Charter “Restarts” Offer Alternative to Closing Failing Schools

When a charter school doesn’t uphold its end of the charter bargain—autonomy for accountability—and fails to produce strong student learning, must closing the school be the only option? Scattering its students—especially when they have no other high-quality schools available nearby—may disrupt an already-fragile community unnecessarily, if a better option exists. One promising alternative: Introduce new adults who have the will and skill to help struggling students achieve, and let the students stay.

A new report by Public Impact’s Daniela Doyle and Tim Field, The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform: Honoring our Commitments to Students and Public Accountability explores a variation on school closure in which a charter school’s operator and board change, while the school continues to serve the same students.

At their best, charter schools can give disadvantaged students strong learning boosts, closing substantial learning gaps. But a recent study of charter school performance in 16 states found that nearly 40 percent of charter schools achieved less academic growth than comparable traditional district schools.

Charter school restarts offer a way to intervene when performance does not meet expectations–and not just as a last-ditch effort to avoid closure. When the conditions are right, restarts can also be used proactively by responsible boards and authorizers.

This report, prepared for NewSchools Venture Fund, examines how these charter restarts fit within the larger context of charter school quality and accountability, and describes how restarts worked at five charter schools: Henry Ford Academy: Power House High in Chicago; Harriet Tubman in New Orleans; Paul Robeson in Trenton, NJ; Harlem Day in New York; and Hardy Williams in Philadelphia.

Relatively few charter schools have restarted, and the report’s featured cases represent very early restart efforts. But they offer preliminary lessons from which the authors drew recommendations for existing school boards and authorizers to make charter school restart an effective and replicable strategy.

Recommendations for existing school boards:

Incorporate restart strategy into school improvement planning options by rigorously evaluating school performance on an ongoing basis, considering restart as a potential strategy, and keeping students’ interests first.
Augment the board’s capacity for restart by assessing its strengths and weaknesses and engaging external partners to fill any talent gaps.
Champion the restart publicly to build support for it in the community by endorsing the restart and working with the new operator to engage and recruit families.

Recommendations for authorizers:

Encourage boards of struggling schools to consider restart as part of school improvement planning by emphasizing the board’s public obligation, discussing restart as a viable and welcomed alternative to incremental change or closure, and setting clear performance criteria.
Establish a transparent and rigorous process to evaluate and approve restart plans, including both the authorizer’s evaluation and approval criteria for the restart plan and the qualifications upon which operators and new board members will be evaluated.
Establish and oversee a clear and comprehensive process for implementing the restart plan once approved, including a timeline for key activities and the role each major actor will play.

Public Impact’s Bryan C. Hassel and Lucy Steiner pioneered the concept of restarts in their 2003 brief Starting Fresh. A decade later, restarts are providing charter school boards with an opportunity to effectively and proactively address poor academic performance well before charter renewal and closure become issues. When the conditions are right, a new school operator and new board can dramatically improve academic outcomes. And when charter school boards can reflect on their struggles and proactively pursue a restart strategy, students get the opportunity to start fresh with adults newly committed to their learning success.

—Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Asycue Hassel

Sharon Kebschull Barrett contributed to this post.

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