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Voices: On authorizing charter schools

Tammy Harold, Chris Wright and Don Begier, all leaders with the Falcon School District, talk about how they are ensuring accountability and success when it comes to charter schools and online programs.

Hannah recently was accepted into the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in NYC; at age 13. Adam’s single mom was just re-incarcerated for violating her parole for drug use. Kayla was first in her age group in the 200 freestyle at state. Danny has been labeled as a sex offender. Rebekah performed for two weeks at the Palazzo in Las Vegas with her Denver-based professional dance group. Jeannie just had a baby.

Student working on a computer <em>EdNews </em> file photo
Student working on a computer EdNews file photo
Joe Mahoney/iNews

What do these 13- to 15-year-old students have in common? They all attend online schools either run or authorized by the Falcon School District. And they all scored proficient or advanced on all measures of last year’s TCAP.

As the 177th of 178 Colorado school districts when it comes to per pupil funding, Falcon long ago was forced to embrace online and charter schools as components of our educational portfolio. Ours is a fast-growing district with limited funds for facilities. Like many districts, we are excited about the educational options and possibilities presented by online education. Similarly, over time, we learned that charter schools, if closely and intentionally monitored, may be positive partners to districts such as ours.

We quickly identified that one critical element for success with charter schools is to obtain knowledgeable legal counsel with experience in charter school law for purposes of contracting charters, and, sometimes, to deal with the challenges that arise. We also discovered that turning over charter liaison duties to traditional administrators sometimes leads to confusion and disharmony. Thus, our district has retained an expert firm to provide a skilled approach to filling these needs.

Charter School Solutions, our liaison service, spent a year working with our talented assistant superintendent to develop and integrate a comprehensive chartering process involving the adoption of new policies, procedures and personnel to fully implement the NACSA (National Association of Charter School Authorizers) principles and standards for charter school authorizing. This experience helped us to fully grasp the issues related to charter schools. Though they now are held to higher standards of accountability, we find that our charter schools are pleased with the greater levels of communication and trust. Most significantly, their student achievement is outstanding.

In a related effort, as part of what we call our “innovation initiatives,” we established Falcon Virtual Academy. It is a district school that uses an online platform from a private company (K12, Inc.). This multi-district online school is outperforming most online programs in the state and country. In part, this is because we applied the same NACSA principles and standards to this school. By using the accountability measures that we engage for oversight of our charters, we found that district schools also flourish in the sunlight of high expectations and accountability in exchange for greater autonomy.

With these insights in mind, our district recently decided to authorize a larger online charter school. Though many in Colorado view online charter schools with skepticism, we decided that online education is part of our future, whether we like it or not. So it should be done right. We already had assembled a highly professional team that utilizes the most rigorous process available to manage charter schools, and we have market-tested this approach with our own online program. Thus armed, we are determined to embark on an effort to demonstrate a pathway to success for online charter programs. Early signs are very promising.

Now, to take this enterprise one step further, our board recently voted to participate in the creation of the Colorado Digital BOCES. Under Colorado law, a BOCES may authorize multi-district online charter schools. As an authorizer, this entity will share resources, knowledge, NACSA principles and standards and the accumulated knowledge-base that we have been privileged to develop, and will offer additional online programs a place to find partnership, accountability and support.

Online education can’t be sidelined. School funding, scarcity of facilities and the reality of how the world works all dictate that public education embrace online learning. Through the Colorado Digital BOCES, a new and higher standard for effective online education will be established.

We recognize that online education has further to go before it can be labeled a success. However, just as America’s workplace now involves a significant portion of virtual engagement, so too must our education system. The Colorado Digital BOCES in conjunction with the excellent educators in Falcon’s innovative structure will advance this movement in the areas of accountability and excellence. We are proud to be a part of this endeavor, which is focused on solutions for our children.

*Student names changed to protect privacy.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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