This past weekend, more than 560 school board members and superintendents sat down together to learn as much as there is to know about charter schools in Alabama, thanks to the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB).
The theme for this year’s annual Summer Conference was “The New Normal“, which focused on education reform efforts in Alabama.
The conference, held at the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Alabama, kicked off Friday with sessions to orient new board members to their roles and responsibilities.
The majority of the rest of the weekend was spent learning about charter schools, though there were sessions on other innovations in school reform.
This year’s attendance was the largest in the past ten years, according to Denise Berkhalter, Director of Public Relations for the AASB, and included not only school board members and superintendents, but also those serving school board members in local districts.
When asked the reason why the AASB chose this year’s theme, Berkhalter said, “Education is going through an evolution, and we want our board members to be not only ready for the new changes but also aware of what’s already going on, the changes that have already happened and making sure that they’re prepared to lead in that kind of environment.”
In addition to the passage of the charter school law this year, board members are faced with an almost constantly-changing environment within which to make decisions about their local schools.
“Training Is Essential”
The School Board Governance Improvement Act was passed in 2012. Among other things, the Act requires school board members to participate in two hours of whole-board training (learning together as a board) as well as participate in individual training sessions.
While the Act requires six hours of annual training, this weekend’s training fulfilled more than enough, counting for seven hours of training. If members participated in the opening orientation sessions, that counted for an additional
seven fourteen hours.
With respect to the record attendance, Berkhalter remarked, “Obviously board members are taking seriously what the Governance Act has put forth, which is that training is essential.”
Whole-board training was not offered at the conference, but rather is held in the board members’ local district.
Charter Schools in Alabama
AASB Executive Director Sally Howell, who was appointed as one of the ten members of the Commission, was generally positive about the addition of public charter schools to the “toolbox” available to local school boards.
She made it clear that charter schools were now a part of Alabama’s public school landscape, and boards should take the time to determine whether public charter schools could better serve students that have been struggling in traditional public schools.
Examining what role school board members play in the world of public charter schools, many presenters shared information about what boards should consider when deciding whether they wish to serve as a charter authorizer. That decision must be made by September 1, 2015, and requires a great deal of commitment for a board.
In her opening discussion about public charter schools, Howell asked board members to consider becoming an authorizer, as that will give local boards the most control over any charter schools operating in the district.
[I posted a live blog of happenings on the Tales from the Meeting blog, complete with links to presenters’ handouts and PowerPoints.]
Boards will have another opportunity to become an authorizer, though it is unclear exactly when that opportunity will be given.
On June 11, 2015, State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice sent a memo to all superintendents outlining the process for a board to become an authorizer. There certainly is much to consider.
If a local board chooses not to be an authorizer, any charter school operator that wants to open a startup public charter school within that district must apply directly to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission.
[There are two types of public charter schools: startup and conversion. The decision to convert a public school to a public charter school can be made only by the local school board. Startup public charter schools can be authorized by a local board (if it chooses to become an authorizer), but if the local board rejects the application, the applicant can appeal to the Commission.]
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jeff Langham announced in addition to creating the “Office of Public Charter Schools”, a new section of the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) web site is now devoted to sharing information about public charter schools as it is developed.
Visit the ALSDE home page and find the yellow ribbon about midway on the page. On the far right is tab for “Public Charter Schools”. That’s where all information about public charter schools will be housed.
This “working document” is one of a number of documents designed to provide initial guidance to local school districts when considering how public charter schools might become a part of the overall school offerings.
Langham implored board members to take the time to read the entire law. So here’s the entire law.
Howell said she does not expect any startup charters to begin operation in Alabama before the 2017-2018 school year. There is a small chance that a conversion charter could begin in the 2016-2017 school year, but with guidelines still being developed, a board will have to be very aggressive to meet that timeline.
Other presenters made clear that charter schools could be helpful in addressing the needs of existing schools that are struggling to improve academic achievement for at-risk students, but the local board, if they choose to be an authorizer, needs to set a strategic vision which includes a performance framework through which to judge the effectiveness of any public charter schools operating in the district.
Dr. Alan Coverstone, who serves as the Executive Officer of Innovation for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, shared many details about Nashville’s journey with public charter schools, concluding that public charter schools were working well in Nashville, with most students attending public charter schools in Nashville being offered a high-quality education when compared with all public schools in Nashville.
His presentation is certainly worth a look.
The conference concluded on Sunday at noon.
[This article was updated on June 29 to reflect the correct number of hours earned by school board members attending both orientation sessions.]