Leadership: Grow What Works

Leadership: Grow What Works

This piece is part of our interactive, Authorizer Showcases, which highlight how authorizers around the country are tackling obstacles related to access and accountability.

Author Kathryn Mullen Upton of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Ohio families need more quality public schools. As one of our state’s charter school authorizers, we’re in a position to spur the growth of new schools, and have a responsibility to do it wisely

There are different ways to do that, though. That’s where leadership comes in.

Some cities seek new energy from elsewhere, recruiting nationally-proven school operators to come to their hometown and change the education landscape. We’re not categorically against that idea. But, for Dayton, like so many other cities in Ohio and elsewhere competing for the same groups of CMOs (charter management organizations), it’s really tough, unless we have significant carrots to dangle.

Dayton is one of the five cities where Fordham currently authorizes 13 schools serving about 5,000 students. Dayton’s need for more good schools is stark: out of 608 school districts in the state, Dayton Public Schools is second from the bottom, and a perennial low-ranker.

But here’s the rub: we don’t have these carrots—things like millions of dollars in start-up funds, or facilities—to attract and keep these nationally-proven CMOs.

So Fordham decided to shift our emphasis from recruitment to expansion–taking our successful schools, then putting our resources into growing them. That’s just what we did with DECA (the Dayton Early College Academy), one of the schools in our portfolio that was doing particularly well.

This school was founded as a small high school over 10 years ago. Today it has three campuses—elementary, middle, and high school—1,174 students, and growing. We focused on supporting their lateral expansion (adding sections, adding grades), and making sure the charter was written flexibly to do just that.

We also provided leadership by offering these smart growth moves:

  • A sliding fee scale to incent growth: the bigger you are, the lower your authorizing fee. While we can charge 3 percent by state law, our schools pay between 1.5 and 2 percent. We’d rather see that money go back into the schools and support their expansion efforts.
  • Modest grantmaking: When DECA said, ‘We want to look at a fourth school, but we can’t until we get this building project done,’ we said, ‘Great. Can we help?’
  • A teacher fellowship: we’ve explored how to grow school leaders within the organization, people that someday may found either a new DECA school or another charter in Dayton.

We’re supporting growth, and we’re seeing results. DECA’s high school is the highest-performing public school in the city of Dayton—of ALL schools, not just charter schools. And DECA Prep, a sister school founded in 2012 and comprised of an elementary and a middle school campus, is among the highest performing K-8 schools in the city.

Exercising our leadership for growth in this way worked, and here’s why. First, DECA wanted to grow. Second, we wanted them to grow. Third, we used the resources we had. They haven’t built a big, brand new campus: school facilities now include an old Catholic school, an old car dealership, and two floors of a building at the University of Dayton.

There’s still more demand, and a number of grades have wait lists. We recognize that as we continue to talk about growth with DECA, that we need to be very strategic about future expansion—especially in a district with only 13,500 students and the eighth largest percentage of charter school enrollment in the country.

We’ve tried to lead by supporting growth using expansion. In two years, we hope to tell more stories of expansion, growing quality public schools that offer the best to Ohio’s students. That’s our job as a charter school authorizer.

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