School Choice & Charters

Knowing When To Say When Isn’t Easy for Founders

By Darcia Harris Bowman — December 06, 2000 3 min read
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Ron Caya has stepped into the background.

As a member of Arizona’s freshman class of charter school founders, the defiant leader of New School for the Arts has spent the past five years navigating his fledgling college-preparatory academy through financial turmoil, rising and falling student enrollment, mutiny in the administrative ranks, and the rise of competitors.

Now, with those trials behind him, Mr. Caya relies on others to handle the day- to-day management of the 220-student high school. He characterizes his new role as that of “futurist” and calls himself the school’s dean.

“I’m not one of those stay-forever guys,” he said during a recent tour of his 5-year-old high school, which sprawls through several buildings of a strip mall in this Phoenix suburb.

But like many of his counterparts who have opened charter schools across the country, the 62-year-old has yet to decide how and when to step aside for a successor.

Those are critical questions. One way or another, all charter school founders will eventually have to leave their institutions behind. If they can prepare a new generation of leaders to carry on their missions, their schools stand a better chance of surviving the transition, charter school experts agree. If not, the schools may be in for a rough time.

“Sometimes, the whole vision and culture of a [charter] school exists with a particularly charismatic leader, for good or bad,” said Lori Mulholland, an independent policy analyst who has conducted extensive research on charter schools in Arizona and other states. “If the vision doesn’t get translated into policies and something more enduring than one person, then the qualities that made the school attractive to parents can diminish with the departure of the leader.”

Often, Ms. Mulholland said, “schools flounder after the leader leaves.”

Stepping Aside?

Mr. Caya, a former administrator in the Glendale, Ariz., public schools, insists he is no longer central to the daily workings of New School for the Arts. But evidence inside and outside the academy suggests otherwise.

More than a few pupils called out to the man they refer to as “Dean” as he strolled through the school on a recent afternoon. And any who don’t know the longtime arts educator by name would have recognized him from a student’s 4-foot-tall charcoal rendering of his countenance that hangs over the arch of the school’s main classroom wing.

New School’s dean also admits to having a rebellious streak that makes keeping a low profile difficult. “I’m kind of a maverick,” he said.

Case in point: Mr. Caya made news in August by telling a reporter from the Arizona Republic that Scottsdale schools Superintendent Barbara Erwin’s vow to win back every student who had left the district to enroll in charter schools was “the most stupid remark I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”

Some charter supporters argue it is only natural for founders to continue playing an influential role in the schools they create. Where leaders like Mr. Caya stay involved, those advocates say, the institutions will thrive.

“In most of the [charter] schools driven by one person, those people are still there because they are so committed to what they’re doing,” said Susan J. Bragato, the executive director of the California Network of Educational Charters, a San Carlos-based association for charter schools. “That’s the kind of passion we need in public education. That’s what will make it work.”

Mr. Caya has taken steps to forge some separation between himself and his school, with varying degrees of success. He hired his first principal three years ago, but problems cropped up between the two men, and the position was vacated almost as fast as it was created.

His new principal, a former employee of the Arizona education department, has Mr. Caya’s trust and a two-year contract. Mr. Caya also promoted an art teacher who has been with the school since its founding to a part-time administrative position.

“Things have gotten easier,” he said.

But he also believes his work here is not done.

When New School’s governing board demanded last January that he provide it with the name of his successor, Mr. Caya arrived at the answer easily enough. “I told them, ‘It’s me,’ ” he said. “If I come back here in a wheelchair or a walker, I would not want to see [the school] be any less than it is today.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Knowing When To Say When Isn’t Easy for Founders

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