School Choice & Charters

No Rest for Leaders of Charter Schools

By Darcia Harris Bowman — December 06, 2000 11 min read
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Bronx Preparatory Charter School consumes most of Kristin Kearns Jordan’s waking hours.

When she isn’t crunching budget numbers, filling out paperwork, or teaching classes, the founder and executive director of the brand-new school must turn her attention to finding and financing a new building for 100 5th and 6th graders in notoriously expensive New York City. The demands of the job regularly intrude on her weekends; exhaustion has become a constant companion.

“The pain of the birth is still real,” Ms. Jordan, 31, said last week of her experience starting up an independent public school. “Between August and September, I had no personal life. In October, I tried to regain some balance, and November has been better. It’s sometimes painful to think about how long and intense this process will be.”

Whether they call themselves principals, presidents, directors, or deans, charter school leaders have their hands full. Unlike in the traditional public school system, which splits duties between district superintendents and building-level administrators, there is very little that charter founders like Ms. Jordan don’t do themselves.

“Charter school leaders are not just principals,” said Sarah Tantillo, the executive director of the New Jersey Charter Public Schools Association. “They’re really functioning as superintendents of mini-districts, and they have to wear many hats. In some ways, it’s a more demanding job than the typical superintendency, because a superintendent doesn’t have to worry about fostering a new school culture.”

As the charter movement continues to grow, exactly how these publicly financed but largely autonomous schools are run is of increasing interest to those who believe public school leadership needs to change.

While there are almost as many different management styles as there are charter schools, advocates maintain that dedicated, passionate, and independent stewardship is what consistently sets the charter model apart from regular public schools. Even some supporters, however, worry that too many charter school leaders are trying to do it all.

“This is not for the faint of heart,” warned Mary Gifford, the director of the Center for Market-Based Education at the Goldwater Institute, a policy organization in Phoenix. “Those first three years are dangerously difficult, and the risk of burnout is high. I think the ones who make it are very entrepreneurial; they’re risk-takers by nature, and they put everything on the line.”

Risk of Burnout

Most charter school leaders are former educators in regular public schools who found the traditional education system too confining, surveys indicate. They open new schools because they want the freedom to do things their own way.

“The idea of having my own school is one that I’ve had my whole life,” said Mark S. Francis, who founded Arizona School for the Arts in downtown Phoenix five years ago. “I just look at these guys [working in regular public schools] and wonder how they do it—their lives are invested in everything but education.”

But more autonomy for school leaders usually brings with it greater personal responsibility for the success—or failure—of their schools.

Charter school administrators typically begin with fewer of the necessities that regular public school administrators take for granted, such as buildings, books, and support staffs. Covering those costs is the first big hurdle, and many school founders say they have to be literally more invested in their schools than regular principals.

“I’ve put up thousands and thousands of dollars of my own personal money,” Mr. Francis said. “I mortgaged my house and cashed out my retirement, so I have a fundamental interest in seeing that this works.”

But many new charter principals are unprepared for the demands of running schools that must operate like small businesses to survive, experts say. And most quickly learn that the price for independence is high.

“They have to have a passion for what they’re doing because if they don’t, it’ll kill them,” said Bonnie Barclay, the head of the Arizona education department’s charter schools division.

The Grand Canyon State has the fastest-growing charter school movement in the nation, with nearly 400 operating this year. In a new report on the oldest 84 of those schools, researchers with the Goldwater Institute found that many of their leaders were working under stressful conditions—pressures that, in turn, were damaging marriages, families, and health.

The stress was higher in the schools run by individuals than in those founded by existing organizations, and the researchers cited the fact that so many of the schools were still dependent on one person as a potential weakness in the charter model.

“I traveled from Phoenix to Flagstaff visiting schools one day, and I could have cried at some of these people’s stories,” said Ms. Gifford, a co- author of the report. “The burnout rate is amazing to me.”

For the five charter schools in the 39,000-student Douglas County, Colo., district, leadership turnover is almost a way of life. The oldest school has burned through five principals in its eight years of operation, a second has had six leaders in seven years, and a third has had four different principals in six years.

“I think charter schools are great in many ways, but it’s dangerous waters for principals,” Superintendent Rick O’Connell of the Douglas County schools said. “I’d say the job of a charter school principal is more dangerous than a superintendent’s job.”

Some charter school leaders have learned that taking on a partner can make all the difference.

Carol Ann Sammans gambled in her bid to open her own school, quitting a teaching job of 18 years and putting her personal finances on the line. But she didn’t go it alone.


When Ms. Sammans left the Mesa, Ariz., public schools, Ann Peschka left a support-staff position with the district to go with her. When Ms. Sammans’ charter school, Edupreneurship Student, was just an idea, Ms. Peschka helped add the necessary details. And whenever Ms. Sammans needed a break, her vice president was ready to step in.

“I don’t even know if I’d still be here if I’d had to do this on my own,” the 55-year-old Ms. Sammans said recently. “When I hear other people talking about doing this, I ask them, ‘Do you have someone else who believes in you, who believes in your mission and can support you? If you do, bring them on board because that will help you survive.’ ”

Similar partnerships have been cropping up in charter schools around the country, researchers say. In a survey of 391 charter school leaders taken this year by the Washington nonprofit group StandardsWork Inc., 39 percent of respondents said their schools split leadership duties between at least two people.

