Important Lessons from Successful Charter School Start-Ups

When starting a charter school, the areas of expertise needed vary from business operations and governance to academic program development and teacher recruitment. Our goal at Charter Asset Management (CAM) is to support your charter school in its quest to provide innovative, high-quality education to your students. We have gathered this list of best practices, gleaned from the experiences of some of the finest charter schools in the country, to help you and your team through the charter school startup adventure.

Areas of Expertise

Deciding to start up a charter school is an ambitious undertaking. Specifically, you and your team need to understand:

  • How to develop and live your school’s mission
  • What effective governance looks like
  • How to establish a powerful culture of success
  • Business operations
  • How to develop an academic program
  • How to allocate resources
  • How to oversee external and community relations
  • How to monitor performance and track accountability
  • How to manage teachers and staff
  • How to recruit the best teachers and grow your student base

Below we outline each of these core competencies and summarize the most important lessons learned from some successful charter school startups so that you can easily replicate their triumphs.

Your Mission

There is a reason why every outstanding charter school emphasizes the importance of having a clear and concise mission –– and why it is placed at the top of the list of necessary tasks: Your mission boldly proclaims what you are setting out to accomplish and how your school will be unique as it sets out to achieve those goals.

To establish a powerful yet practical mission statement, set yourself the task of diligently answering the following two questions: Why are you embarking on the charter school startup experience? What will be the representative characteristics of your school?

Some excerpts from great mission statements include:

  • “Cultivating the academic and practical talents and skills of African American boys to empower them to become future civic leaders in their communities.”
  • “Strengthen the intellectual habits, attitudes, and skills pupils need to excel in college and in life.”
  • “Develop and focus on field-based, experiential learning.”

Your Governance

A staggering 27% of charter school startup processes are interrupted, sometimes severely, by internal governance conflicts. It is vitally important to delineate the separate yet equally important roles of the board of directors versus those of the school leaders. You will also need to distinguish the administrative relationships of the parents and wider community members.

Early on, you need to establish frequent and transparent communication between the board members and managers. For the startup phase, the board and leaders should meet as much as a few times a week.

Establishing the Board

When choosing who will be on the board of your charter school during startup, look for people who have some expertise in the following:

  • Real estate and facilities
  • Legal and human resources
  • Community relations
  • Marketing
  • Fundraising
  • Academic programming
  • Finance and accounting

Be sure your prospective board members believe deeply in the mission you have established, and also that they have the passion and time to work on starting a school. Research suggests that the optimal number for a board is between 7 and 11 people.

Your Leadership and Culture

A positive, flexible culture with an eye towards fair and transparent disciplinary practices will greatly advance the school and ensure success well beyond the charter school startup phase. Like the mission statement, developing the right culture necessitates precise planning and requires the buy-in of the teachers, parents, community –– and students. The students need to be listened to and praised for their input; positive behavior should be publicly highlighted while negative behavior can be examined privately.

Great leaders take a hands-on approach, yet avoid micromanaging. During the charter school startup period, leaders should allow for at least a year of planning before opening the doors (two years is even better). Once the school is operational, the leadership team should visit each classroom weekly to observe and interact intentionally with teachers and the students.

Your Business Operations

Every charter school is a school and a business. Often, those whose passion is providing excellent educational experiences for kids are not well versed in business development. Thus, it is extremely important to hire a great operations manager and to delegate a lot of the operational responsibilities to others, or even outsource to third parties. This is especially crucial during charter school startups.

Your Academic Program

Your academic program should correlate to your mission. When creating the program, consider the focus of your school and the educational environment you want to create. Clearly express how the curriculum and instructional approach will serve the school’s vision, and be sure to get your teachers involved in developing an appropriate curriculum.

Though you will establish the curriculum during the startup period of the charter school, it is the first year’s performance that is most critical. Don’t be afraid to tweak the program if you see certain aspects are not working. However, while it may be tempting to see the first year as an ‘experimental’ year, it is important to understand that first year achievements or failures are some of the strongest indicators of how the school will fair in the long run.

Your Resources

  • Start small Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Offer only one or two grades at first, then expand, perhaps scaling into higher grades as your students progress
  • The priority is the mission Teachers’ salaries, professional development, and curriculum development should occupy the largest parts of your budget
  • Seek additional financing If possible, use only your state’s per-pupil allocation to cover the mission-critical outlays and establish a reliable charter school funding source
  • Rainy day fund Keep a reserve fund for the unexpected, such as changing enrollment, legal fees, and emergency facility maintenance

Your External Relations

Your student’s parents and the wider community can be your new school’s strongest allies. This is especially true at the time of the charter school’s startup.

Parents

It is crucial to be in touch with the parents of your prospective students as early as possible. Always be open and honest with them (academic program, transportation, expected opening date, etc.) and interact with them in every imaginable way: electronic communications, letters, information sessions, home visits, asking them to serve on the board, inviting them to visit the site and school, and meeting with teachers.

Community

Getting out of the charter school startup phase can be challenging. Assistance from the neighborhood and wider community can make all the difference. Build strategic, symbiotic partnerships and think about collaborating with higher-level academic institutions such as schools serving the next grades or colleges and universities.

From both the parents and the wider community, be sure to offer them an opportunity to provide feedback about how they view the school, and listen to their comments and suggestions carefully (parent surveys are useful). Your school’s reputation can make or break its success.

Your Student Recruitment

Did you know that half of all charter schools close due to insufficient enrollment? Without enough pupils, your charter school startup will never be able to open its doors. Use tried and true grassroots methods to attract students, such as:

  • Hosting town hall meetings, open houses, and school tours
  • Walking the neighborhoods and knocking on doors
  • Ads in newspapers, on the radio, online, and on buses and billboards
  • Print and distribute fliers
  • Create a website and be vocal on social media
  • Get in touch with your state’s education department and ask for a list of students in a certain age range and then contact all of them

Always be sure to have a list of extra students waiting to fill unexpected vacancies. You don’t want to have to spend time and energy looking for new students right before the academic year starts.

Stay Passionate

Many passionate people have worked hard and established wonderful, transformative charter schools––and you can, too. We hope these lessons will guide you on your charter school startup journey, as well as our other articles on important issues such as charter school fundraising, organizational structure, and operations.

If your startup needs access to fast, reliable, and low-cost funding, CAM can help. Take a look at our funding programs and contact us today!