Charter schools need to do more homework

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 23, 2013 

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Clockwise from left, fifth-graders Alexa Haglund, Sarah Olivarri and Hannah Thompson watch as Payton Miller and Ahnasia Williams play a clapping game while waiting for school to let out at Bridges Preparatory School in Beaufort. Bridges Prep lost its head of school less than a month after it opened in August.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

If Beaufort County charter schools are any indication, the state needs to do a better job of preparing leaders for the first year of school.

The dividing line seems to be the day the school doors open.

Before that big day arrives, a core group of leaders has put in months or years of work. They have walked the tedious and demanding journey from a germ of an idea to the reality of a school with a state charter, a board of directors, a staff director, faculty, building, lunches, school calendars, books and much more.

What comes after classes start appears to be an even bigger challenge for the founders -- turning their dream over to an administrator.

The new Bridges Preparatory School in Beaufort lost its administrator in the first month of school. She resigned, saying the board was micro-managing the school and she could not work that way.

In 2009, the Riverview Charter School in Beaufort fired its first director midway through its first year. The director's subsequent lawsuit against the school was settled for $75,000. One of the school's founders became the head of staff.

The state is aware of this problem. Wayne Brazell, superintendent for the S.C. Public Charter School District, said there's even a term for it: "founder's syndrome." And he said it is a concern.

The nonprofit Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina advocates for charter schools and offers them many resources. The alliance says it is has begun giving more training to prepare the board and the director before a school opens.

Apparently, it's not enough.

Inadequate preparation is unfair to parents and teachers, who find themselves taking sides and needlessly veering off course during what should be an invigorating first year. When teamwork and attitude should be at a high point, discord reigns.

At Bridges Preparatory Schools, we've seen an emergency board meeting called for a Sunday afternoon, at which some parents were told they could not distribute a leaflet outside the meeting doors. That is wrong. And we've seen a lack of clarity on a basic item -- board elections.

Some growing pains are natural, but they are a distraction that should be better anticipated and not tolerated. They take away from more important questions about charter schools: Do they improve achievement? Do they develop best practices that could help other schools? Do they live up to their charter? Are they accountable and transparent?

Another charter school is in the pipeline for Beaufort County, one that is to focus on Montessori teaching methods. State charter school leaders should bring more resources to bear so the school can open with less drama than we've seen at other charter schools.

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