Balancing Accountability, Support, and Autonomy with Charter School Distance Learning Plans

A Conversation Among Authorizers

Unanticipated and prolonged school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic left charter school authorizers in uncharted territory. To provide a forum for educators to discuss the role of authorizers in overseeing distance learning plans, SchoolWorks hosted a free virtual webinar for authorizers on April 20, 2020 featuring the following panel of esteemed guests:

  • Susie Miller Carello, Executive Director, State University of New York Charter Schools Institute
  • Janelle Bradshaw, Superintendent, Public Preparatory Network
  • Roger Kligerman, Director of Quality & Accountability, School District of Philadelphia Charter Schools Office
  • Essence Caleb,Director of Strategy, Operations, and Engagement, School District of Philadelphia Charter Schools Office

SchoolWorks is pleased to share these key takeaways with the community at large.

Philadelphia: Set Expectations, Identify Needs, Offer Support

As a district authorizor, the School District of Philadelphia Charter Schools Office manages a portfolio of 87 charter schools. After the Pennsylvania Department of Education asked schools to submit distance learning plans, the CSO team administered a brief seven-question questionnaire to its portfolio schools that required school leaders to outline how individual plans addressed equitable access to technology and met the needs of vulnerable populations (including students with IEPs, English language learners, and homeless students). The goal of the questionaire was both to communicate expectations and to systematically identify areas of need across the portfolio in order to connect struggling schools with resources. Panelist Roger Kligerman stated, “We know we have schools that are really great at what they do, but that might not translate to the digital space. We really wanted to figure out how to ask about that.”

The authorizer also sought to centralize resources for schools and streamline communications. Fellow Philadelphia panelist Essence Caleb stated, “We recognize that part of our work is not only to authorize schools but also, without infringing on school autonomy, to [enable] schools to directly support students and families. During the pandemic, [if we] can provide clarity, share resources, and facilitate communication to promote best practice and knowledge sharing, then that is essentially what we will do.”

New York: Support, Monitor, Share, Prepare

This session included panelists Susie Miller, Executive Director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, and Janelle Bradshaw, Superintendent of the SUNY-authorized Public Preparatory Network in New York City. To provide context from both sides of the authorizer-school relationship, Susie and Janelle shared their independent priorities.

As a superintendent overseeing a network of three schools, Janelle’s first priority was day-to-day management of the crisis. This included the challenges of securing and disseminating appropriate devices to students and working with families to understand and address basic needs in a high-contagion area. Her distance learning plan was developed and refined in accordance with evolving feedback. “We have a deep commitment to making sure every week we’re getting better. We want to see all of our scholars submitting work and teachers giving quality feedback. So we are working through systems right now to figure out what that looks like, and also try to understand what does a high quality virtual classroom look like.”

To aid this process, the SUNY team provided ongoing access to information and support. “It felt like it was definitely our responsibility to make sure that everyone knew they had an ear and a willing shoulder as well as somebody who was going to try and solve some problems,” said panelist Susie Miller Carello. She spoke with Bradshaw personally in the early stages of the crisis to offer guidance and support. In accordance with SUNY’s guiding principles, (support, monitor, share, and prepare), the SUNY team focused efforts on providing intentional knowledge-sharing by facilitating conversations between organizations, schools, and networks within their sector (which includes 212 portfolio schools). Relevant information was collected and regularly pushed out to the sector as a whole. “We are really trying to be intentional in our knowledge-sharing,” Susie stated. “We recognize that having access to information is helpful for all of our schools, particularly because information is coming from a variety of places. And we want to make sure that schools are aligning their programs and their ideas in a way that makes sense.”

A full recording of this session may be accessed here.

Stay healthy, and let’s keep talking!

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