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NOTICE: The Charter Vision project is dormant as of January 2008. This website is provided for archival purposes only.

Starting a Charter School

Kent (Unknown School) Originally published November 2003
Editors’ note: Kent Nerburn is a writer who lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. He has participated in the founding of Schoolcraft Learning Community and TrekNorth High School. He served as board chairperson of Schoolcraft for two years, and remains on their board as the last founding member.

As a grizzled veteran of the charter school movement — parent, board member, board chair, founder of two charter schools and unwilling participant in a “Hatfield and McCoy” breakup that resulted in a third — I thought I might offer a report from the trenches for those of you just embarking upon this exciting, but taxing, educational adventure.

I began by making a list of the five or six most important lessons I had learned. But as the list progressed, “five or six” became “twelve” became “twenty,” with no end in sight. Finally, I had to pick an arbitrary number and reach in among my many thoughts like a blindfolded man choosing from a bowl of jelly beans.

The result is, in no particular order, nine lessons learned in the front lines of charter school development. It could be twenty, it could be fifty. But “nine” is what fits. So, I offer them to those of you who are thinking of starting a school, or who have just begun the task of bringing one into being.

  1. Keep your heart on the dream but your eyes on the money. Bad fiscal planning and management will destroy you. If you do not have a money person, find one. Balancing a household budget is not training enough to keep track of school-level finances. You need a real money geek who loves budgets and numbers. No exceptions.
  2. You have no enemies, only friends with whom you disagree. When passions run high, it is easy to perceive those with whom you disagree as the enemy. They may be officials of your local district or other people on your planning or governing committee. But remember, you are only fighting with each other because you all care so much. In a year, two years, ten years, what you fought over will not matter. If your anger overcomes you, walk away. When adults fight, children get wounded.
  3. Remember the carpenter’s adage: measure twice, cut once, especially regarding email. The immediacy of that medium is pernicious; it is like a literary gun, too easily shot, too readily available, and, once fired, impossible to take back. The entanglements and intrigues it creates have sapped the energy of many a founding and governing group. Do not let yours be among them.
  4. Establish a culture of cooperation, not conflict. How you get along from the very first day — how you respect each other, how you deal with differing ideas, how you argue, disagree, and resolve differences — will shape the culture of your school long after you have left. This, beyond ensuring that the school survives financially and legally, is the most important legacy you will leave.
  5. Trust each other to make decisions. A successful charter school results not from people being of common mind so much as from people of complementary skills trusting each other to make decisions. Where there is expertise, defer to it, even if it runs contrary to your own opinions on a matter.
  6. You are not starting a school for your child, but for all children. All parents dream of a safe, nurturing, caring environment where their own children, the children they love above all others, can grow and reach their potential. Simply because you are a founder or a board member, what you want for your child cannot, must not, take precedence over what is needed for other children. Be aware of your own childs needs, but neither design nor vote from your child’s desk.
  7. Empowering others is the most effective form of leadership. The best and most valuable board members and founders are those who welcome and empower others. The worst are those who see other board members or founders as their unpaid laborers or impediments to the implementation of their own ideas. Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Share the responsibilities, share the heartaches, share the credit, and share the joys.
  8. Good teachers cannot make up for poor design. We all know that teachers are the heartbeat of a school, and that without good teachers no worthy education will take place. But the sad truth is that poor design will hamper good teachers. Beware of believing that a group of good teachers, with good skills and good hearts, can overcome the chaos and confusion that results from unclear curricular design. They cannot. You need a shared educational method, philosophy, or curricular model. If you don’t have one, stop until you get one.
  9. Know when to leave. When you have invested a great deal of passion in a project, it is hard not to identify yourself with it. But, at some point, if you have been successful, the school will move beyond you. Among the most difficult challenges a founder or board member must face is knowing when to leave and how to leave gracefully. If the children are happy and learning, you have done your part. Be thankful for your chance to have been of service, and gently move on.

There are more — many more. But these are enough for now. Starting and running a charter school is not easy. But if you struggle together with mutual respect, are slow to judge and quick to forgive, and keep in mind some of these battle tested lessons, you will find that something magical can take place. When you see that six year old getting off the bus with a smile on her face, or that senior that no one believed in grinning while he waves his diploma, you will know what it is. Until then, take it from one who has been there. For all the struggles, the journey is worth it.

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