When schools closed in March, I naively assumed that the biggest challenge public schools would face this upcoming school year would be how to open or reopen schools safely amidst a pandemic. However, the continued violence and systemic racism oppressing communities of color, especially Black communities, reached a tipping point with the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, forcing an awakening for some and a national reckoning for all as we headed into the summer.
There is no “return to normal” now. Teams opening new charter schools this fall are asking how to welcome new staff and families via Zoom, how to establish a strong school culture virtually, and how to retain students throughout a dynamic school year. Teams reopening existing schools are asking how to leverage the hard lessons learned this past spring and adjust accordingly.
This will feel like the founding year all over again, whether we are ready or not.
As a funder of a national portfolio of innovative public schools, I humbly offer a few ways in which authorizers can rise to this challenge.
Lead by listening to school leaders.
Our school leaders are either waiting for some—any—guidance from federal, state, or local leaders, or spending an inordinate amount of time interpreting updated guidelines. David Noah, the founder of Comp Sci High in the Bronx, NY, didn’t wait: he proactively reached out to two global health experts to understand the CDC guidelines. Through conversations with health experts and other school leaders, Noah created an open-source reopening guide focused on principles that can help school leaders cut through the noise and plan for the fall.
Noah’s guide is just one example of our school leaders rising to the challenge in the last few months. Charter authorizers can also lead by asking questions (“What are the challenges keeping you as school leader up at night? and “Where do you need clarity? What would be most helpful right now?”), by listening, and by surfacing where there is a need for clear direction.
A desire to provide the “right” answers may paralyze authorizers when the real need is simply to start asking the right questions. For any of us in the business of supporting schools and their leaders, our first and primary job is to listen and then move quickly to support them.
Provide accountability and support.
Given the diversity of authorizers across the country, there are different views on where authorizing activities should fall on the accountability-support continuum. We believe this notion of “accountability or support” is a false dichotomy, especially now. In normal circumstances, authorizers can prioritize and proceed with traditional authorizing activities. However, there is no playbook for how school leaders navigate a pandemic that disproportionately affects students of color and those from low-income families. Now more than ever, authorizers will need to strike a balance between accountability and support.
We have seen evidence of this in how authorizers support the launch of new schools this fall. While some might assume fewer new schools will be launching during this time, most of the teams we help to design a new school are proceeding with their opening plans and are well-positioned to do so. Authorizers support schools in several ways, from allowing schools to adjust their target student enrollment numbers to deprioritizing compliance monitoring and oversight activities, like school evaluation visits this fall. This approach can benefit all charter schools, not just new ones. Supporting schools in creating and modifying high-quality re-entry plans is a good start.
Stay focused on the North Star.
Our school leaders are crystal clear on their North Star: to dramatically improve the learning and social-emotional outcomes of all students, especially underserved students. Charter authorizers share this goal. However, there are unresolved questions about overall school performance and accountability for the upcoming year.
Authorizers will need to determine how to maintain accountability with increased flexibility this year. A few leading authorizers are rethinking and readjusting school performance frameworks by measuring student growth. Others are analyzing state performance frameworks for schools serving alternative populations to identify autonomies that might make sense for all schools. Each approach will be different and dependent on the local context. Defining new or enhanced freedoms in exchange for accountability, though, is a must. The impact of these decisions will be long-lasting and necessary for quality, scalable innovations to take root.
If there is a silver lining to all of this, our school leaders are showing us how to navigate this new normal by leading with courage and nimbleness. They are not shying away from adjusting their approaches in exchange for significant results.
Charter authorizers can and should do the same.