Thursday, July 8, 2010

Thoughts on the Dunwoody Charter Cluster by a parent who helped rewrite the Peachtree Middle School Charter.

My friend Donna Nall is the past Chair of the of the Executive Council at Peachtree Charter Middle School and was tasked at rewriting the School Charter for approval by the State. Below is the latest from her blog where she describes the process and expounds on the possible educational improvements under a Cluster Charter System.

Donna, our children are so much richer with parents like you and your team who dedicate so much time and talent to improving the community. Thank you.

Yesterday, I trekked to the Georgia Department of Education's Charter Schools Committee meeting to receive their blessing on Peachtree Middle's charter renewal petition. I sat with several representatives from Peachtree and Kingsley Elementary School, whose charter is also up for renewal (and was approved!).

Behind the scenes, when most folks were busy with lots and lots of other stuff, Peachtree parents were wrestling with, researching, adapting, surveying, and writing a new charter for Peachtree, one with tremendous latitude for curricula, scheduling, staffing, use of designated funding, and waivers from state and county restrictions.

The committee praised Peachtree for its academic rigor and the fact that the innovations in our last charter became standards for the entire county (seven period schedule, daily PE, world languages, et al). Then they questioned us sharply about our AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) scores in science and math with 8th graders (we're suffering the same pangs as the rest of the state thanks to the new curricula), our attendance zone (we accept every student who lives in our district, plus we have a lottery and waitlist for other students - we're too full to open any more spots), where our funding comes from (I think they forgot that as a conversion charter we're funded primarily by DeKalb County - but were really interested in the vitality of our Foundation, which funds teacher training, technology, additional curricula and materials, and capital projects such as new signage and a watering station for the track and field area).

Our 90+ document covered every single question with such clarity that the questioning lasted just a few moments. Then they agreed to submit charter to the State Board of Education. This morning. I'm watching the webcast for that final blessing.

Working on a charter is a keen balancing act between optimistic boosterism and a grounded grasp of reality. I embrace the idea that every student has value and deserves the best possible education. I also believe that Dunwoody must have superlative schools - I demand no less as a parent, a taxpayer, a homeowner, and a volunteer in the schools.

We have made major gains in recent years thanks to savvy Dunwoody parent volunteers, great teachers, and some key school administrators - and in spite of sometimes backbreaking and mindless directives from the county school system.

There is so much more we can do.

It's time to focus on developing a Dunwoody Charter Cluster for our schools. Dan Weber has been working at the grassroots level on this concept (and not just for Dunwoody - Chamblee is discussing the possibility, too.)  This umbrella Charter Cluster would give Dunwoody the kind of local control we need for our schools.

I predict that a Charter Cluster would engage our community much the same way becoming a City did, by creating a sense of ownership and empowerment that has been lacking in the one-size-fits-all county administration system. Local businesses will be far more likely to support schools when they see a direct connection between their donations and the results in Dunwoody schools. Parents will get even more involved because their voices would not get lost in the cacophony far across the county. There are resources and talents available in the community that will impact the schools with far-reaching benefits. And accountability will be immediate and dealt with proactively - if something isn't working, it won't take a Titannic-sized tugboat to turn things around.

Yes, we'd still be subject to DCSS for funding, staffing, and transportation. But the recently enhanced Charter Schools Law gives Charter schools tremendous flexibility in spending, scheduling, curricula, obtaining outside resources, and choosing curricula and materials that are far more specific to student needs at the local level.

Just as important, a Charter Cluster allows each school within the cluster to adapt even more locally. The needs of each school, from elementary to high school, are not always the same.

So, some "what if's" for a Dunwoody Charter Cluster:

1. What if we add a career track academy to Dunwoody High so that all students could graduate along the path that best suits their needs, whether college or skilled job placement? (DHS already has Mass Communications and Finance academies.)

2. What if we mandate balanced enrollment in our elementary schools? Convert the 4-5 school to all grades AND renovate the Shallowford School property.

3. What if we rethink the middle school model and offered parents the option of a K-8 school instead?

4. What if we operate on a balanced schedule, ie year round school with three-week breaks between sessions and a five-week summer break?

5. What if we move Dunwoody High's schedule later in the day to embrace the reality that high school students have a different inner sleep clock than the rest of us?

6. What if we establish a Cluster Foundation to pursue the millions of dollars in grants and resources available to schools? This funding would give Dunwoody tremendous flexibility in capital projects, classroom technology and materials, stipends to support teachers and administrators, and so much more.

7. What if we have a capital campaign to build our own sports facility? (There's space - we just have to be creative in WHERE the stadium is located.)

8. What if there is a direct link between multi-family and high density zoning approval and school capacity?

9. What if parents' mindset inverts from an all-consuming focus on their elementary school to feeling part of a continuum that culminates in Dunwoody High School? The best school districts in the nation are not labeled "XYZ Elementary School" - they're identified by the HIGH SCHOOL.

10. What if each school can spend the funds allocated by the county according to their specific needs? There will be accountability, but there will also be tremendous flexibility (no more America's Choice or Springboard or other canned edu-fluff).

That's just a start.

I realize that my kids likely won't benefit directly from a Charter Cluster (one graduates next year, the other enters High School in 2011), but my family will. Because we're here in Dunwoody for the long run, and it's the right thing for our community.

Donna Cannady Nall


Momfirst said...

Wow Donna. Thank you!

Judi said...

I applaud you for being such a great steward to our community. Your passion is making me wonder why I am not participating in our great city in the same way. Thank you for opening my eyes.

John Heneghan said...

Congratulations to Donna and the entire Peachtree Charter team for successfully navigating the system to renewing the Peachtree Charter.

Below is the link to the final and approved document.

Peachtree Middle School Charter