Community Schools: Innovation and Community Collaboration Through Charter Schools

Despite overwhelming evidence that smaller schools, community involvement and student-centered educational practices have a direct and lasting effect on student achievement, our communities continue to build larger and more isolated schools. This trend is all the more alarming due to the enormous costs involved. Community schools are more open to the adoption of innovative educational practices, more effective and more open to public scrutiny. The lack of change, progress or variation among these larger schools points to an alarming trend – the overwhelming inertia present in the system that blocks most attempts at enhancing student leaning.

The model of education in our communities has been remarkably static over the years. Successful reform efforts have been transitory, isolated within a larger structure and difficult to sustain. This dominant model has the following characteristics: large schools, non-teaching administrators, teacher-directed learning, age division, discrete curricular subjects age segregation, lectures, textbooks, and tests. This model continues to dominate educational thought and practice despite evidence that no amount of additional resources can perfect it (Ciotti, 1998). There is very little evidence to support this system of teacher-centered schools (Kohn, 1999). There is even less evidence to support the continued "super-sizing" of our educational institutions, as the results produced by them continue to grow more and more disappointing (Nathan & Febey, 2001).

In these larger schools, traditional teaching practices tend to dominate – leaving very little room for change or experimentation. The evidence is clear that other methods of delivering education are more effective in raising student achievement than this traditional model (Jennings & Nathan, 1977). Alfie Kohn discussed the alternatives this way:

(T)raditional education sometimes provides students with basic skills but rarely a penetrating understanding of what lies behind those skills, how they’re connected, or how they can be thoughtfully applied. By contrast, a non-traditional education … nearly always enhances understanding and often helps with basic skills to boot (Kohn, 1999, p. 233-234).

There is ample evidence to show that the less traditional the approach, the greater the level of student achievement will be. In the Eight Year Study, longitudinal research was conducted in the 1930s with the assistance of high schools and colleges across the country. The results of the study, the most comprehensive in the history of educational research, showed that experimental schools and multidisciplinary curriculum greatly improved the success rates of students (Schugurensky, 1995).

These types of programs, collectively, fall under the "progressive" rubric. They emphasize student-directed, small school environments, multidisciplinary curriculum and community-oriented methods of learning over teacher-directed, lecture-oriented classes with rigidly defined curricula.1

At the Clark Montessori School in Cincinnati,Ohio these beliefs are put into practice through a focus on community service:

The goal is for students to become happy, healthy, productive adults who contribute to society … Students must perform at least 200 hours of community service over their four years in high school with a minimum of 50 hours per year. This exercise teaches students to live in a community, to negotiate, and to identify where they fit in the world (Nathan & Febey, 2001).

This focus has paid of in increased student achievement, both in traditional academic areas and intangibles like self-initiative and community awareness.

Despite numerous success stories like these, traditional teaching and traditionally-organized large schools remain the dominant force in education. Though alternatives are more prolific than in previous years, they still constitute only a minority of the schools.

The majority of our schools have consistently failed to make education an inviting, intrinsically rewarding activity (Gormly, 1981). Most students, given a chance, would not volunteer to attend public school if all extrinsic rewards and punishments were removed.2 There is also some evidence that schools may be responsible for the magnification of certain learning disabilities. William Glasser wrote that:

Very few children come to school failures, none come labeled failures; it is school and school alone which pins the label of failure on children. Most of them have a success identity, regardless of their homes or environments. In school they expect to achieve recognition and, with the faith of the young, they hope also to gain the love and respect of their teachers and classmates. The shattering of this optimistic outlook is the most serious problem of the elementary schools. (Glasser, 1969, p. 26).

Smaller schools address many of these problems, by allowing for the formation of meaningful community collaborations through the “offering of hands-on learning methods and real-life relevance.” (Schiee & Williams, 2001). The evidence on small school effectiveness is overwhelming, and the data on these experimental approaches shows that much can be gained through fundamental reform.

Why do school districts continue to consolidate students and staff into larger buildings, then? The primary reason is cost: at least in the short term, school consolidation saves districts money and allows them to provide more specialized services and curriculum.

Another important factor is accountability and control, which is made simpler in a consolidated, teacher-centered district. Jolene Morris considered the origins of larger, centrally managed schools and its affect on learning:

In the beginning of schools, we had the one-room schoolhouse. Then came the Industrial Revolution ... Frederick Taylor was an industrial engineer who invented scientific management, the assembly line, and the current school system. It's efficient for the teacher; it's not designed for the student ... We lost that freedom we had in the one-room schoolhouse where we individualized the learning with the students. Students lost the ability to take responsibility for their own learning (Morris, 2000).

