National Charter School Conference – Key Insights

June 28, 2017

This post was written by Annie Crangle.  Annie is a Senior Director at Third Plateau where she leverages her education and business background to manage a diverse set of education, leadership, and youth development clients.

In June, thousands of charter school educators, leaders, and advocates descended on Washington, D.C., for the 2017 National Charter School Conference. At conference booths, over lunch, in passing, and during timeout breaks of the Warriors vs. Cavaliers Game 5, we shared ideas, reflections, and challenged one another with big questions.

As Third Plateau continues to expand its work with charter schools, my time at the conference was spent focused on areas most relevant to this work at this moment in time  — growth and expansion; marketing and communications; social emotional learning; and diversity and inclusion. While I believe the most meaningful work will be the conversations we have with our partners and clients around these topics in the coming months, I wanted to share some highlights with you here.


Growth and expansion require asking critical questions to guide your planning

CMO and school leaders must ask themselves: Are we growing opportunistically or is growth a part of our organization’s DNA? Are we running from a challenge or towards an opportunity? Growth and expansion tend to be most challenging when the motivation to grow is an attempt to improve current economies. To answer these questions, schools should understand:

What makes them successful and how they are able to replicate that success. For example, your education model might be working to catch up students who are two grade levels behind, but will it work for students who are four grade levels behind?

The needs, challenges, and assets of the communities they aim to serve. Family focus groups and existing community leaders can shed light on these and how they translate to student and family needs. Consider hiring leaders and staff from the community, but also identify existing staff and leadership to transfer to the new site. “Minimize the newness” to maintain core components of the education model and organizational culture and ensure continuity across the network.

What metrics they will use to monitor growth. Be clear about your “go” and “no-go” triggers for growth, and communicate these to your stakeholders, authorizers, and partners. Set annual milestones and goals across a range of areas – financial, governance, operational, and academic – and use them to compare progress with competing systems. Teacher advisory councils can provide helpful ongoing feedback.

How to leverage and vet your Board so that your governance model matches your growth plan. For example, Aspire created a national CMO Board and assigned a Board ambassador to be the voice for each region. Such steps can make a difference in your Board’s quality and commitment.

 Your story influences who supports your school

Just as teachers cater to their audience, school leaders must tailor their messages to specific audiences in order to effectively communicate with external stakeholders.

Senior Communications Directors from the National Charter School Alliance recommend using the Five E’s framework to guide your communications: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate/Extend, and Evaluate. Use these to practice how you frame your communications.

Be comfortable succinctly and compellingly describing your organization’s work. Can you describe the essence of your organization in 15 seconds or less? Is that messaging consistent with how staff and leaders describe the organization?

Proactively respond to commonly held negative or misconceptions about charter schools. It can be helpful to have stories prepared that are the inverse of these negative perceptions. For example, if the perception is that your school is rigid and regimented, an inverse story would demonstrate how your school is joyful.

Identify a few meaningful metrics that will help you track the effectiveness of your communication strategies.

For more information, see this Storytelling Overview and Storytelling Worksheet.

 Social emotional learning accelerates academic learning

Charter leaders confirmed what many in the education field are recognizing is critical to students’ academic success and college and career readiness: social emotional learning. Social emotional learning requires a coordinated approach, and approached effectively it can boost test scores and academic achievement.

Explicitly identify the character traits your school will emphasize. As examples, Detroit Prep prioritizes compassion, responsibility, cooperation, curiosity, creativity, and perseverance, while Phalen Leadership Academies prioritizes mastery of key academic skills, superior work ethic, strong vision for and belief in the future, resiliency, honesty, empathy, and service to others. Then, consider how your school will foster these traits within your curriculum and culture.

Effective social emotional support requires cultural sensitivity and competency by your team. Engage in ongoing, deep conversations as a team to reflect on: Are we being culturally responsive and sensitive? Are we reinforcing beliefs that students need to have in order to be successful (e.g., in overcoming poverty, racial and gender stereotypes, etc.)? Train teachers in such a way that when a child acts out, a teacher’s first response is to ask: How can I help you? What do you need?

Structures to integrate social emotional learning into your school are also important. These could include morning meetings centered on a specific habit, 30-minute character blocks built into the weekly schedule, and end-of-day student reflections. Teacher and staff interactions can also be powerful in modeling desired behaviors.

Some schools have found monthly family nights especially helpful in creating a common language between home and school. Teachers use family nights to share what’s happening in the classroom – both in terms of academics and character – and to provide parents with reinforcing exercises to facilitate at home.

Achieving integration in schools positively impacts all students

Public schools are more segregated today than they were half a century ago. This persists despite research showing the benefits of attending integrated schools. Of course, just achieving diversity is not enough; schools must nurture the benefits of diversity.

Successful schools share common factors, such as mission and vision statements specifically focused on increasing diversity, recruitment and admissions practices that target lower-income families, and strategically located facilities.

To promote healthy inclusion practices, use hiring practices that value teachers and staff members with demonstrated experience working with diverse students and communities – or who are themselves of diverse backgrounds. Explicitly ask in the interview process, “Tell me about how you have taught or worked with people who are different than you?”

For more information, view the session materials for “Realizing MLK’s Dream: Best Practices in Achieving Integration.”

I look forward to continuing the conversation as Third Plateau engages our partners and clients in further reflection and planning. For more information about Third Plateau’s work with Charter Schools, please reach out to me directly.