Charter School Conversion: Advice from the Front Lines

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Fenton Avenue Charter School was one of the earliest charter school conversions in the state. Teachers at the former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school, led by the school's principal, Joe Lucente, and Assistant Principal Irena Sumida, were heavily involved in writing the charter petition for converting. Here, Sumida shares her top five tips for traditional public schools that are considering conversion.

Count every penny and make sure you have solid financial expertise on your team

Joe Lucente's financial knowledge was critical for Fenton Avenue in assessing whether conversion was the right choice. Charter schools and districts are funded differently and different schools receive different amounts from various programs based on the type of school and the student body they serve, so conversion doesn't make sense for every school. Each individual school must make a detailed calculation, taking long-term factors into account such as teacher retirement benefits.

Get the support of your teachers first

The teachers at Fenton were actively engaged from early in the process and contributed heavily to writing the charter.

"We met with the teachers and said, 'Things aren't going well in the district and we need to do something. We can take a chance and do this; we could be in charge of how the school runs. Do we have enough faith in ourselves to make decisions we think are right for this community, this school and this staff?'" said Sumida.

The staff met in March and affirmed their support of converting to a charter, then committees of teachers gave input on the 14 points of the charter application each week. Sumida pulled their input into written form and posted for everyone else to respond. By April 15, they had a 100-page document to submit to the district.

"Everyone had seen it and had a chance to hear it and respond every week," said Sumida.

Besides the importance of teacher buy-in and commitment to the change, note that under charter law, more than 50 percent of the current certificated staff must sign on to the petition in order for the school to convert.

Expect resistance every step of the way - and know your rights

As expected, the Fenton team encountered opposition from people opposed to change - including the teachers union and some within LAUSD. But fortunately, Fenton's leaders were strong and independent-minded, and committed enough to stay focused on what really matters - quality education. Some of the rhetoric from opponents was untrue, and the Fenton team was diligent about correcting false statements.

Just as important, the Fenton team knew their rights, and they stood up for those rights.

"They would tell us that things we proposed were illegal. Joe and Yvonne Chan (who was principal of Vaughn Elementary School, the first LAUSD school to convert to a charter school) questioned a lot of things and they gave us a sense of courage. They set the tone that we could stand up and say, 'We won't take this. Show me the law.'"

Their team went back and forth with the district over every single aspect of their proposed charter, ultimately getting approved at the end of the school year.

Find and cultivate your supporters

LAUSD Deputy Superintendent Ruben Zacarias supported the Fenton team and would consult with them after the board meeting and offer encouragement. There were others who also provided help along that way such as then-Assemblymember Richard Katz's Chief-of-Staff.

Have a strong plan

"The charter becomes your constitution," said Sumida. It's not just a document to get the conversion approved - it is the document that will guide your operations moving forward. Make sure it reflects the direction you want to take.

Learn more about working at a charter school, including perspectives on working at a conversion charter, here.

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