These centrally-managed organizations were not created to benefit the students, but to deliver education in an efficient and cost-effective manner (Campbell, 1987). Once created, the need for an administrative structure became dominant (Callahan, 1962). The hierarchy of our schools branched upwards, creating a new class of leaders: superintendents, district office personnel, and professional school board members (Glanz, 1991). The hierarchy also branched downwards, encompassing a new flotilla of services within the school: guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, probation officers, network technicians, athletic directors, janitors and affirmative action officers. Lost in this expansion was a dedicated focus on learning and education, which took up an ever-smaller percentage of a school's budget as each "need" was met by yet another paid professional (Gatto, 2000-2001).

The public’s reaction to this has been mixed. While many parents don’t approve of the anonymous nature of these larger schools, they often enjoy the extra services and activities available in these environments. The lack of suspicious change is also a prime motivator (Meier, 1995), and smaller community-oriented schools may not meet community expectations as neatly or cleanly. Many students also benefit from stability -- change means mastering a new set of strategies to maximize performance3.

In education, most incentives favor the status quo. Thus observed John Taylor Gatto, who wrote that, "An insufficient incentive exists to change things much, otherwise things would change." This must be true, for overwhelming evidence has shown that the status quo is in need of substantial remedy for over fifty years now.

In 1950, John Holt observed that:

Schools should be a place where children learn what they most want to know, instead of what we think they ought to know. The child who wants to know something remembers it and uses it once he has it; the child who learns something to please or appease someone else forgets it when the need for pleasing or the danger of not appeasing is past. This is why children quickly forget all but a small part of what they learn in school. It is of no use or interest to them; they do not want, or expect, or even intend to remember it (Holt, 1950, p. 289).

Holt reasoned that student behavior was a perfectly rational result of the process of education. He added that, "we adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children by the things we do to them or make them do." (Holt, 1950, p. 274). Holt argued that the vast majority of schools, through their insistence that a base core of knowledge was essential to teach to every child, fought against human nature.

He also argued for a radical change in the way schools were organized, but found that asking teachers to do things that were "so obviously beyond their power" was counterproductive (Holt, 1950, p. 277). Instead, he asked teachers to make small changes in the classroom through an experimental process of trial and error -- and to continue practices that proved effective. This effort failed to produce any substantial change in the classroom.

John Holt was not the only person to see this disconnect. Many efforts to reform schools have been made over the years, and almost all of them have failed (Temes, 2001). Perhaps the most celebrated effort at reform has been the Essential School movement, which identified the structural barriers to student learning in the typical American school.

The founder of the Essential Schools group, Ted Sizer, identified several ways in which the bureaucracy of education gets in the way of change: It creates a drive towards monolithic rules and structures that ignore the reality of local conditions, it forces accountability through the use of easily measurable data, it creates a series of norms that do not allow for individual variation in students, it isolates students and teaches through the sheer numbers necessary to sustain specialized licenses, and "stifles initiative at its base" (Sizer, 1985, p. 209).

Despite evidence that our system of education is failing on nearly every level to increase the capabilities of its students and the reality that alternative models exist to replace the current system, very little is really changing. Other than their larger size and the addition of more non-teaching professionals, the majority of schools look very similar to those we had a generation ago.

The primary attempt to reform education today is a call for accountability through standardization and testing. The goal is to provide more quantitative ways to measure the effectiveness of learning and teaching, creating a nationalized curriculum in order to establish a minimum standard of knowledge for all students (Sykes, 1995). By testing students regularly to see what students have learned, the effectiveness of individual schools and teachers can be measured and compared against national norms (Sacks, 1999).

The premise behind this system of accountability is that these test results will improve the quality of instruction by providing the public with evidence on the amount of learning taking place in each classroom. According to Deborah Meier, however, this fact-based system of standardized testing is too crude to measure genuine learning or ability. She writes that:

We need standards held by real people who matter in the lives of our young. School, family, and community must forge their own, in dialogue with and in response to the larger world of which they are a part. There will always be tensions; but if the decisive, authoritative voice always comes from anonymous outsiders, then kids cannot learn what it takes to develop their own voice (Meier, 2000).

Despite our cultural penchant for attaching numbers to things, our drive towards further standardization of the curriculum have not resulted in positive gains for students (Kohn, 1999). All attempts since the dawn of professional management to standardize learning have failed (Gatto, 2000-2001).

