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School Change vs. Systemic Change

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Dear Stacey,

In your last letter you listed nine “attributes of an effective school.” All the attributes are indeed important. The ones that caught my attention, however, were numbers 3, 4, and 5. These specifically inspired me to reflect on the inherent conflict between school and system.

For attribute number 3 you wrote that effective schools must possess “school-level autonomy on matters such as programming, curriculum, budgeting and staffing and other policy decisions of importance.”

As individual schools have increased autonomy, how can we maintain continuity of education across the system of schools serving a community? For example, schools may use their autonomy to serve specific grade levels. In Community X, School A serves K-5, School B serves 5-8, and school C serves 6-12.  All three configurations might make sense at the individual school level, but as a system of schools within a community they may not meet the needs of students and families. Should grade-level configuration and feeder patterns cross the lines of school-level decisions and school system decisions?

For attribute number 4, you wrote that schools need to have “the ability to determine class size and cut off over-the-counter enrollment.”

Managing enrollment (class size and school size as well as timing of enrollment) is a powerful tool for individual school success. I have had experience on both sides of this street, and it is simply easier to have success when a school can manage enrollment. Yet again we have potential for a school effectiveness attribute to be essential at the school level but troublesome from a system perspective. For example, School D manages enrollment carefully. It has an enrollment protocol where families must go through an orientation and sign a “contract.” It stops enrolling students when it reaches a specific number in each class and grade and does not enroll students after a certain point during the school year, even if spots are open. School E, right down the street serving the same community and the same grade configuration, has no enrollment process and admits students whenever they show up. An argument could be made that School D is great for the students it serves, but that argument is hard to stretch into systems thinking.

And for attribute number 5, you wrote that effective schools have a “balanced enrollment of high-needs students.”

I infer from what you wrote that you no longer have the admissions policy that you did when you first opened. Sounds like your policy was designed to ensure a specific “mix” of students that you felt was important for the education of all students at the school. Again, my experience having been on both sides of this one is that, at the school level, it is definitely advantageous for a host of reasons to have control over the “types” of students served. So, School F and School G serve grades 6-8 in the same community; School F controls the mix and types of students and School G takes all students who show up. The implications for the schools are obvious. The unintended consequences within the community maybe are a little less so. But we can say for certain that decisions like these made at individual schools without thought to the larger system will have consequences.

My point here is not at all to poke holes in the attributes you wrote about, but to identify the need to balance individual school decisions with school system decisions. I believe our current dialogue about education is narrow in many ways. One way it is narrow is its focus on individual school improvement at the expense of, or with no thought of, systemic improvement. And, by system, I do not mean the district, but a larger concept of system including all the organizations, individuals, and other resources that are intended to support the education of students.

Last thought — it is important to note that while the attributes I discussed above are common elements of some charter schools (definitely not all), they are most significant at specialized non-charters like have very narrow focus (i.e. arts, gifted and talented, etc.).

I am curious to hear how you see the balance, or imbalance, of these decisions in Queens.


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.