- Identify the right solution.
Nia Phillips, chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Education”s Office of Innovation and Improvement, says her department fully evaluates the condition of schools. Under DOE”s School Improvement Grants programs, districts seeking federal funds to revive an institution must choose four options: 1) closing a school while ensuring students can attend a better one nearby; 2) restarting an institution that’s usually taken over by a charter operator; 3) promoting a turnaround by replacing a principal and significant portion of the staff; and 4) undergoing a transformation in which a new principal is installed and major reforms are implemented. Parents and community groups should scrutinize their schools in similar fashion to determine the best course of action..
- Develop your own school.
To close the academic achievement gap for black children, Peter Groff, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, advocates development of more high-performing institutions. In some cases, this move can be led by non-profit and religious organizations. To launch such schools, individuals need to become familiar with state laws and policies, identify a core funding source and work with a charter school management organization to gain authorization. Groff and Cobb serve as great resources for such efforts. For instance, Cobb manages two statewide funds with $45 million for charter school development and served as former CEO and co-founder of Chicago’s Urban Prep Academies—a model institution with a 70% graduation rate and 100% college acceptance rate of its graduates. Phillips says individuals can access the federal Charter School Grant Program.
- Promote school choice.
Ebony Lee, senior program officer for the Gates Foundation, says parents and students need “multiple models, ” including innovative charter schools and top-performing magnet schools. Panelists also promoted homeschooling in which students are taught by parents or tutors as another viable option.
- Develop top teachers and administrators.
One key to quality education is attracting high-caliber talent. In fact, the Gates Foundation recently provided a $7.6 million grant to Education Pioneers, a national non-profit group, to recruit and train more than 500 professionals and graduate students for leadership positions outside the classroom, positioning them in school districts, public charter organizations and state departments of education. Even though unions have largely been resistant to teacher tenure reform, Lee says some local branches of the National Education Association have been receptive to “merit pay” models and programs that stress “educational effectiveness versus teacher longevity.”
- Let your voice be heard.
Kevin Chavous, chairman of the Black Alliance for Education Options, says community members “must show the courage to take a stand for the kids” whether it means becoming more politically involved, engaging in protests or connecting with influential supporters. That’s how Chavous, in part, was effective in pushing the charter school movement and funding the first federal scholarship program to allow 2,000 low-income children to attend private schools in the nation’s capital. Daryl Cobb warns such activism will likely ruffle government officials, school administrators and educators so “be willing to lose friends. We have to remember that this fight is not about adult agendas but the education of our kids.”