School & District Management

Charter Sector Starts to Grow Its Own Leaders

By Christina A. Samuels — May 08, 2012 6 min read
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In the 2010-11 school year, more than 500 charter schools opened across the country, each one in need of a leader who had a grasp of the education- and personnel-management skills needed to run a school, as well as a solid underpinning in other areas such as nonprofit management, budgeting, and strategic planning.

That rate of growth is not expected to abate any time soon, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says. From 2005-06 to 2010-11, the number of charter schools grew by nearly 41 percent, from 3,999 to 5,627. And nearly a half million students are on charter school waiting lists, according to statistics from the Washington-based alliance.

With the need for charter administrators in mind, the sector is developing its own leadership-training programs, many of which are as diverse as the in dependently operated public schools themselves. But questions remain about whether those entrepreneurial programs are growing quickly enough to meet the demand for charter school leaders and whether the programs are turning out leaders of high quality.

The University of Washington Bothell’s Center for Reinventing Public Education surveyed the charter school leadership market in a 2008 report. It found that several large networks, such as the San Francisco-based Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, and EdisonLearning, based in New York City, have their own programs to train leaders in their organizations’ cultures.

Programs such as New Leaders, also in New York City, and the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools prepare their students to assume charter leadership in stand-alone charter schools or those within a network, rather than feeding into a leadership pipeline to a particular charter-management organization.

Some programs focus on training charter school leaders to work in particular states. A few have a specialized focus, such as the Chief Business Officer’s Training Program, which is run by the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, Calif. That program trains leaders to run the business side of California charter schools.

Christine Campbell found big charter groups train their own leaders.

But those programs are turning out only a total of about 400 or 500 leaders a year, which is barely enough to keep up with new school growth and leadership turnover, said Christine Campbell, a senior research analyst for the University of Washington center and the lead author of the 2008 report.

“We know that the demand is outstripping the supply,” she said.

The charter-leadership programs generally get high marks from their participants, which is an “important start” in measuring their quality, the report notes. However, only a few of those that the center examined link their effectiveness to leaders’ success in the field, or mention other measures of program accountability.

One program, Get Smart Schools in Denver, has trained 23 people since its creation in 2008; 20 are now in leadership positions in Colorado charter schools. Six recruits are training in the current cohort.

Amy Slothower, the program’s executive director, said that Get Smart “has not reached the scale we’d like to reach,” but that part of its slow expansion is caused by intensive candidate screening.

The program does not charge its fellows to participate in the yearlong program, Ms. Slothower said, in contrast to most traditional training programs.

“We feel that if we can continue to not charge tuition, we can be honest and selective with our admissions program,” she said. Private grants pay for the leadership training.

Wide Skill Set

Another reason training programs remain relatively small is simply the sheer variety of topics that must be covered to create a well-trained charter school leader.

Andrew Collins says charter leaders must be steeped in budget and finance issues.

Andrew Collins, the director of school development for the Arizona Charter Schools Association, in Phoenix, is helping to create a six-month fellowship that will train principals to start their own schools in low-income communities in that state. Mr. Collins said that fellows in that program will learn what it’s like “to form a nonprofit business at the same time you’re the instructional leader of a school.”

Fellows will also be steeped in budget and finance issues. Mr. Collins said traditional principal-training curriculums may not need to focus as heavily in that area because most such matters are handled by a district central office, but at a charter school, principals and founders “are the [chief executive officer] and [chief financial officer] all together, at least in the first few years.”

The new Arizona program will also put a heavy emphasis on learning from other leaders, a common theme among charter school leadership programs, according to the CRPE report.

When the fellows are done with the six-month course of study, they’re expected to transfer into the association’s 18-month Charter Starter program, which aims to have leaders opening new schools by August 2014.

Some groups are proud of the differences they perceive between their models and traditional leadership training.

Linda Brown founded a training program that pays fellows stipends.

Linda Brown, the founder and chief executive officer of Building Excellent Schools, which has trained leaders now working in 20 cities, said her program provides a $90,000 stipend to its fellows, rather than asking them to pay tuition. In return, she said, it asks for its fellows’ full commitment to the program—and that means long days and few holidays.

“It’s very gritty,” Ms. Brown said. “We’re not about the theoretical underpinnings of things. The focus is on reality.”

At the same time, other groups are expanding their original training programs in new directions. The KIPP Foundation has allowed leaders from other charter-management organizations to take part in its training; about 20 out of 140 people in its upcoming five-week summer institute will be from schools other than those founded by KIPP, said Kelly Wright, the foundation’s chief learning officer.

Partnership With Districts

This year, KIPP went even broader, thanks to a federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant. With the $50 million grant, the foundation created the KIPP Leadership Design Fellowship, which has brought together representatives from a dozen districts and several CMOs and educator training programs. Between now and October, the fellowship participants will gain insight into how KIPP trains its leaders.

Ms. White said the training program was created in part to answer the increasing number of questions that the charter network was receiving from people interested in how it trained its school principals and school founders.

“We were reflecting on what is the best way to share the lessons we’re learning,” Ms. White said. “So we decided to do a cohort model, based on how we train our leaders.” The hope is that the participants will take what they’ve learned back to their own communities and expand their local leader-training capacity, she said.

Ms. Campbell, with the Center for Reinventing Public Education, believes that charter school leadership programs will always remain relatively small, compared with the thousands of university-based principal programs across the country. However, principals in district-run schools are increasingly finding themselves in need of the skills in which charter leaders are trained.

“I hope that what we’ll see is that traditional preparation programs adjust to become like charter school leadership programs,” she said.

Coverage of leadership, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation at
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Charter Sector Creates Grow Your Own Programs for Leaders


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