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In quest for quality, charter advocates push careful planning

On a recent afternoon, dozens of teachers, social workers, and non-profit administrators, pored over the academic calendars of several charter schools. They were studying how a school can express its mission in the way it builds its calendar.

“There’s a lot to think about: Summer school — would that be mandatory?” asked Simeon Stolzberg, a former charter school authorizer who was leading the exercise. “You could have a year-round school, and maybe every eight weeks there would be a two-week vacation. Think about whether or not there is time in a day for teachers to plan and prep and grade — and eat lunch.”

Some of the teachers laughed, but Stolzberg was completely serious.

“Your calendar is one of the things that will set you a part from a district school,” he told the group, participants in a new program, Apply Right, that is helping prospective charter school leaders by taking them through the most minute details of school planning.

The program and two others, projects of the nonprofit New York City Charter School Center, reflect a growing sense that charter school leaders need more support than they have been getting.

“There were a number of schools that were approved in the last five years that frankly probably should not have been approved,” said James Merriman, the center’s director. “What I think we are seeing is that the bar of entry is being appropriately raised. … We want to see more charter schools, but we’re only really interested in seeing high-quality schools.”

New York is seen as having stronger charter schools than many other states. But in the rush to open new schools in recent years, some weak applications got the green light, Merriman said.

The rush was in part politically inspired. In recent years, charter school supporters focused on birthing as many schools as possible. They had a specific target in mind. They saw a state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools as a ceiling to shatter, and so they worked hard to demonstrate demand for more schools than the cap could accommodate. Last year, legislators raised that cap from 200 schools to 460.

With the start-up frenzy less acute, the center is encouraging prospective school leaders to adopt a more deliberate pace to their planning, especially because the state’s two charter school authorizers are applying increasing scrutiny to charter applications, center officials said.

“Now we have two really strong authorizing bodies in the state of New York that are tightening up their process of vetting charter schools, so we wanted to make sure the best possible applicants had the best possible training to create quality schools, as opposed to a quantity of schools,” said Niomi Plotkin, the center’s director of new schools.

While many city charter schools do post higher test scores than other schools in their districts, some do not. When the city released progress reports for elementary and middle schools last month, charter schools had some of the best grades — and some of the worst, with charters more than twice as likely as traditional district schools to get a failing score. Several schools have struggled with basic operations such as keeping their finances above board. A handful of troubled schools have even been closed down.

Charter school advocates have always aimed to see high-quality schools opened but did not always have much information about best practices, according to Peter Murphy, the director of policy and communications for the New York Charter Association.

“Now that we have more schools, more experience about what works, and what doesn’t, it’s important to share that information,” he said. “We didn’t have all that just starting out.”

Programs for charter school hopefuls “help groups navigate through a government labyrinth, and [they] also help to screen out people who just aren’t ready and need to spend more time working on their school,” Murphy said.

Participation in Apply Right, which costs $1,500 and requires an application, doesn’t guarantee that a team will be able to open a school. The schools still have to be approved by SUNY or the Board of Regents, the state’s two charter authorizers, after a process that includes a series of interviews and several different sets of reviewers.

But charter school authorizers say applications that are thoughtful and consistent have a better shot of being approved.

“There is a huge range of quality, from very coherent, very consistent, wonderful presentations to applications that are incomplete even,” Jason Sarsfield, director of applications for the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, told Apply Right participants last week.

“We often see applications that might present some design element, but their schedule or their staffing plan or their budget isn’t consistent with other areas of their application,” he said. “Maybe they have a special-ed design, but not the staff they talk about in their personnel plan to implement that.”

The inaugural Apply Right class includes 10 school-planning teams. The center wouldn’t disclose how many teams applied or how many of them contain current public school educators. But Merriman said the admissions process was selective and focused on “mom-and-pop” charter schools that might not be able to weather the planning process without expert support.

For Paula Fleshman and Briana Scott, two members of a team that is trying to open a community-oriented charter school in the South Bronx, hiring independent consultants to guide them through the lengthy authorization process wasn’t an option.

“From what we’ve heard, individual consultants can charge anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 or $40,000,” said Fleshman, a former Manhattan middle school teacher. “And that really does prohibit small charter teams like us from accessing the information to really design a school from the ground up.”

Apply Right, she said, is helping the team figure out just how their school will be able to serve the English Language Learners and children with special needs they want to enroll.

“When you first look at the application, all the requirements seem overwhelming,” said Scott, a social worker. “But when you are able to find the resources that are needed to help you develop the finance component, the social services component, the overwhelming component starts to disappear. You become more energetic to reach that goal of putting all these pieces into place and serving children.”