7 (Not So) Easy Steps to Opening a Charter School

“When are we going to Ikea?”

Operations manager Irma Samuels uses her personal cell phone while phone service is being set up in the building. MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez

Irma Samuels, the operations manager at Invictus Prep Charter School in East New York, Brooklyn, stood in an empty classroom just over a week before the first day of school on Aug. 22.

She and her office manager had set up shop behind two student desks, working with their own laptops and cell phones. They needed to go to Ikea because it was the cheapest and quickest way to furnish the principal’s office and teachers lounge.

“If we don’t leave soon, we’ll get stuck in traffic.” Samuels sighed. It didn’t look like the trip would happen that day.

On Sept. 8, teachers and administrators returned to school buildings across the city, going through the usual routine of professional development, room redecorating and meeting new students. But for several charter schools that have just opened their doors for the first time including Invictus Prep — it is a time to create entirely new systems.

So what does it take to get to that point?

Following is a peek into the process of opening a charter school in New York City, told through the experiences of Clifford Thomas, the founder and executive director of East New York’s brand-new Invictus Prep Charter School.

STEP 1: Get inspired

Clifford Thomas knows Brooklyn. He grew up in public housing, and after college taught high school science in Crown Heights. But he was soon disillusioned by what he saw as low expectations at his district school. He decided that the best way to effect change was to found his own school.

In dreaming up his model school, Thomas drew on the example of  “no excuses” charter schools like Achievement First, with college pennants on the walls and longer schools days. He chose four core values: excellence, integrity, determination and courage.

Clifford Thomas is the founder and principal of Invictus Prep. He has no assistant principals, just two academic deans, and a Board of Trustees to whom he reports. MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez

Thomas also relied on his own educational experience. He attended Prep for Prep, a program which prepares promising public school students to enter New York City private high schools. He graduated from Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights.

Thomas wants to give his students some of the empowering experiences he had: class desks arranged in a U-shaped pattern, like a college seminar; opportunities to experience theater and the arts; and what he calls a “sense of entitlement.”

“I want kids to feel entitled to a really high quality education, and upset if they don’t receive it. I want them to feel, ‘Don’t waste my time.’”

Thomas knew that he wanted to place his school in the part of New York that needed it the most, so he chose one of the most dangerous, poverty-stricken areas of Brooklyn: East New York.

STEP 2: Get some training

Thomas then applied to a Boston-based program called Building Excellent Schools, which runs a yearlong paid fellowship for aspiring school leaders. Fellows visit over 30 excellent schools along the East Coast, intern with a variety of schools and work with mentors on their school’s plan and vision. They observe the details of school life that they’ll want to copy, reform, or reject: where teachers stand in the morning to welcome kids, what they say to greet them, where students eat breakfast, how the staff manages breakfast, if teachers all use the same discipline system, how English classrooms differ from math classrooms, and on and on.

The goal is to put together a top-quality charter school application, for one of two New York State entities that can authorize the creation of a charter: the SUNY Board of Trustees, and the New York State Board of Regents.

STEP 3: Get it down in writing

“It’s relatively easy to spot applications that are like a fruitcake — a few red pieces here, a few green pieces there,” said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center and a former SUNY authorizer. When he used to read applications for the SUNY Charter School Institute, Merriman looked for proposals that told a coherent story — not a hodge-podge of potentially good ideas.

At a pre-school year professional development training, the teaching staff considers the range of issues that could arise at the new school. MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez

The SUNY charter school application (formally called a “Request for Proposal”, or RFP) asks the applicant to lay out their vision for the school, as well as practical details like the budget, profiles of the executive board, and school policies and procedures, including guidelines for termination of the school leader.

The most important sections, though, are those related to academic success and accountability. Applicants have to describe their pedagogy, provide English and math unit plans, and lay out exactly who will be responsible for advising at-risk students.

Applicants also have to provide proof of community support — parents who want to enroll their children, community organizations who are on board. To get that, Thomas passed out information on street corners, attended PTA meetings and spoke with community leaders.

STEP 4: Get your team

About a week before school started, Invictus Prep did not yet have the desks and chairs it needed for its 100 students. The shipment arrived in time for the school's opening. MetroFocus/ Melissa Galvez

For about a year after his application was approved, Thomas worked mostly by himself, setting up accounts with vendors, choosing curriculum and getting parents to enroll in the lottery. Most applicants hire administrative staff and teachers during this “planning year,” but Thomas struggled to find people who met his stringent standards and were on-board with the mission and rigors of the school’s curriculum.

Thomas would ask prospective teachers questions like, “If you see a fifth grader coming out of the bathroom with his shirt untucked — and the school dress code requires it to be tucked in — what would you do? Give them a demerit? A warning? Let it go?”

Thomas has a few different answers which he feels would jive with school culture, but mostly he wanted to know how the teacher would think about the problem.

By mid-summer 2011 he had hired most of his teachers, many of whom came from Teach for America.  Some of those were right out of college, but some have had real world experience, whether as an assistant district attorney or as an English teacher in China.

STEP 5: Get a space

And course, a school is not a school without a building. Currently, 87 charter schools are “co-located” in New York City public school buildings, while 51 operate in private locales.  In order to get a public school space, Thomas had to present his proposed enrollment numbers to the New York City Department of Education and attend public hearings, during which some schools already in the building his school would inhabit voiced opposition.

However, he had sufficient community support to score a location, and assumed that the issue was settled. Then his school was one of 15 named in a lawsuit brought by the United Federation of Teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which challenges the right of charter schools to co-locate in city buildings.  That case is still pending,however his school was allowed to open. Those hoping to open a charter school in 2012 will have to wait until the fall for any firm idea of where they can place their schools.

STEP 6: Get students

With a non-charter district school, enrolling students is easy. But with a charter school, parents must make a choice and are often subject to the whims of the lottery process.  Thomas sent out letters and phone calls to all parents of  fourth graders in the surrounding neighborhoods and got 306 applicants for his first lottery.

And just like in the movie “Waiting for Superman,” he and his staff pulled little white balls out of a spinning bingo basket in order to choose the random students who would be selected.

STEP 7: Get it together

Teachers fill out "Exit Tickets" at the end of a training session to mimic what Invictus Prep students will do at the end of each class. MetroFocus/ Melissa Galvez

Thomas hired his operations manager, Irma Samuels, on Aug. 1, with the school set to open only three weeks later. The teachers — all eight of them, plus two academic deans — had been meeting for two weeks to build school culture, plan units and learn about topics like special education.

As a group, the teachers addressed questions they’ve never had to face in the classroom: how, for example, will Invictus Prep students assess their own progress after each class?  What will student orientation look like?

In early August, Thomas had just gotten in a shipment of student desks and chairs from the Department of Education. The phone company was scheduled to come and move around phone lines. The teachers were setting up their classrooms, hanging college banners and encouraging signs on the walls. Some of these tasks are common to all schools, but rarely does a district school leader have to go to Ikea for some desk lamps.

Thomas says he feels good about their readiness for the school year, but warns, “A lot of people tell me, ‘Wow, you’re starting a school, that’s really amazing.’ But it’s important to have perspective that I haven’t done anything yet. We have great potential, we need to execute.”

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