“Though many charter schools have been started largely by determined individuals, most have found that it requires a team approach,” said Eric Premack, a co-director of the Pioneer Institute’s Charter Schools Development Center at California State University-Sacramento. “In many cases, one individual is the clear leader of the team. In others, leadership functions are shared among a few or several individuals.”

Mr. Francis created a principal position for his Arizona School for the Arts in mid-stream as well. Leah M. Roberts came on board during the school’s first year of operation to help develop curricula and teach, but she hasn’t taught classes for more than two years. While Mr. Francis attends to the school’s operational needs as its executive director, Ms. Roberts works to improve its teachers and lessons.

“Mark allows this school to function as a school where children truly come to learn,” Ms. Roberts said of her employer. “There are no competing agendas here. One of the reasons we are so successful is I am freed up to do [teacher] mentoring.”

In New York City, Ms. Jordan worked alone through Bronx Preparatory’s start-up phase. But she knew her previous career in nonprofit education organizations did not qualify her as an instructional leader.

So before opening the school, she hired as its principal Marina Bernard Damiba, a 29-year-old educator with five years of experience in a city middle school. While Ms. Damiba oversees instruction, curriculum, and discipline, Ms. Jordan handles the budget, fund raising, and community outreach, among other business tasks.

“I never considered running this school by myself,” Ms. Jordan said. “I can’t imagine.”

Private Partners

Other charter founders are looking to the private sector for help, particularly when it comes to the business side of operating a school.

“One of the lessons to be learned is that running a charter school involves both educational leadership and business management,” said Beryl F. Nelson, a senior analyst with RPP International, the Emeryville Calif.-based research firm assisting the U.S. Department of Education with its multiyear study of charter schools. “You have to have both, and there are different ways of doing it, but outsourcing is a growing trend.”

While some charter founders like Edupreneurship’s Ms. Sammans contract out only specific services such as accounting, some observers say others are increasingly relying on private-sector companies that do more.

Edison Schools Inc., the country’s largest for-profit school management company, offers a comprehensive package of services that dictates everything from a charter school’s curriculum to the length of its academic year. The New York City-based company also chooses its own principals.

“We expect any principal-candidate or sitting principal to go through our [screening and interview] process,” said Tonya G. Hench, the vice president of Edison’s school support division. “First and foremost, they have to be instructional leaders. They have to have a proven track record and a proven passion for increasing student achievement.”

Some critics of school privatization worry that companies like Edison are compromising the original concept of charter schools as locally controlled and community-based.

But Edison officials argue that their company offers principals considerable latitude in budgeting for their schools’ needs—authority that many traditional school principals lack—while lending expert advice and support that independent charter school leaders must do without.

Michael S. Fogle was a public school principal for 19 years before leading the conversion of Lincoln Elementary School in York, Pa., to Lincoln Edison Charter School. The 51-year-old educator decided early on that a school management firm would make a good partner. He went through Edison’s internal screening process and leadership-training program and held on to the top job at Lincoln through its transition to charter status.

“I commend the people who have the strength and tenacity to go it alone, but the support and services Edison can provide just made sense to me,” Mr. Fogle said. “When I have questions about reading, special education, discipline, they send someone. They come when I call them, and they also come when I don’t call them.”

Lessons in Leadership?

Even as charter schools continue to feel their way through uncharted territory in education, some observers believe they’re on to something when it comes to leadership.

Mary Lee Fitzgerald was the education commissioner of New Jersey when the state’s charter school legislation was being crafted in the early 1990s. Now, as the director of education programs at the Wallace-Readers Digest Funds in New York City, she oversees a $150 million, five-year effort to improve public school leadership. Charter schools, she says, should be part of the picture.

“I believe one of the strengths of charter schools is they all typically have a theme and mission for instruction that you don’t immediately sense with most regular public schools,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “But regular public schools are now being asked to focus a lot more on instruction, and I look at charter school principals as being able to provide the traditional establishment with a new way to apply school leadership.”

But charter school leaders work under tremendous pressures, she warned, and too many must wrestle with their governing boards over the question of who ultimately is in control. “There isn’t a perfect leadership model there,” Ms. Fitzgerald said.

Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said his Alexandria, Va.-based organization is looking at ways to free up principals to focus on instructional leadership—including the idea of creating a business manager’s position, as many charter schools have done.

But he added: “We have not yet seen a model in the charter community that we can grab on to. We see some experimentation, but we’re still trying to discern which of these experiments might be effective, and which aren’t.”

Some charter leaders who have lasted long enough to learn from the hard knocks of their line of work believe that even they won’t know whether they have truly made a difference until they see how their schools fare without them.

“I’ve tried to stay home to make sure the mission and goals of Arizona School for the Arts are fulfilled without question, and only now do I think we’re ready to move on,” Mr. Francis said. “I think it’s fair to say charter schools reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the people who found them, but I believe part of the strength I have is keeping people together around a common mission.”

“This school may move on from my original conception,” he added, “and I’m at peace with that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as No Rest for Leaders of Charter Schools


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