The 2017 National Charter School Conference took place in Washington, D.C. from June 11–13, 2017. The conference was a great place to learn more about charter schools and gain insight into their challenges and hopes for the future.
A movement with a mission
All educators are passionate about helping children, of course—but the charter school policy advocates, leaders, and teachers at the conference are part of a greater movement with a mission. That mission is to serve the students who are under served by today’s traditional education system.
The people we met at the conference are passionate about what they do. Many of them have been working with their schools for more than a decade. They’ve seen the results of their hard work validated when their schools are consistently rated as “A” or “B” schools and when 100% of their graduating students go on to college or pursue a technical career. For these educators, the work is more than professional—it’s personal.
One size fits none
Many of the educators we spoke with had spent time working at a public school, or they had a personal story of witnessing children beset by obstacles in a traditional setting. One of the general session speakers remarked that, “there’s no such thing as a cure-all for education…no top down approach will ever meet every student’s needs.” The speaker also implied that a top down approach to education doesn’t take advantage of the creativity and innovation available in education for our country. Education today is “broken” for these students, and charter schools can help fill the void to fix it. No one was saying that charter schools are the only solution, but the conversations amongst conference attendees showed one thing was clear: For these kids, in this school, something was working—and working well.
Challenges for funding and facilities
Many leaders described their current challenges for funding. Charter schools often receive a lower per-pupil amount than their district counterparts. A 2014 report from the Center for Education Reform looked into the funding question and found disparities in many states. Differences in funding may be because of students with special needs, that charter schools don’t typically address.
Having suitable facilities was another common challenge shared by many charter school leaders we talked to. New charter schools often operate out of a church basement or other rental facility at first. In many cases, schools outgrow their facilities and need a bigger building.
We also heard stories of 400-student waiting lists, made up of students whose parents are desperate to find a school situation that works for their children. Charters offer hope and the promise of a better, brighter future for many of these students and their parents.
Opportunity, Promise, Potential, Hope
Sam, an assistant principal from Florida, described the unique culture educators consciously create at their charter school and how it impacts student learning. Sam described his charter school’s approach to students and parents as one of customer service. “When you think of students as your customers,” he challenged, “how does that change your attitude toward what you do each day for instruction?” And when a new student was misbehaving, Sam overheard a more veteran student tell the newer one, “This school is different. We don’t do that here.” It underscored how his staff has cultivated an environment in which all students are expected to take responsibility for their own behavior¾and by extension, their own learning.
In the end, isn’t that what we can all be passionate about? Educators in all types of schools can support enriched learning today for every student, to ensure a society of knowledgeable, thoughtful people for tomorrow.