Saturday, January 2, 2010

Charter Mania

On Monday, the Board of Education will have a presentation by the planning group that is proposing an environmentally-focused project-based charter middle school. The Badger Rock Middle School is the first charter proposal to come before the board since the Studio School debacle a few years back. From what we are hearing in the community, it is not likely to be the last (more on that later).

Proposed Charter: Badger Rock Middle School

What we will be deciding now: The board will be asked to approve the group's initial proposal, which will form the basis of a planning grant application to the Department of Public Instruction. If the planning grant is awarded, the group will carry out additional work necessary to develop and design the charter school in greater detail, and develop a proposal that would come before the board requesting approval of the creation of the school and its charter.

The project in a nutshell: The Badger Rock Middle School is envisioned as one piece of a larger center for sustainability and urban agriculture education under the Badger Resilience Center umbrella. Partners in the project include the Center for Resilient Cities, Growing Power of Milwaukee, Madison Urban Land Trust, and other community partners. Business and community partners that will be involved in helping to develop resources for the school include Sustain Dane, MG&E, the Madison Area Community Land Trust, South Metropolitan Planning Council, Madison Children's Museum, Community Groundworks at Troy Gardens, Madison Community Foundation, City of Madison, Edgewood College, and UW-Madison. Not bad.

The Planning Team includes highly experienced teachers from MMSD and other districts, community members, and members of local non-profits. The Advisory Committee includes heavy-hitter Gloria Ladson-Billings, and a host of UW-faculty and staff, and current and former MMSD teachers. Also not bad.

 The school would be part of the Badger Resilience Center complex that will be located on the currently vacant Badger School property just off of Rimrock Road behind the Badger Bowl on Madison's south side. The facilities have been vacant for some time, and a good deal of work will need to be done before the center realizes it's goals of establishing a vibrant working farm, community center, and cafe + the school.

The initial proposal articulates a model that combines traditional instructional methods with hands-on project-based learning designed to fully engage students. The classrooms are described as multi-level, to allow students to work at a range of capabilities and collaborate across ranges of knowledge and expertise. The school would innovate on the calendar, running year-around with a number of breaks that would bring the school year into alignment with the number of days of instruction that are standard in the rest of the district.

Students would be drawn from the surrounding neighborhoods and city wide; organizers expect the largest number of students to be drawn from the Sennett Middle School attendance area.

So, nu? In some ways, it is a comfort to consider the initial proposal in the context of a potential planning grant with no other guarantees. There is a lot to like in this proposal, and an impressive number of talented educators have donated their time and talent to work through various iterations of the proposal. And that work has paid off in an initial proposal that, in my personal opinion, should be fleshed out with a planning grant.

At the same time, there are a number of questions that need to be addressed before the proposal can  be approved as a charter. And that is just fine. That's why it's called an initial proposal.

Some of the questions have to do with the challenges of meeting the standards identified in the middle school redesign project that was carried out a few years ago. With a proposed maximum of 120 students, this would be among our smallest middle schools and would surely encounter the same challenges of curricular breadth with limited staff allocations that we have seen in Spring Harbor and Wright.

Other questions involve the challenges of meeting the objective of recruiting students and engaging families in the school neighborhood. It can be done, but at this time the planning group does not include significant representation from the families that are at the heart of the proposal.

Still other questions hinge on the impact of the very real budget shortfall that MMSD will face in 2010-11, and the constraints and policy decisions that could emerge as we work to do the least damage to instructional programs while managing inadequate resources.

And Rumors of Charters...

 For the past few months, a Long Range Planning Committee has been meeting "discuss student enrollment and building capacity trends of the MMSD schools located within the La Follette High School attendance area, and to generate and evaluate ideas for long-range planning related to the space and programmatic needs of these schools, including possible school boundary changes." 

The following discussion is my personal perspective, and is offered to explain why I cannot be more specific about the ideas that are being considered.

In a departure from past practice, the Board of Education has not been involved with the process of identifying committee members, and has not received notices of meetings, so our information is a bit sketchy. I have requested the names of committee members and any minutes of past meetings, but have not yet received a response to that request.

Early on, we heard rumors and off hand comments suggesting that at least part of the focus included the possibility of creating charter or magnet schools to address overcrowding in the LaFollette attendance area. When the Badger Rock School proposal surfaced, I assumed that this proposal was the basis for the rumors.

A week or so ago, we learned that the Badger Rock School proposal was just the tip of the iceberg when we received copies of a school newsletter that specifically talked of the principal's hope of converting the school to a charter school. When board president Arlene Silveira sent the PDF of the newsletter to the superintendent, he confirmed that charters and other innovations were part of the discussions that are underway in that committee, with the implication that there could be more charter proposals (plural) coming to us in addition to Badger Rock School.

Item 2 on the LaFollette attendance area Long Range Planning Committee confirms this information, reading: Discussion of charter schools, magnet schools and other unique programs

At this time, all the board has is the initial Badger Rock School proposal and a general confirmation that more will likely be coming our way. Will update this blog as more information and/or the meeting minutes from the LaFollette LRP surface.

Is the Madison Board of Education Anti-Charter?
Contrary to Nuestro Mundo parent Scott Milfred's frequent assertions that the Madison Board of Education is hostile and unwilling to consider charter schools, a significant number -- if not all -- of the current board are willing to consider charter proposals. When we went through the Studio Charter proposal a few years ago, we created a set of guidelines so that future planners and boards would have some ground rules for what would be expected in a successful process. I read the proposals critically -- I do not believe that charter schools guarantee academic excellence, and I need to care whether the proposed school does not violate our equity policy or generate a significant draw on scarce resources. That said, if there is a proposal that shows promise of creating a high quality school that serves the full range of our district students, I am willing to approve a charter. I cannot speak for other board members, other than to say that the rumors of our opposition are largely fiction.