In response to this demand for accountability, our schools have in turn demanded more resources to educate their students. These resources have primarily come through local bond referenda to ensure funding for popular programs and services, and through non-profit foundations and state governments to fund new initiatives. Despite these increased resources, however, education remains static and the benefit to students remains largely marginal (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). Some non-profits have even turned their back on public schools, after being discouraged by the lack of progress in previous years (Temes, 2001).

Substantial change and experimentation is occurring in education, but it is largely a marginal affair: traditional, teacher-centered learning still accounts for the overwhelming majority of schools. There is a minority trend towards smaller schools, teacher managed schools, alternative schools, charter schools and open schools within the country (Nathan & Febey, 2001). These schools provide an immense variety of programs and options for students, and a suitable environment for change and experimentation in educational practices.

Many of these schools are based on communitarian principles, which were put forth by John Dewey in the early part of the 20th Century. Dewey taught that students engaged in "moving ideas" take more interest in their studies, learn more fully the import of their lessons, and become better people. Dewey believed that the teacher’s task is to:

(K)eep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from over excitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things ( Dewey, 1991).

Dewey believed that the practice of learning through doing, the self-discovery of research, and the act of weighing contradictory evidence dispelled the certitude of knowledge and instilled a healthy spirit of introspective moralism in its practitioners. Dewey’s vision of progressive education was that the student, not the teacher, belonged at the core of learning.

These methods of teaching have been proven to work, as "few other educational approaches have documented such a direct, positive effect on student achievement" (Barr & Parrett, 1997). The difficulty, however, is that students "won't all learn the same things." (Quinn, 2000). This variation is difficult to account for in a large, teacher-centered school environment in which standardized testing is the primary mechanism for measuring program effectiveness.

Larry Cuban discussed the policy implications of research into progressive education this way:

Were policymakers deeply interested in pursuing forms of schooling that aimed at cultivating the intellectual, social, and economic powers of individual children while creating democratic communities in schools, they would see that current classroom organization discourages students from learning from one another, limits the growth of independent reasoning and problem solving, restricts opportunities for student decision-making at the classroom and school level, and largely ignores the contributions that the community can make to the students and that students can make to the community (Cuban, 1993, p.278).

If the results are so obviously biased in one direction, then why the lack of change? Perhaps because learning in itself is not the true mission of our schools -- but learning certain things is. (Glenn, 1988). Defining who learns what is a constant battle, and thus curriculum choices are among the most difficult decisions at most schools. Some of the biggest political battles in a community revolve around what, and how, students are to be taught in the classroom.

Besides community expectations over curriculum and course content, perhaps there is another factor at work here: job stability. If students were judged based on competence and graduated based on accomplishment, then what would prevent a self-taught student from "testing out" of a school early? With students flows revenue -- and with revenue flows employment. Changes in the way education is delivered threaten this structure, by placing the responsibility of learning back on the student. This changes the role of education practitioners and experts, who have a vested interest in the current system.

True reform and experimentation requires something more substantial. Herbert Wagner identified three key elements to successful reform:

There are three essential, interrelated components to a successful school improvement process: establishing clear academic goals based on developing and assessing students’ competencies rather than on “covering” subjects; creating a caring community with explicit core values; and encouraging many forms of collaboration between teachers and students, parents, and community members. When one or more of these parts is missing, change is thwarted. And when all three are strong, schools can and do transform themselves – though such systemic change is neither quick nor easy (Wagner, 1994, p. 181).

Educators who worked on the Community Learning Center model have intently studied the difficulty of creating change in a system. Their school design specifications state that “For a fundamental change in education to be lasting and effective, it must be a transformation that pervades all aspects of the organization” (Designs for Learning, 2000, p. 9). The design specifications go on to say that within an existing organization, and especially large organizations, that sustaining the momentum of change is even more difficult than initiating the original change.

There are primarily two ways to create the conditions necessary for this type of systemic change to take place. The first is to focus on the reform of existing schools, creating an collegial atmosphere of open communication and dialogue -- leading to a renewal of shared mission and values (Wagner, 1994). The other is to create new charter schools and contract schools, where the mission is specified by contract and the collegiality is assisted by the small size of the institution (Designs for Learning, 2000).

Of these two routes towards change, the most promising source of beneficial change is through the creation of new contract schools and charter schools. Although there is a growing recognition that small, site-administered schools are critical to the success of students, efforts aimed at creating smaller schools within an existing district or large school require a significant amount of resources, dedication and time.

