Charter School lessons I learned as an outsider
I came to Charter School as an outsider and quickly learned four valuable lessons.
Charter School Lesson #1:
The Power of Service
I’ll never forget my first few weeks of working for a Charter School. After years as a real estate developer and finance professional, where success can be a zero sum game, working for a charter school presented a different sensation.
I found a place where people united to help the children of our city. In real estate, if I wanted a better sales price for my buildings, people had to pay more. If I wanted a project to cost less, I had to pay someone less than they initially wanted. Each step forward for me was a step backward for someone else. Ultimately, the nature of that industry wore me down. I didn’t like the way it made me feel. Working for a charter school changed all of that.
My success as a charter leader benefited more people than just myself. A win for John Goldman meant a win for the community. These aligned interests and goals inspired me. It motivated me every day to fight for the kids in our city, to overcome the challenges of urban education, and to use every ounce of creative energy I had to find solutions – solutions which would directly enhance the lives of the students and families I represented.
This was a tremendous first lesson. It changed the aura in my life and created a world of giving, support, and unity. This new energy invigorated me in a way I hadn’t expected. It was a pleasant surprise.
Charter School Lesson #2:
Unfortunately, my second lesson in charter schools was that not everyone felt the same way. Fraud, waste, and even abuse were rampant. Nepotism bloated payrolls and lousy vendors with inside connections won contracts they shouldn’t have. I found theft and embezzlement in the offices, while children learned and played next door.
I discovered this behavior where I expected to find altruism and dedication and it disheartened me. I was hired to solve “some financial problems” but quickly realized the core problem was the people who had hired me in the first place.
Fixing the mess was not going to be easy. I questioned whether I could or even should. Some doubt crept in, but when I talked to the students, parents, and the rest of the employees, my resolve solidified. I was there to save the school from itself.
It was then I began the hardest fight of my life, trying to rid this public institution of cronyism and corruption all while striving to achieve the mission of providing a quality education to the students. Working from the inside with no mandate made it exceptionally difficult. The leadership hired me to solve some simple “financial problems” after all. No one expected me to become a major change agent – and not everyone was happy when I did.
We struggled each day to overcome resistance. Few at the school felt like they had to reform. I had to overcome the leadership itself to be successful.
Luckily, I am a fighter, both literally and figuratively. I’ve competed in the ring in combat sports where I learned a thing or two about persistence in the face of adversity. It prepared me to tackle the negative forces who saw their charter school as a personal piggy bank rather than a beacon of hope for underserved children.
I fought the good fight, and I won.
I rid the school of corruption, closing the door on a sad chapter of misallocated resources and dark manipulation. I balanced the budget, saved a million or two dollars and set the school on the right path. I equipped it with the professional systems and procedures a multi-million dollar organization should have.
I went from hired consultant, to CFO, to Executive Director. It seemed all would be well.
Charter School Lesson #3:
What I didn’t account for, however, was the political infighting and drama I would find from my own Board of Directors. Liberating the school of their negative influence was a mission bigger than I could manage at the time. New board members fought with old ones. The two sides split into intractable factions, and they dragged each other into court, fighting over control of the school – all while we in the building tried to keep our heads down and provide education to the students. One side prevailed and half the board resigned, leaving control in the hands of a small group who focused on things other than the mission. Simple tasks fell aside incomplete, including renewing my contract.
Ultimately, I left the school after I fought three long years to save it. An opportunity presented itself and I had another chance to correct the mistakes of others and build something worthwhile for the people of Washington, DC.
Charter School Lesson #4:
We faced complicated and difficult issues at my new school, but there, the Board united to conduct a complete turnaround. In the shadow of academic probation, the Board knew they had to make changes. They recruited me to enact those changes.
The Board hired me as an expert and gave me a mandate – solve these problems and get our school off probation.
What happened next surprised even the Authorizers. They set the bar for success higher than many thought was achievable. Together with a new staff, our team met and beat all expectations to satisfy the terms of the probation a year earlier than required. In two short years, we took the worst performing high school in the city and turned it into one with the highest growth rates in achievement, earning a “Reward School” status two years in a row and becoming one the best choices for high school in it’s area. The Public Charter School Board reflected:
Indeed, in 2013-14 IDEA PCS had the largest increase in math proficiency among all public charter high schools.
The Board’s commitment to the turnaround was the key difference. The top-down focus on performance and success created an environment where change, while painful, was expected and demanded.
Success was possible because we worked together as a team, relentlessly focused on change, performance, and improved outcomes.
These lessons changed my outlook permanently. The positive energy of working together to uplift students and families is contagious, while the warnings of corruption and politics remain relevant as ever.
Charter leaders must work to build consensus, focus on student outcomes, and remain vigilant against misguided actors. This is certainly a tough task, but it is one that can be achieved with energy, passion, and the right tools.
If you would like to learn how to implement these tools, you should Contact me today.