This column was first published on May 17, 2016, on msdf.org, home of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
This is part of a blog series about one way we can help our nation’s lowest performing schools. In this series, we will introduce the concept of restart and will highlight: Who’s doing it, how it works and, ultimately, does it work. You can find the entire series here.
Over the past year, we’ve shared our experiences with school restart. As we discussed in our restart blog series, we describe school restart as matching high-quality operators with the highest needs schools in cities and districts across the country to restart them for better results. Our series served to answer the below question first asked by Joe Siedlecki in his blog Restarted schools: A necessary victory for kids:
“While every child deserves the chance to attend a quality school, far too many kids remain in failing schools. This begs the question: Who will take on the challenge of restarting these schools? Will a set of high performing education and charter management organizations prove what is possible? We hope so. Because we need these entrepreneurial leaders to help break down long-standing barriers and push for necessary change in schools across the country.”
We’ve invested in school restart as early as 2005 and will continue to do so because it’s showing promise as a viable option in creating quality schools for students. We have seen that, under the right conditions, restart can work.
Hearing directly from operators in the field, we have learned:
- Restart operators need autonomy: ReNew Schools believes that autonomy is needed between districts/authorizers and restart operators so they (restart operators) have the right mix of flexibilities and supports to serve the highest need students.
- School restart is change from within: UP Education Network (UP) partners with local school districts to make comprehensive changes in a long-struggling school, from the teachers to the length of the school day to the academic programming. Restarts can work even within a traditional districts as long as 1) you have a highly competent operator and 2) the district understands the needed autonomies so that operators can implement best practices in serving high needs students.
- How restarting schools is reshaping operators and communities in Memphis: At Cornerstone Prep, they realized they needed to think less like a traditional charter school operating in a neighborhood and more like a neighborhood school operating like a charter.
- Planning for long-term success in charter high schools: LEAD Public Schools is doing the hard work: high school restart. They believe if LEAD Public Schools is going to be a significant contributor to the transformation of the education in Nashville, they must be involved in the high school restart effort.
In November, we partnered with Kathy Hamel at Charter School Growth Fund, Sajan George at Matchbook Learning, Paige McLean at Achievement First Charter Network Accelerator, and Ben Rayer to bring together more than 30 operators who have either committed to restarting struggling schools or are interested in exploring the opportunity. This was the first national convening on restart operators, and we heard firsthand about the challenges and rewards of the work. One resounding piece of feedback we heard from restart operators was for the need to differentiate authorizing practices between restart and new start schools.
A Call to Action for School Restart Authorizers
Given the growing number of cities and states pursuing restart, we felt a need to ensure they do so responsibly and with guidance. To that end, we partnered with EdPLEX and Public Impact to build effective processes for new and existing operators to follow. We’ve developed a guide for restart operators who want to learn how to engage in this work. A few things to note:
- It’s a long process: This work requires patience and stamina as there are a lot of moving pieces to implement. There are nine distinct and overlapping steps to the recommended process that can span up to two years. Many of these steps require juggling multiple items concurrently.
- Community engagement is a critical core value: You’ll notice in the guide that community engagement does not appear as one isolated step, but rather it is a value that spans all of the steps. We recommend authorizers do not view community engagement as an item on a checklist but rather as a component they interweave throughout all the steps.
- Not a one-size-fits-all approach: This guide is comprised of solutions used by leaders and authorizers already doing this work. We highlight tools and products they use to manage this process in their respective cities and states. That said, we do not recommend practitioners adopt this wholesale without a deep examination of individual context. It’s essential to understand the problem before importing a solution.
Public Impact and EdPLEX released a Kickstart School Restart RFP to authorizers who are interested in implementing the recommendations we propose in the restart guide. Our hope is that this guide will help authorizers across the country engage in this work more often and easily.
Our ask of you is simply to apply for the RFP and share the guide with your networks. We want to ensure that when restart is done, it’s done well, and this guide is a great first step. With early evidence that restart can work, we want all authorizers to have the same opportunity to do restart work. And do it well. It’s too important not to.