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Innovation for Public Schools: 3 New Perspectives During National Charter Schools Week

It’s National Charter Schools Week.

As supporters and educators celebrate their accomplishments and advocate for broader student access to charter schools, they have a lot to be happy about.

In the last five years, charter school enrollment has grown by more than 60 percent. Calls for expanded school choice options by President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signal new opportunities for charter schools throughout the country. And, for the first time ever, the National Teacher of the Year comes from a charter school.

In this climate of competition, traditional public school leaders need to avoid getting swept up in the simplistic “us-vs-them” rhetoric creeping into the education conversation. Instead, they need to focus their attention on what matters.

That starts by understanding that school choice is real and that all varieties of schools will have a role to play in the evolving K12 landscape. For some public schools, that might mean taking a good look in the mirror and deciding how to stay competitive—through better school experiences, more innovation, or stronger teaching and learning, or some combination of these.

It’s starts with a change in mindset.

As National Charter Schools Week continues, here’s three things every district leader needs to understand as they move to keep their schools competitive.

1. Charter schools have an important role to play—and they aren’t going anywhere

As Ron Wolk, board member for the charter school network Big Picture Learning, recently reminded us in Education Week, the original conception of charter schools was as “vanguards” or “laboratories” within the public school system, to find new ways of teaching or focusing on specific interest areas like the arts or sciences.

But since the early 2000s, Wolk writes, charter school expansion has created more schools aimed solely at being alternatives to traditional public schools, rather than as workshops for improving public education.

Many districts, especially large urban districts, have leveraged the creative power of charters to discover new approaches to learning and engagement in their schools. To dismiss this role outright, would be to dismiss a great opportunity for innovation and improvement in your district.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that public schools shouldn’t also be open to new ideas.

2. Innovation starts with students and parents

More districts are learning that to stay competitive they have to innovate. And, though studies and research and experimentation can help, none of these should take place without first considering input from students, parents, and community members.

“If you don’t listen to, inform, engage, and understand your customers, you run the risk of becoming obsolete,” says Dr. Wendy Robinson, superintendent at Ft. Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) in Indiana.

FWCS, like other large urban districts, faces stiff competition from charter and private schools. Robinson has instilled a culture of customer service and engagement that aims to understand and address community needs before students and parents even consider the possibility of choosing out.

3. When students choose out, it’s usually about you, not the alternatives

As much as you want to blame declining enrollment on school choice, the truth is that many families choose out because of negative, emotional experiences at their original school. Though academic performance is critical, it’s rarely the sole reason that families leave.

In other words, it’s up to you whether students decide to stay or go. Providing a high-quality customer experience for your students and parents is key to keeping them engaged and enrolled, no matter what type of school you run.

What do you think of these new mindsets for public schools? What steps are you taking to ensure your district stays competitive? Tell us in the comments.