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Key to charter success: a principal rarely found in school's front office

A student at KIPP Believe sports the mantra that has made the hard-driving charter network one of the city's most successful. Photo: Folwell Dunbar

By Folwell Dunbar, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Over the years I have had an opportunity to conduct quality reviews of numerous charter schools here in Louisiana and throughout the country. Working with teams of national and local experts, we look at everything from leadership and assessment practices to technology integration and community engagement. Each review identifies strengths, challenges, and trends and provides the school with developmental feedback. Among the most successful schools that I have reviewed, there are at least four common characteristics: 1) a culture of high expectations, 2) tight systems, 3) extensive feedback loops, and 4) incredible talent.

“You gotta start with culture,” a school leader once told me. “It’s one of the ideas we borrowed from parochial schools.” From daily shout-outs and the posting of ambitious goals, to naming classrooms after the universities attended by their teachers and referring to students as “scholars,” these schools do everything imaginable to meld and support a positive learning environment.  All stakeholders are committed to the school’s mission, vision and core beliefs; everyone has high expectations and no one makes excuses.

I once visited a school where it took a class over half an hour to use the bathroom. This would never happen at a high-performing school. Time is too valuable. From having kids read in line to offering incentives for taking care of business more quickly, there would be a system – a really tight one. Classroom transitions, lesson plans, board meeting agendas, professional development, financial controls, back-office support, it’s all designed and implemented with efficiency, effectiveness and a single goal in mind: to maximize learning.  It’s basically Taylorism for education. (Henry Ford would be impressed.) “We’re starting from behind,” a charter school founder said. “There’s a great deal of urgency. It’s why we sweat the small stuff!

To find my favorite principal, I always know where not to look: his office. Instead, he spends most of his time in the classroom providing teachers with feedback on their instruction. “This is where the action is,” he says. “It’s where we make a difference. We’ve gotta be at the top of our game!” The highest performing charters utilize extensive feedback loops to improve teaching and learning. They pore over student performance, curriculum, perception and demographic data, make adjustments, and then measure again. “It’s all about the data,” a school’s Knowledge Czar (their term) said. “Ya have to know where you are to get where you’re going.”

“We look for folks with bandwidth,” a charter school leader told me. “They need to have thick skin – take criticism well. They must be malleable,” said another principal. (See feedback loops.) “Highly qualified is fine, but it’s highly effective that matters most,” said another. The best charter schools all put a premium on “human capital.” Tapping Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, local and national universities, other schools and other professions, they look near and far for the very best and the brightest. Echoing Good to Great, Jim Collins’ book analyzing corporate self-improvement, they find a way to “get (and keep) the right people on the bus.”

When asked to explain his school’s extraordinary results, a principal admitted, “It’s not magic. And, it has nothing to do with being a charter. Like any good school, private or public, we just do whatever it takes.” For successful schools like KIPP, Akili, Sci Academy, and Lafayette, “whatever it takes” definitely includes a culture of high expectations, tight systems, extensive feedback loops and incredible talent.

Folwell Dunbar reviews charter schools around the country for SchoolWorks, an education consulting group.

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  • Claire Sather

    “You gotta start with culture,”

    I hear this all the time. It’s not that I disagree. “Culture” (whatever we’ve decided that means) is certainly important. However, I see no reason why excellence in instruction can’t be a dual focus. (This is not to say that KIPP doesn’t have great instruction — I think that they serve their students incredibly well. Just want that to be clear.)
    How is it fair to kids for a new charter school to spend two to three years getting “culture” right, before putting an emphasis on instruction? Both can happen. We need more experienced teacher-leaders to support and coach new teachers not just in management, but in instruction. A calm and orderly classroom is not an indicator of learning. It might be — but I’ve seen (and taught!) rooms that are quiet and orderly as can be, but lack rigor and critical thinking. I think KIPP does amazing things, but it’s just one model. True innovation and change requires that we be a city that has schools that look and feel all sorts of ways.

  • Folwell Dunbar

    Great points. I completely agree. Obviously, all of these (and others) can and should occur simultaneously. Also, culture, as hard as it can be to define, certainly amounts to much more than just orderly classrooms. And you’re right, instructional quality is paramount!

    I’m all for variety. I’ve been beating that drum for a long time now – and continue to be disappointed. (By the way, there’s a great deal of variety among KIPP schools.) Unfortunately, we have an accountability system with a very narrow definition of success. We require all students to jump through the same hoops in the same way at the same time. Then, we give them and their schools a grade. Unfortunately, this sometimes dictates the model. Until we figure out how to differentiate outcomes, we’ll just have to root for those innovative schools that are getting it done in their own unique way…