5280 Pages in a “Freedom School’s” Petition – The Mile High Regulation that Threatens Us Now

Weekend’s greetings, CharterFolk.

Day job responsibilities have me scrambling this week, so I’m coming to you on a Sunday. I hope you’re all getting a gulp of oxygen between what I know to be some of the busiest weeks of the year for many CharterFolk.

Great News out of DC

This week some of you may have seen the great news out of DC.

Ariel Johnson is taking the helm at the DC Charter School Alliance as former Alliance Executive Director Shannon Hodge, who did a phenomenal job during her three years as the organization’s inaugural ED, has moved to take a top position at KIPP DC.

Congratulations all around.

CharterFolk readers will remember that Ariel penned one of our most-opened posts of 2021.

Now, as she takes on one of the most important charter school advocacy positions in the country, we look forward to her next chapter of “not waiting” and “just starting.”

Just keep going, Ariel, and know we’re always at your back here at CharterFolk.

A Last Thanks to Jose and Joe

Next, I wanted to thank Jose Perez and Joe Nathan for a great Contributor Column this week.

Reading Jose and Joe’s piece about service learning and charter schools making meaningful contributions in their local communities, I am reminded of a rule of thumb that I was taught by Rob Riordan, and Gary Jacobs and Larry Rosenstock during my days at High Tech High.

They used to say that one of the best measures of authentic project-based learning is whether students are engaged in work having “useful life outside the classroom.”

Fostering teaching that connects the classroom to the world remains a mission that High Tech High keeps front and center to this day.

Jose and Joe, in sharing with us an example of student work that connected the classroom to specific changes in Minnesota law, benefitting thousands of young people across the state, and then connecting that story to the broader effort to build stronger public support for charter schools, you have helped me recognize anew the inter-dependence of our advocacy work and our quest to do right by kids and families and communities.

As I think you have done for us all.

So once again, thank you for the important work that you are doing and for sharing with us such a great Contributor Column.

Revisiting Milo’s Concern for the Movement

Having Minnesota on my mind prompts me to return to a topic that arose during my recent visit with Milo Cutter, the founder of City Academy in St. Paul, a person who I described to be “the very first CharterFolk.”

During our time together, once Milo groked that I was “one of those advocacy types”, she immediately began sharing her concern about what she believes to be the most pressing problem confronting the charter school movement today:

Smothering re-regulation.

Limitations so stifling she worries we might never be able to create such innovative new schools as we were able to make when the movement first got started.

It led me to go back and look at High Tech High’s original charter.

I started there in 2003, four years after the place was founded. I don’t have the very first charter document, nor can I find it anywhere on-line, but I do have a version from 2002, which had only been amended slightly from the original.

CharterFolk, it’s 12 pages long.

12 pages long including all exhibits and assurances.

4400 words in total.

Here is how the school’s entire regular education program was described in those early days.

That’s it.

It afforded the organization the freedom it needed to truly innovate and to create a program that would ultimately prompt Bill Gates to tell Oprah:

Everyone should want their kids to go to a high school like this.

A Situation in Denver Puts it All in Focus

CharterFolk may have seen this week that the 5280 Freedom School won an important decision at the Colorado State Board.

Back in May, the Mile-High City’s superintendent, Alex Marrero, recommended denial of the school’s petition …

… concluding that:

The Application does not meet the quality threshold of the Charter Schools Act and the DPS approval criteria as stated in the district’s published application, and therefore is recommending denial of the application.

The application package that was denied by DPS, and then reviewed on appeal by the Colorado State Board, was …

…735 pages long.

And that doesn’t count the myriad other pages in related documents that accompanied the state’s consideration of the appeal.

Nor does it include the rocky mountain of other materials that were previously generated through the charter’s original consideration at DPS.

And less you think this brings to an end the ordeal endured by the petitioners, remember that the State Board did not approve the opening of the new school, but simply remanded consideration back to DPS, meaning even more paperwork awaits the petitioners at the next step in the process.

At this rate the “5280” in the school’s name seems destined to become descriptive of the number of pages in its charter.

Talk about mile-high regulation.

The word “freedom” in the school’s name appears nothing but a cruel irony.

Because really, CharterFolk, what freedom do you think awaits Freedom School when it finally gets open?

Anything close to the freedom that school founder Branta Lockett

… will need to innovate in order to create a desperately needed new alternative for the Black students and families of DPS, never mind draw praise and support from the likes of Bill Gates and Oprah?

As Chalkbeat described the backdrop:

The Denver school board has acknowledged that the district has served its Black students more poorly than its white students, and has ordered its schools to do better. But wide disparities still exist. State standardized test scores released Wednesday reveal that Denver has the largest gap between the scores of white and Black students in the entire state.

This is the kind of thing that Milo is so worried about.

And we’re not talking, CharterFolk, about going back to Colorado’s Wild West days.

We know that the days of 12-page charters are, and rightfully should be, behind us.

But we need a much healthier balance, something that preserves the spirit of openness and freedom that has gotten so many amazing things going within the charter school movement over the past 30 years.

It’s precisely the prospect of openness and freedom, and the potential to create something breathtakingly new and great that drew so many CharterFolk to our to our movement in the first place.

It’s certainly what drew me.

After serving as a teacher for six years at a school in south Los Angeles that had the second lowest Academic Performance Index rating of any public school in Los Angeles County, and after seeing the stunning scope of state law and district policy and union contract and stifling bureaucracy and a culture of “not created here so we’re not responsible” that all came together to hold the school in a state of concretized stasis, I needed to find some other way to go about it, or I was going to leave public education altogether.

That’s when someone told me I should go see Joe Lucente and Irene Sumida at Fenton Avenue Charter School, a conversion charter school in the San Fernando Valley.

Which I did.

It turned out to be the single most transformational morning of my professional life. It’s when I finally had the chance to see a public school that had the freedom and openness needed to do something stunningly innovative and great

On many occasions I have said that I wish people could have been there with me for that visit.

This week, working on other matters, I happen to have come across the next best thing.

An Artifact from the Past Reminds us What Openness and Freedom Was Like 30 Years Ago

A video visit to Fenton Avenue

… filmed by PBS in 1997 featuring an interview with Joe and Irene …

… and a visit to classrooms to see instruction in action …

… with interviews of students ..

and teachers

a stop by the school’s family center

… to see parents engaged in continuing education

… rounded out with a tour of the facility

across all operations of the school.

Just what I saw when I went there in the late 90’s:

A previously struggling traditional public school that had been completely transformed by the openness and freedom that charter status had provided.

All presented in the context of a broader discussion about how excess freedom in some cases was leading to scandal and abuse where none other than Joe Nathan chimes in.

I hope, CharterFolk, you might find a minute or two to peruse the profile just to get a sense of how much freedom there was in the early days of the charter school movement, and how that freedom brought with it a spirit of being able to achieve things that had never been achieved before.

None of this discounts how a difficult it is to strike the right balance – providing enough freedom while also creating sufficient regulation to prevent abuse, and goodness knows we still have infuriating stories of abuse occurring in charterland to this very day.

But, three decades into our movement, have we come anywhere close to getting the balance right?

735 pages just to get a charter remanded back for additional consideration by an openly hostile school district having no interest in seeing the school succeed?

Sorry to say it, CharterFolk, but no.

We haven’t gotten it right yet.

Not by a mile.