authorizing Offices Community, I continue to improve my practice and leadership skills while sharing lessons with other authorizers from across the country.”

 

Build your knowledge at these 2015 NACSA Leadership Conference sessions featuring Ethan Hemming:
Human Capital Coaches on Call on Tuesday, 1:30 PM – 2:45 PM
Authorizer Accountability: How Should Quality Authorizing Be Measured? on Wednesday, 9:00 AM – 10:30 AM

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