An Inspired Hire | Lessons from the Magical Mystery Tour | Suiting Up

Weekend greetings, Charterfolk.

Wishing all our FolkMoms a very happy Mother’s Day.

I had a great spring break watching Premier League games with my son in the UK.

But I’m chomping at the bit to be back.

Let’s get straight to it.

An Inspired Hire

Surely, the biggest news in recent weeks was the announcement that Starlee has been selected to serve as the next CEO of the National Alliance.

I’ve said in other contexts that one of the benefits of writing for CharterFolk is that I’ve often articulated things in advance such that when big moments arise, I need do nothing but refer back to things we’ve already published here.

So it is with Starlee’s selection.

For years now, I have been writing about the extraordinary leadership that Starlee has provided to the Texas Charter Public Schools Association where she serves as CEO. Entering “Starlee” in the CharterFolk search engine, I see sixteen posts come back wherein her personal contributions are highlighted.

That number doesn’t include the Contributor Column that Starlee penned last year …

… or the CharterFolk Chat she participated in the year before that.

Nor does it count the more than a dozen other articles …

… that have hailed the great progress that is being made by the Texas Charter Public Schools Association without specifically mentioning her name.

The fact is that when it comes to the most important developments happening in charter school advocacy today – whether its developing greatly enhanced state advocacy presence, or creating a high-performing 501c4 tandem organization, or uniting a strengthened board behind a shared vision for accelerated progress, or increasing membership dues and amassing new resources for advocacy – the fact is that much of the greatest progress happening anywhere in the country is emanating from the leadership that Starlee is providing to our movement.

Indeed, when given the opportunity by Education Next to highlight under-appreciated momentum emerging in the national charter school movement, where did I start my account?

Right in the heart of Starleeville, of course.

The defeat led Coleman to accelerate the development of the association’s 501(c)(4) political partner, which became heavily involved in both legislative and state board of education races in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles. The impact has been profound. Last June, the Texas legislature approved the association’s city discrimination bill by a wide margin, and a reconstituted Texas State Board of Education approved four out of five new charter-school applications in 2023.

Last fall, I was delighted when Starlee agreed to join CharterFolk’s Board of Directors.

Today I’m even more delighted that the Board of the National Alliance has chosen her to be the organization’s next CEO.

It was an inspired choice.

Congrats to all.

Lessons from the Magical Mystery Tour

My last post before leaving for the UK was one that took the closure of the King’s former high school in Memphis as a central frame.

A week later my son and I found ourselves on the Magical Mystery Tour in Liverpool …

… learning about how the school that George and Paul attended …

… had been closed too …

…though, unlike Elvis, Paul lived long enough to breathe life back into his alma mater, spearheading the re-opening of the school in 1996.

The re-opening was a big enough deal that the queen showed up.

As ever, I find travels in other countries illuminating about our own work.

The UK has a federal-like system for education.

Wales, Scotland and North Ireland have nothing like charter schools. And concern is building that their schools are struggling mightily.

Scotland used its new powers to reject the parent-choice agenda. When Tony Blair and later Michael Gove developed self-governing academies, schools in Wales and Scotland remained under local authority control. Then the curriculum reform came. Teachers were concerned at what some saw as dumbing-down masked by grade inflation, but PISA tests cannot be gamed. The maths results showed that England’s pupils have kept steady over the years, in spite of lockdowns, but since 2015 Wales has dropped 12 points (equivalent to six months of learning). Northern Ireland fell 18 (nine months) and Scotland dropped 20 points.

England, meanwhile, has “Free Schools,” which operate very much like charter schools.

They’ve turned out to be very successful and popular, leading to their rapid expansion …

… enabled by the fact that the national government, not local councils, serve as the schools’ authorizers.

Meanwhile, some of the political dynamics we think unique to the United States are at play in England’s Free Schools as well.

Such as separation of church and state issues.

Historically, schools with religious affiliations funded by the state have been allowed to reserve up to 50% of spots for students of the faith. This spring England is doing away with the 50% rule …

… allowing such schools to reserve all their seats for students of the faith, leaving some advocates utterly appalled.

And this will have impact on the Free School sector as well, as a small number of Free Schools have been allowed to form religious affiliations like other schools supported by the state.

Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, debate rages about the “academisation” of public education in the UK. Academies are former council-operated schools that convert to Free status. In the early going, schools voluntarily converting to Free status performed very well. But then the government changed policy to require underperforming schools to become academies. Within a couple years, results seemed to show that such forced conversions to Free status were not proving as successful.

CharterFolk, it’s EXACTLY the same issue I was writing about in the post about Elvis’s alma mater – how difficult it is to ensure that “forced conversions” become successful.

Yes, there’s great power in previously hidebound schools becoming “free.” But the stakeholders of the school have to actually want it.

