District-Charter Collaborations on the Rise: Historic Tensions Are Softening, Allowing Cooperation to Take Root, So Long as Funding Doesn't Become a Distraction

Article excerpt

SYNERGY CHARTER ACADEMY, WHICH is one of three charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District operated by the husband-wife team of Meg and Randy Palisoc, spent its first six years (2004-2010) in a cramped church space in south LA. Equipment and supplies had to be packed up on a daily basis because the church needed to use the same space. The Palisocs, both former LAUSD teachers, opened the school there because they could not find another space in the heavily industrial community without incurring millions of dollars in environmental remediation costs.

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Despite those facilities challenges, Synergy's more than 300 K5 students have generally scored in the top 10 percent on statewide tests in reading and math over the past seven years, in contrast with other LAUSD schools where achievement scores were significantly lower, generally in the bottom 30 percent, Meg Palisoc says. Synergy's mission is focused on eliminating the achievement gap, and its main goal is for students to meet or exceed the California content standards and be prepared to take college-preparatory classes in secondary school so that they can eventually attend the four-year university of their choice.

Meanwhile, when the district announced in 2009 that it would open up a new school, the Quincy Jones Elementary School, a block away in 2010, Synergy saw the opportunity for synergy. Palisoc went to LAUSD administrators and board members to see if her program could share space at the new school, share best practices with its teachers and administrators, and strengthen both schools on the same campus. Thanks partly to letters sent by and meetings held with Synergy's co-founders and other staff, LAUSD administrators knew about Synergy's test score successes, and LAUSD board members had visited the church space to observe Synergy's program in action and to see the challenges it faced in its cramped space. The administrators and board members agreed to the arrangement.

The arrangement required final approval from the superintendent of the local district, one of eight within LAUSD, as well as from the flail LAUSD board. And Synergy now shares expenses, such as maintenance and operations, school police and property insurance. "It went really smoothly," Palisoc says. "We had gotten buy-in from the very beginning. That was key, to get the top leadership to want this to work."

Less Fear, More Trust

In the 15 years since charter schools first opened in the United States, fears that they would compete for public funds and drain away top students have kept attendance-area schools and districts from wanting to cooperate. At the same time, charter schools have feared the red tape that districts have to contend with.

An aversion to collaboration comes from misinformation that charters are out to "take all the money" from district schools and from a sense--sometimes legitimate--that charters are looking to present themselves as superior, says Janet Begin, co-founder and executive director of Hill View Montessori Charter Public School in Massachusetts. "It's all in your approach," she says. "Sometimes, charter schools come in saying, 'We're doing better,' and basically insulting the district or not acknowledging what challenges [districts] do have." Sometimes, she adds, money is in fact diverted from charter schools in the attendance area.

District leaders' suspicions that charters are out to show up regular schools and prove they're better are giving way to a desire for mutual learning. "The relationship between charter schools and districts has been evolving over time," says Alex Medler, vice president of research and evaluation for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Referring to the greater acceptance charter schools now enjoy within districts, he adds, "Things that 20 years ago would have seemed like sacrilege and blasphemy are now accepted."

Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the National School Board Association's Center for Public Education, says collaborations thus far have been more likely to be around administrative services, such as shared facilities and food service contracting, rather than best practices in the classroom, although that's changing as the historic tensions are ratcheted down. …