SchoolWorks Contributors Sarah Rapa and David Hartman
Writing a charter school application is an immense amount of work. But the process is also an opportunity to ensure that the prospective school will be a place where students—and staff—thrive. In order to answer the application’s detailed questions, founders must make thoughtful plans and commit to them, which will ultimately make the school stronger.
Still, the process can feel overwhelming. Sarah Rapa—SchoolWorks consultant and content editor who writes charter applications—and David Hartman— SchoolWorks senior project manager who reviews charter applications—have compiled these tips to help school founders write stronger applications and avoid the common pitfalls.
#1: Refer back to the mission throughout the application.
Your mission must drive your charter application, just like it will drive your school. As you describe the elements of your school—such as the programming, the schedule, and the leadership structure—explain how each one helps reinforce and achieve your mission. Making these explicit connections proves that the mission is a truly driving force of the school rather than an afterthought, which makes the application more cohesive and compelling.
For example, here the mission statement of Memphis-based Compass Community Schools:
Providing a strong foundation and college-preparatory education, we will develop the whole child through a focus on academic excellence, values-based character education, and service learning.
The application references the mission in every section. For example, in the school calendar, the application states:
Further, we have designated 15 minutes at the start of each school day for a school-wide morning meeting in support of our mission and values-based character education and service-learning pillars.
Each time the application refers back to the mission, Compass Community Schools gains credibility and their mission gains power.
#2: Focus on doing a few things well.
Decide on the key elements that you think will make the most difference for students, and focus on doing those well. Consider what is realistic to do well within the term of the charter. There is no need to mention the latest education buzzwords or the most innovative programs in the hope of dazzling the authorizer. In fact, this could hurt your application if you have not thought through the details of how, when, and why. Instead, commit to doing a few things well and lay out detailed plans for how you will achieve them.
In their application, Compass Community Schools focuses on three pillars and explains specific steps they will take to bring each one to life. In order to fulfill the academic excellence pillar, for example, they say:
Students will be given ample time to master critical literacy and math skills through extended core instructional blocks, as well as the daily flex block.
They focus on the elements that matter most to them, and they flesh out a plan to make each pillar a reality. This thoughtful, measured approach is much more compelling to authorizers.
#3: Allot enough time and people to write and revise the application.
Take a moment to consider the charter application process from the perspective of an authorizer: authorizing a school is a risk. The worst-case scenario is that the school will fail students. That is a real—and really awful—possibility. When reviewing applications, charter authorizers try to gather all the necessary information to analyze the risk and ensure that they authorize only the schools that will succeed. So your goal is to reduce their perception of any risks and increase their perception of your reliability, consistency, and results.
In order to minimize the perceived risks, invest the time to develop a strong, cohesive response for every section. Even if you can describe your mission and academic program in detail, a generic description of your school culture will not cut it. If you describe an academic program that relies primarily on teacher-led instruction but also incorporates project-based learning occasionally, you introduce an inconsistency unless you explain how these two seemingly incompatible methods will work together. More nuanced elements—such as consistency of voice—also affect how polished and thoughtful an application seems, so ask someone who was not involved in the writing process to read the completed application and look for inconsistencies.
#4: Plan and prepare for the interview.
The interview component plays an important role in almost every charter application process. Generally, this is the authorizer’s only opportunity to ask questions and your final opportunity to make your case. So you must be absolutely prepared.
Invite several participants—including at least one board member—to participate in the interview to show that there is a diverse, capable team supporting the school. Give each person a predefined entry point into the conversation to make sure that everyone contributes. One idea is that the executive director could direct the flow of the conversation, redirecting questions about school culture to the assistant principal and questions about instructional oversight to the principal, for example. Again, in terms of risk analysis, the authorizer wants to ensure that there is a team with broad expertise and distributed responsibilities that can make the school a success.
The authorizer team will focus their questions on areas where they feel the application is unclear, inconsistent, or lacking. So your school team should prepare for the interview by participating in mock interviews or at least by inferring the likely questions in advance.
When in doubt, seek help.
Your charter application is an exciting opportunity to give more students access to a quality education. So the process deserves all the time and care you can give. Many founding groups seek third-party consultation to ensure that the application development process is managed with strategy and expertise. If your team needs help, SchoolWorks can provide expert assistance to meet your needs by either writing the entire application or by providing consultative review and support throughout the process. Find out more about SchoolWorks Application Development supports. You can also view select complete applications recently approved for charters online, such as these from the State University of New York (SUNY), posted by the New York City Charter School Center.