How to start a charter school in Pennsylvania: Part 1

Let’s be honest. Despite opinions to the contrary, brain based research, incredible technological advances and an entirely new economy, there is very little that has changed in the practice of teaching in the last fifty years. Children still go to school between 6.5 and 7 hours each day. If they are in a middle or high school they shuffle through about seven classes (unless they are on block scheduling) including physical education. There are a few standout students followed by a slightly larger cohort of high achievers, an even larger pool of average students, the kids who are consigned to a vo-tech school, and those really distracting kids many teachers would prefer never showed up.

As an educator, I am interested in the latter three groups and have a particular interest in the kids struggling through the traditional school model as described above because they are dealing with a learning disability like ADHD,  Specific Learning Disorders, or Asperger’s Syndrome. I am deeply interested in the children that are the misfits and the distractions and  the kids that fly under the radar, preferring to go unnoticed rather than expose themselves as the dumb kid they believe they are. I am interested because I was one of those kids.

Ten years ago after observing, with dismay and empathy, these children in classes I now taught, I decided to make them my top priority, to design an educational approach that would help them shine, that would remove the stigma of stratification, that would help them find ways to manage their disabilities and, most of all, that would help them repair their often damaged self esteem. The problem though, was that I felt it wasn’t something I could achieve in my one classroom. After much consideration, I believed that optimally supporting the education of the whole child could only be achieved in a new educational paradigm and, perhaps, in a completely different kind of school.

One year later, after hours upon hours of research, I attended an introductory conference at Drexel University. The topic was charter schools, what one needed to do to start a charter school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and, particularly, in Philadelphia. The presenters were from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools (PCCS), the oldest of two information dissemination and lobbying arms of the charter school movement in Pennsylvania (the second one is defunct), and an organization called Foundations, Inc. Foundations, I was to learn, helped people through the many steps of starting a charter school.

The meeting’s presenters, particularly those representing Foundations, Inc. outlined the charter school application and approval process, describing a few of the pitfalls one might encounter in the application process and the reasons therefore that one might want to hire a specialist to help with the process. Tim Daniels, the founder and president of the PCCS described a competitive Pennsylvania “planning” grant that was soon to be offered to those having charter school aspirations and the benefits of having a membership in his organization. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission closed the meeting by inviting the participants to apply for a charter in their great city.

Altogether, the Drexel introduction was very informative. Still, what was omitted by those speakers has proven to be far more important than what was actually offered. Were the introduction truly complete it would have started with a questionnaire not terribly different from one you might encounter when trying to determine a perfect occupation. This questionnaire would ask you if your friends and associates would consider you highly entrepreneurial. Check? Would they consider you singularly tenacious? Check. How about resilient? Check. Fearless? Check. Would your friends and associates say that you are out of your flipping mind? Hmmm.

Even with the best of motivations, starting a charter school is not something one should take on unless one is genuinely entrepreneurial, tenacious, resilient, fearless and, yes, also a little crazy. This is so because merely getting the doors of a charter school open on a sunny fall morning in September has all of the challenge of opening the doors to an operating medium sized company serving several hundred clients. Add to that formidable task layers of complication added by strict local, state, and federal law and some very frustrating layers of federal, state, and local politics and you still have only an inkling of what it takes to realize a charter school. One’s success will be the result of many fortunate events happening together at just the right moment while one’s failure will often be the result of a single omission.

Starting a charter school also requires money, lots and lots of money. There are many services that you will need to pay for along the way and representatives of those services will be wanting to hand you a business card at the end of an introductory similar to the one I attended in 2004.

At the end of that introductory meeting, I was approached by one of the primary executives of Foundations, Inc. who’s name I now forget, a lawyer specializing in special education law from the firm Latsha, Yohe, Davis, and McKenna, Tim Daniels from the PCCA and several other individuals including a young man who spent his entire time at the introductory tapping on his laptop’s keyboard two seats to my left in that auditorium. His name, I was to learn, is Alex. He holds a Ph.D. in education and developed charter school applications for people with similar interests to my own. That night I took home several business cards given me by some very persuasive representatives. Each recounted past successes in their area of expertise and described how they were the best choice when considering a consultant to assist in designing your school’s educational program, finding an appropriate building in which to house those children, developing your school’s budget or legally representing your school’s charter application at a public hearing. Each representative promised to hold the key to the charter school door that I would, on one sunny September morning, open to children who have struggled with their ADHD, their language issues, or their Asperger’s Syndrome and each representative had a price.

Part 2: If it’s so hard to start a Charter School, Why do it?

2 Responses to How to start a charter school in Pennsylvania: Part 1

  1. Your story brought tears to my eyes and chills to my arms. I am an educator who left teaching (after my son’s diagnosis)in order to help parents of the children you so eloquently describe above. Why? Because I know what it’s like to be that parent trying to navigate the maze of insurance, mental health providers, therapies, and school systems. If parents don’t know where to go or whom to trust, imagine how our children feel. Knowing that there is someone out there like you, willing to put everything on the line and start a school like this….is priceless.

  2. thank you for your story. I have two sons and my younger son who is currently in 5th grade was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago and has since we have been going through so many ups and downs with the school district. They are def trying to be helpful but we do not see eye to eye. B/c of his diagnosis, with every IEP meeting, I feel not only like i do not feel heard but also they just want him out of the mainstream classes and into another class just to they can forget about him. He is not incapable of not doing the assignments or projects like the rest of his peers. Which is a huge deal for me. I wish they would give him a chance. He is bored out of his mind at school. He is taken into a smaller class room for math and reading and wrtting b/c he “cannot concentrate”. Which is fine, but that does not mean that he is not caoable of doing the same level of work or even harder math. when i show them the math we do at home, they disregard is and tell me that i am confusing him from his school work studies. its all very frustrating. He is an amazing reader and his math skill are amazing, but tell him he is going to be “tested and he doesnt do well b/c he has high anxiety. I would love to start my own school. I know i am not the only mother that feels this way and i am not the only one who feels like there are other ways to teach children to learn.

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