Thinking of starting a charter school?

A clear vision is key.

A strong, comprehensive charter school application can take months and even up to a year to complete. The first step is to establish a clear vision of how the proposed school will serve students in a better way. 

First Things First: What is a Charter School?

Charter schools are public, open-enrollment schools that are independently operated. Currently there are over 7,000 charter schools operating in over 40 states nationwide. 

There are a few key differences between charter schools and district schools. In general, charter schools are provided with more autonomy than typical district-operated schools, and but they are also held to greater accountability for everything from academic performance to operations and finances. They have greater flexibility to choose curriculum, staffing models, and instructional strategies; and they are often known for their innovative models.  

All charter schools are overseen by a governing body called an authorizer. (Some states call this a “sponsor.”) Depending on the state’s charter school law, an authorizer can be a school district, a non-profit organization, a university, or a state-wide entity such as a Department of Education or State Board of Education. Authorizers use a comprehensive application process to assess potential new schools seeking a charter. They want to know:

  • Where will the school be located?
  • How will the school serve the specific student population within that community?
  • What needs will the school meet in that community that are not currently met by other public schools? 
The Fundamentals of Your Vision: Where, Who, and How

Because the location of the proposed school will largely influence the student population, it is one of the first things founders must determine. It is then crucial to research and verify the local demand. (Ultimately, the founding team will need to build relationships with community members, organizations, and families to order to garner local support for the proposed school.) 

Next, school founders need to identify the key design elements of the school. In other words, how will the school educate students?  Visiting high-quality charter schools with varied models can be a great way to gain some initial insight. Ideally, the school model and key design elements will meet a distinct need within the proposed community.  

With a vision established, the next step is to assemble a founding team. The founding team will include the proposed school leader and a governing board, typically consisting of 6-8 individuals. (Many founders rely on the founding board to provide essential input during the application development process, so the sooner a qualified and committed team is in place, the better.) 

To gauge your readiness to embark on this process, consider the questions in this readiness assessment. 

Readiness Assessment

  • What is the geography and region of the proposed school (i.e., rural, urban, suburban)?
  • What are the grade levels to be served?
  • Have you reviewed the authorizer’s charter application and rubric?

  • What students will the school serve and how?
  • What is the proposed school model (Montessori, STEM, Personalized Learning, etc.)?

  • Have you conducted research to demonstrate need/demand for the school?
    • Regional demographic composition
    • Landscape of public school choices / performance of schools within the local area
  • Have you taken steps to establish community support for the school?

  • Have you established a founding board?
  • Do any founding team members have experience in school start-up?
  • Has a school leader been identified?
  • What professional qualifications do board members possess?

  • Have you determined the specifications for the facility needed (i.e., sufficient space and physical capacity to accommodate projected enrollment)?
  • Has a facility been identified? (Has a lease or mortgage been obtained?)

  • Has the founding team identified where to secure startup funds for the school?
  • Has the founding team projected per-pupil revenue expected from the state?
  • Do any founding team members have experience in school finance?

  • Has the founding team projected the number of students who will be enrolled the first year?
  • Has the founding team projected the grade levels to be offered in the first year?
  • Have founders developed a plan to recruit and enroll prospective students?

  • Have founders projected the staffing positions needed for year one?

  • Does the founding team have a plan to ensure IDEA compliance?

  • Will transportation be provided?

  • Has a curriculum and/or assessments been identified?
  • Has the team identified a plan to serve students with disabilities and English language learners?

  • Has the team identified a discipline model that will inform the discipline policy?

Finding Help

Feeling overwhelmed? There are many resources for new school founders who are entering this process. First, find your state’s charter school association. This organization will likely have some supports and information that can help you get started and forge key relationships. Second, look for state-specific or national fellowship programs. Organizations such as BES (formerly Building Excellent Schools) offer extensive fellowship programs for select candidates to help support progress. Many independent funding organizations support new school development in certain regions with monetary or programmatic support. Lastly, if writing the application itself is a roadblock, you may wish to hire a consulting organization, such as SchoolWorks, to manage the application development and submission. This allows you to focus your time on the bigger picture.

For more information on this process, check out SchoolWorks Charter Application Writing Bootcamp.

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