So on both sides of the Atlantic, a recognition seems to be settling in:

What’s the sense in confining schools in order to make them free?

Now, as is the case in many communities across the United States, awareness is spreading in the Beatles hometown that the way it allocates educational opportunity to kids and families should be subjected to new scrutiny.

For me, the answer to these kinds of questions is actually quite simple.

It’s emblazoned on the jerseys of the city’s beloved football team.

When it comes to nearly all things public education, “standard chartered” is almost always an excellent starting point for discussion.

Suiting Up

I don’t have enough time today to cover all the news I’ve missed back home in CharterLand.

I’ll do what I can to catch up on the most important developments in posts coming to you over the next couple of weeks.

Suffice it to say:

The places where the Establishment has gained the tightest control of public schools are being further discredited everyday.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen another year of strikingly positive policy results emerge in many places across the country.

Things vary greatly from context to context. Believe me, I know, CharterFolk.

But, generally, in terms of preparations for the future?

I think we’d all be wise …

… to get properly suited up.

CharterFolk Contributor Terry Ryan: For Everything There is a Season – Idaho’s Upper Carmen Public Charter School Closes

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are delighted to share another Contributor Column from Terry Ryan, the CEO of BLUUM in Idaho and a CharterFolk Board Member.

We provide a bio for Terry below.

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network. Ryan is responsible for leading Idaho’s effort to double the number of students in Idaho high-performing public charter schools. Ryan leads Idaho’s federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant of $22 million. Ryan was Vice-President for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute/Foundation from 2001 to 2013. He began his career in education as a teacher in Poland and worked with the Polish Ministry of Education and the Foundation for Education for Democracy on education policy and civic education. In the 1990s, he served as research director for the UK-based 21st Century Learning Initiative. Ryan served on Idaho Governor Brad Little’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” education task force. He is a member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Policy Advisory Council. He served as a Commissioner for the CAEP Commission on Standards and Performance. Ryan was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and was a 2008 Aspen Institute/Pahara Fellow.

This time, Terry is writing about a very special occasion that is happening today in Idaho. The Upper Carmen Public Charter School is hosting its last day of classes. It’s a milestone that, while bittersweet, reveals yet another amazing reason for celebration in CharterLand.

Let’s get to it.

For Everything There is a Season – Idaho’s Upper Carmen Public Charter School Closes

“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-9

I have had the honor and privilege over the last decade to work with and learn from the dynamic education duo of Sue and Jim Smith. Both are highly certified educators who have worked in private schools, public schools and most recently as leaders of the Upper Carmen Public Charter School in rural Idaho. Both have earned more degrees in education, education leadership, education finance, and special education than I can even remember or accurately report in this piece. I’ll just summarize by saying they have over 80-years of education experience between them with Jim running school districts and serving as the Idaho Department of Education’s chief financial officer. 

For the last 18-years Sue and Jim have operated Upper Carmen. A school that has literally been attached to their home and has served over 1,300 students over the years from across Lemhi County under the shadow of the Bitterroot Mountains. Truly, the location of their school is about as close to heaven as you can get while still breathing.

The school first opened in 2005 as a K-3 school serving 24 students. Over time, and under pressure from parents to add grades, Upper Carmen peaked as a K-12 school serving 113 students in 2017-18. In 2019-20 Upper Carmen agreed to focus on Grades K-3 and turn grades 4-8 over to a new charter school in nearby Salmon called Fern Waters. This year Upper Carmen educated 56 students in grades K-3.

Ten years ago, when I first met the Smiths, I had asked them why they started the school. Sue said, “Education is what will sustain the community…The community here functions as a society. We do the funerals, the weddings, the births, and why shouldn’t we also educate our children.”

Sue Smith supervises children getting on the Upper Carmen Public Charter School bus for one of the last times.

The Power of Reading

On May 9th Sue and Jim will close their public charter school. I had the opportunity to interview them at their home/school in Salmon recently. I asked Sue what her favorite memories were from her career educating students, and she shared, “it is always the twinkle in the child’s eye when letter sound correlation is recognized as a word. I have seen that hundreds of times and it is a delight every single time.” 

Sue has been motivated by the belief that every child should be a fluent reader by the 3rd grade. This passion for teaching reading came from her personal childhood struggles with dyslexia. She shared, “I started this because I was a dyslexic person and it took years and years for me to learn how to read and how to read well. And, secondly, Jim and I adopted a deaf daughter from Korea and I had to use reading to teach her how to talk.” This is all ironic Sue said because, “The last thing I wanted to do was be a teacher because my experience at school was absolutely horrid. But, in the late 1980s I decided to go back to school to become a teacher; so kids didn’t have to experience what I did growing up.” 

In this journey to become a reader and ultimately a reading expert and master educator, Sue told me, “I had a marvelous mom who never gave up on me. Ethel McFarland.” 

