Let Citizens Take the Lead

I’ve long believed that the most important thing that policymakers can do is to step back, remove the barriers, and allow citizens to take the lead. That policy is fundamental to the origins of chartering. But as demonstrated in a recent “Third Way” turnaround effort of a single school, that may be even more true on the micro level.

As noted last week, authorizer commitment to turn around LoveWorks Academy for Visual and Performing Arts (LWA) rather than close it resulted in a fascinating case study of “Charter School Turnaround in Minnesota.” The authorizer wisely realized that to be successful, parents, board members, and community members (“LWA Community”) needed to be actively involved in driving school-based change. But they needed support and resources to guide them.

The authorizer, Pillsbury United Communities, engaged The School Leadership Project (TSLP) to build community capacity and knowledge about practices of highly-effective schools and to outline and manage a rigorous process of operator selection. This enabled the LWA Community to drive the selection process in accordance with its own expertise and perspectives, while allowing the authorizer to remain in its statutory oversight role.

The partnership between TSLP and LWA Community ensured focus on critical parts of the process: defining a vision for the turnaround, establishing criteria for promising operator candidates, and selecting an operator. They created a Turnaround Committee, a small group of parents and board members. Together the committee and TSLP immediately began to develop their vision for their school and build the committee members’ knowledge about characteristics of high-performing charter schools.

They started with conversations about the history of the school, its historical academic performance, and their vision of what they wanted their school to be. From there, TSLP introduced a framework for understanding the practices and mindsets of high-performing charter schools, using five characteristics identified by researchers Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer: frequent teacher feedback, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and a relentless focus on academic achievement. They toured successful schools in the Twin Cities to see these characteristics in action.

Key to this process, the committee incorporated the five characteristics into what the team dubbed “The LoveWorks Way,” their own approach to school culture and student leadership that defined the school’s enduring and beloved spirit. Effective change rests on the opportunity for stakeholders to define their own vision for change, including honoring and preserving their identity.

The lesson learned? Given opportunity, parents will become experts on the business of schooling and the needs of their school. This expertise positions parents to be powerful voices in school accountability and school improvement conversations, leveling the playing field for parents, reformers and school operators. They were then prepared to make a well-informed choice in selecting an operator. More on that Thursday.