Incubate to promulgate

Since
2005, Fordham has been working in Ohio to recruit high quality charter schools
to neighborhoods badly in need of better schools. During our six-plus years of
effort as a charter authorizer we have managed to recruit just two
high-performing models to Columbus (KIPP and a BES school). Tougher still, we
have been unable to recruit any to our home town of Dayton. We know first-hand the
challenge of helping to recruit and launch great schools. It is for this reason
that we are excited about the work of organization across the country to
accelerate the growth of great new schools through a strategic process called “charter
incubation.” 

Charter
incubators are entities that intentionally build the supply of high-quality
schools and charter-management organizations (CMOs) in cities or regions by
recruiting, selecting, and training promising leaders, and supporting those
leaders as they launch new schools. Groups leading this innovative effort
include New
Schools for New Orleans
, the
Tennessee Charter School Incubator
, Get
Smart Schools
in Colorado, Charter
School Partners
in Minnesota, The Mind Trust’s Charter School
Incubator
in Indianapolis, and 4.0
Schools
in several southeastern states.

These
organizations are united in their belief that the development of great charter
schools can be accelerated through the recruitment, selection, and development
of talented school leaders and the support of those leaders as they open and
operate charter schools. Incubators provide an up-front quality screen for new
leaders and intensive support on the ground, they boost the odds that new
schools will succeed. Incubators are building on the success of charter school
management organizations (CMOs).

The
best CMOs have achieved exceptional results. For example, in 2010, Cleveland’s
Breakthrough Schools – with a population of 80 percent low income and 95
percent minority students – outperformed city and state schools on every state
test for the grades they serve (grades 3-8), often by substantial margins. Many
other CMOs (Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP, Aspire Public Schools)
across the country have reported similarly impressive results.

Public
Impact’s crackerjack researchers Joe Ableidinger and Julie Kowal explain in
their new policy brief—Better
Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School
Sector
—that incubators are an important tool to help meet the demands
of parents and students for more quality schools of choice. An estimated
420,000 students linger on charter waiting lists. Hundreds of thousands more
are stuck in failing schools without quality options available.

Yet,
despite this demand, high-quality charters are growing too slowly. Ableidinger
and Kowal cite statistics from 2011-12 that show the country’s top five CMOs—Uncommon
Schools, KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot and Achievement First—together
serve just 61,000 pupils.

How
to grow better schools faster? The authors distill five main characteristics of
successful charter incubators:

1.     
Selective screening for high-potential school leaders. Incubators focus
on the recruitment and selection of top talent, restricting their services to a
small group vetted for its leadership promise.

2.     
Strategic focus on leadership development. Incubators develop promising
leaders or leadership teams through rigorous fellowships and training programs
over many months that help them open and operate successful schools.

3.     
Expertise in new starts. While some charter-support organizations
provide ongoing services to charter schools, incubators primary focus is on
recruiting and supporting new charter start-ups or new school leaders,
including the provision of financial resources to talented leaders to develop
and build new schools.

4.     
Public accountability. As a result of their intense, direct
relationships with school leaders, incubators, their funders, and the public
tend to judge their success by the performance of the schools they incubated.

5.     
Regional focus. Local ties help incubators provide powerful support to
school leaders as they open and operate new schools. Such targeted assistance
can include access to funding, introductions to other local leaders, technical
expertise (e.g. financial, academic or organizational), or direct support to
encourage things like a planning year, intensive fellowship programs and
training activities.

Ableidinger
and Kowal also highlight strategies that federal, state, and local policymakers
can implement to launch, strengthen, and expand the work of charter incubators.
The authors note, “targeted funding and changes to key policies can help
incubators thrive in their target cities or regions, boosting the supply of
promising leaders who start high-performing charter schools and ensuring that
these leaders are adequately supported as they open and operate their schools.”

The
emerging work of charter incubators across the country is an important reform
strategy for states and communities to learn more about. As Better Choices
points out, the cost of incubation is far lower than the costs of other reform
options and slighter still compared to the social and economic costs of
continued school failure.

This article
originally
appeared in last week’s Education Gadfly.

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