Creating new charter schools, on the other hand, disrupts fewer established interests and has the ability to create immediate change. However, significant obstacles to overcome in the formation of a Charter School. To begin with, the application process itself is very complex. A prospective charter school must provide detailed budget estimates, data on student population, proposed staffing levels, lease information, how the school plans to meet special education requirements, and a pre-approved charter school contract with an authorized nonprofit or government sponsor. There is generally no funding available for this planning process, and the local community may derail a proposed charter school if it disagrees with its mission, curriculum or location.

The advantage to forming a charter school is that the Charter School Board acts as its own administration and school district. This allows a charter school much more flexibility in curriculum choices, community interactions and venue than is possible in most school districts. It also helps to consolidate staffing in a cost-effective manner.4

A charter school is bound by the same laws and requirements as any other public school, and is responsible for more financial reporting requirements than a traditional school. In this respect, a charter school is more open to public scrutiny. In addition, a Charter School is bound by its contract and obligated to meet all standards and requirements specified within its language.

The largest advantage for a Charter School is its flexibility. Creating small, dynamic centers of learning is much easier – in essence, these schools are built from scratch by their founders. This allows for systemic change, which is necessary in the creation of “lasting and effective” school change initiative (Designs for Learning, 2000).

Smaller schools have been demonstrated to dramatically affect student learning (Nathan & Febey, 2001), and put more money directly into the classroom (Designs for Learning, 2000).

The community benefit of charter schools of choice is enhanced by the flexible nature of their programs. In the Henderson New Country School, for example, students often enter into extended internships and mentorships with members of the community. This kind of learning brings students, community members, government officials and local businesses together in shared experiences that benefit all parties.

Local governments can benefit from this trend by encouraging the growth of smaller schools and their collaboration with local nonprofits and government agencies, allowing for more experimental concepts to be tried out within the charter school movement. As these schools are contractually obligated to achieve certain goals or face disillusion, they are already being held to higher standards than most schools are. Allowing for change and experimentation within the auspices of an existing contract is an excellent way to test out the validity of novel educational practices. If these practices are not beneficial to students, the schools will be closed either due to lack of students or a failure to meet their contractual obligations.

These changes presuppose a system of smaller schools within a larger system of choice. Within this system revenues follow the students, allowing for parental choice in which schools should remain open and fully funded. This diverse educational tableau, with community learning opportunities enhanced by a system of experiment and choice, would greatly benefit student learning.

Change within the structure of education has primarily come only to those institutions willing to enact comprehensive, system-wide reform through the creation of new schools and new institutions. The most beneficial thing that our communities can do to assist in the creation of stronger centers of learning is to accept that the tomorrow’s schools will be different than those in which they attended. The “standard model” of one teacher, thirty students and a podium is going to change -- at least in some schools. With this change will come new measures of accountability, and new methods of teaching. It is only through these types of changes that our schools will begin to meet the demanding expectations that we set for them.


1 See Appendix A for definitions of various types of schools and educational philosophies

2 Home-schooled children and free-schooled children tend to do just as well as, if not better than their traditionally schooled counterparts. They excel, however, in more intangible measures like self-confidence, creativity and work ethic (Gatto, 2000-2001). Less formal schooling does not seem to hamper student success.

3 Ironically, many unsuccessful students fear change because the expectations placed on them are so low that they can get by on inertia alone (Sizer, 1985).

4 There is growing evidence showing that the cost per graduate in charter schools is lower than in traditional schools (Nathan and Febey, 2001).

Appendix A

Traditional Education:
Defined by teacher-centered instruction (lectures, tests), age-separated classrooms, professional administrative oversight and strict curricular-based instruction.

Direct Instruction:
A “back to the basics” approach where facts and skills are repeatedly drilled and tested to ensure retention by students.

Alternative School:
Defined by some degree of deviation from traditional education. Alternative schools may be very similar to traditional schools, or significantly more student-centered (with students choosing the curriculum).

Progressive Education:
A philosophy of learning that places more value on higher thinking skills and creativity than on skills and facts. A belief that active, student-centered learning creates more effective educational opportunities for students.

Constructivist Education:
A practice of education whereby students construct knowledge actively, rather than being passive recipients of information.

Open School:
A school where curriculum is generated on an irregular basis, depending on the availability of learning opportunities and the interests of those involved. Marked by a strong appreciation for community resources and immense flexibility.

Free School: A school where students are entirely self-motivated, directed by teachers only when the students initiate the conversation.

Charter School: A school defined by charter to meet specific goals. A charter school is its own district/administration, and can be dissolved if it fails to meet its goals.

Home School: A school based in the home. Privately organized and paid for by individual parents.


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