Sue’s career in education began at the Hope House outside of Nampa. Hope House lives the mission “to provide a home for children who are emotionally impaired, developmentally disabled, and/or come from disrupted adoptions or dysfunctional families.” Sue started a K-12 private school for Hope House children back in 1991. “That was my first job out of college. I taught the elementary school kids and had 27 in grades K-8. These were tragic children.” Making matters harder, Sue shared, “the school had no books, no janitor, no supports. Paper and pencil was all I had.” To both help her adopted deaf daughter Becky, and students at Hope House, read Sue developed her BethTommy Read-to-Read Curriculum

Sue believes, and her experience has proven, that “the reading process has six basic elements. One is not any more important than another, and all must be taught simultaneously to produce effective readers.” The BethTommy Readequation is “Phonics + Decoding Skills + Voice + Fluency + Comprehension + Vocabulary = Reading.”

The Upper Carmen Public Charter School

The Upper Carmen Public Charter School had a couple of goals when Sue and Jim opened it. Could they create a high performing academic school on the relatively meagre state finances provided the school? Could they pay their teachers well? But, the primary goal for Sue was “not allowing any student to leave 3rd grade unless they could read effectively.” Importantly, Sue added, “that included students who came to us with special needs. We created individual goals for every student…For students with auditory or processing issues we had to double down.” For Sue it came down to “repetition, repetition, repetition.” In 18-years Upper Carmen has never had a 3rd grade student go into the 4th grade that “wasn’t at or beyond the 3rd grade reading level.”

In trying to explain her success in educating all children who have been under her charge Sue believes, “Education comes from your experience and the ability to read each child and see what they are lacking and to fill those gaps…It is not about buildings, or materials or other stuff.” Charter schools can do this well if they are structured right, according to Sue, because you get, “state funds and the flexibility to meet the needs of children where they are. You can meet the needs of each child individually.”

I asked Sue how she has gotten her teachers over the years to buy into this. She told me, “I had such an inadequacy and lack of self-worth because of my experience going through school with dyslexia. And the embarrassment of standing up in front of a group and not be able to read…That is what drove me. I wanted to help students not have to deal with that.” “I have seen this quality of putting the student first in teachers,” she continued. Great teachers “have the ability to meet the child’s needs. My daughter Becky has it. She could do this better than me…Tenacity. We are going to hang in here and get this done.”

Education is a Team Effort and Needs Parents

Sue and Jim have learned a lot about what it takes to open and run a great charter school in a rural community where people have strong opinions and ideas about school, education and what their children need. But, not all parents are good partners. In her more than 30-years educating students and serving families Sue has learned that, “if a parent sends a child to school and they understand respect, and know how to obey, I can teach them to read in a very short period of time.” Conversely, “if a child comes to the school without those attributes, I have to first teach them how to be respectful and obey and then I can teach them to read.” It takes longer and it is harder.

“Young parents,” Sue laments, “seem to have an entitlement attitude now that makes this partnership harder. If the parent and teachers collaborate it is to the students benefit and even students who struggle can and do make progress. Done well education is a team effort. And it should be!” Parents and teachers need to work together for children to read and to ultimately thrive as learners. “It is frustrating when parents don’t hold up their share of ensuring their students are academically successful,” Sue told me.

Why is Now the Time to Close the School?

“We met our goals,” said Sue when I asked her about why now is the time to close the school. Sue continued, “before the charter school there wasn’t any competition in Salmon. I think Upper Carmen Charter School has had the level of academic success that sets a standard for our community.”

With pride Sue continued, “the bottom line is that Jim and I were able to build the school on the cheap because it is part of our home.” Sue also pointed out the uniqueness of their endeavor together. “We used all of our skills, degrees, experience and even some of our own money to make this school work.” Importantly, Sue reminded me, “Jim never got paid for the work he did for the school over all these years. He was the school finance director, facilities manager, counselor, ops guy and bus driver. Jim’s school experience with school finance was key, and as a result we are closing the school with money in the bank. Those skills simply aren’t replicable up here.”

Jim has spent the last few months winding the school’s business and financial operations down. Following state law and best practice the school’s assets and cash is being turned over to the local Salmon school district. Some of the school’s furniture, technology, music equipment and portable classrooms are going to end up in other public charter schools. The school’s closure has been managed with the same attention and care that permeated the school’s 18-years of successful operations.  

“As we started thinking about closing the school,” Sue paused and told me, “we didn’t want to tie the Upper Carmen Charter School name to something we didn’t think would be up to the same standard.” Simply, “we realized it wasn’t transferable because we are multi-degreed and have both the education expertise and the finance expertise to make it work.”

I asked Sue if she had any regrets. “No. I do not. I feel blessed. I have been able to work with such tremendous teachers and touch the lives of so many of our children.”