Redesigning Schools - Part 1

By Rose Parker, Founder of Schools by Teachers

In-district charters allow a structural change in the role of teachers. They allow decision makers on campus to allocate resources in a way that meets the specific mission of the campus. They allow huge pushback against constant testing. They can stabilize campuses that have been in constant upheaval and chaos for decades.

In exchange for these blessings, the process of planning to redesign a campus or feeder pattern or traditionally low-performing high school will probably take a year. Some band of Utopians including at least half the teachers and half the parents on a campus must agree to the process and outcome before the plan is presented to the board.

So the pain of doing nothing has to be far greater than the hundreds of hours donated to the planning process. Redesigning a campus to operate much more effectively is time-consuming and hard, but the rewards could last the next decade.

Step 1: Before the vision thing ever kicks in, identify the pain points solved by redesigning the campus or feeder pattern. These pain points must be non-negotiable because you are about to go to war over them.

When some parents, teachers, and a former trustee met years ago to design The School of Entrepreneurship in the Arts and Technology, we were on the warpath over the fact that while 600 kids from Dallas schools didn't make it through the annual audition process at Booker T. Washington, a third of the students who were successful were from zip codes outside of Dallas ISD. We knew the power of an arts intensive school, and we knew many of the students who were rejected had nowhere to go but the lowest rated high schools in the state. These low-rated high schools were also operating with about $2,000 less per student than BTW at that time. Today, the demographics at BTW are simply not discussed since 60% of the entering freshmen class were not enrolled in Dallas public schools last year.

Some parents and teachers and community leaders have simply given up on the pain points that anger them and keep students from attaining their full potential. We believe righteous anger is motivational and will keep a group of school re-designers working long and hard to rectify their list of identified pain points. Your pain points might be lack of recess, over-testing, shoddy curriculum, lack of discipline, lack of supplies, poor campus leadership, constant teacher vacancies, or all of the above. The pain points have to be severe enough to motivate you through a year of extended planning for your vision of what your school could be.

Step 2: Mold a vision you can almost touch for your campus or feeder patter. Make it as real as possible. Give it details. Share it. Continue refining it. Add more features to it to make it a perfect fit for the students it will serve. They are unique. Ask for frequent student and parent input. Consult experts related to your vision of how a campus should operate.

Our vision for SEAT looks nothing like Booker T. Washington even though many of us are former teachers, parents, and students of that school and believe in the importance of BTW.

Our vision for SEAT looks more like the cover of the April Texas Monthly where Robert Rodriquez is described as transitioning from film maker to creator of a television empire. We think entertainment technologies and computer science should be a big part of an arts curriculum along with models of entrepreneurship for creating content and platforms. Our vehicle, a Subchapter D Open Enrollment charter, doesn't allow us to filter students based on grades, attendance, or standardized test scores, and we see no reason to do so.

Because we want our students to have as much time as possible to work as producers of their own products and performances, we will run a year-round campus and extended school day to give students time and materials they need to work designing real products for real audiences.

Other in-district charters will plan around a traditional school calendar and day. The vision of the school determines the tactics used to make the vision a reality and each in-district charter will be different.

Step 3: Find out early in the process how much money per student you will be able to move to your campus budget. Senate Bill 2 indicates it may be more than the district is currently budgeting for your campus. Read the details of SB2 when it implies that district spending per student follows the student to the campus after leaving enough to cover the cost of the superintendent and governance. All Title monies must follow students to an in-district charter.

We strongly suggest you plan on moving all functions that are traditionally left up to Ross Avenue to your campus. That means principal and teacher hiring, termination, appraisal, compensation, and training. That means all special education services. That means the level of testing you intend to use. That means the curriculum you choose. Cut as many strings as possible to central administration or you will be dragged right back into all the obstacles that lessen your ability to increase student achievement.

All in-district charters must meet state accountability standards. You cannot remove any state mandated testing. If planning a high school campus, consult House Bill 5 on developing endorsements. All special needs students-- LEP, special education, handicapped--must have equal access to your programs.

As we will describe in the next article, your planning group is on the way to developing a contract that will be in effect for 10 years between your future campus leadership and the Dallas ISD trustees. You must be able to document how your way of administering the campus increases student learning, attendance, and post-secondary success if you are at that level. You are being given autonomy in exchange for improving student outcomes and must earn acceptable ratings from the state for three out of every five years as well as providing an annual audit of campus expenses.

For the nonbelievers, this is state law. It was intended to introduce innovation into public schools. The legislators who wrote it knew superintendents would not be happy at a loss of control and micromanagement, so they strengthened the autonomy given varieties of in-district charters against incursions by superintendents and central staff.

It's a new day, and rather than removing democracy from school board elections, it's time to use the tools given us for authentic school reform.