Know What You Need to Know to Start a New Charter School

Every year, new charter schools across the country are started by teachers, community leaders, and education advocates with a vision to make high-quality educational options available to all families. There are many things to consider on this journey for your new charter school, including the application process, student recruitment, facility acquisition, authorizer relations, and financing and funding.

We’ll walk you through key items to plan for on the road to opening your new charter school.

Support Programs & Fellowships

There are fellowship programs available that can support the process of founding a new charter school. While not required to be able to start a school, these programs are worth looking into as they provide key financial support and valuable training. The following are a few examples of fellowship programs offered across the country that prepare aspiring leaders to design, create, and lead high performing charter schools:

Building Excellent Schools Fellowship: Over a multi-year process, Fellows hone their school’s vision, develop their leadership skills, and train to found and lead an equitable, high-performing school that reflects the needs of their community.

Diverse Charter Schools Coalition (UnifiEd School Launch Program): DCSC’s UnifiED School Launch Fellowship recruits and prepares future school leaders of excellent, intentionally integrated, public charter schools.

Innovate Public Schools: The World-Class Schools Fellowship coaches and develops school leaders to design and run excellent and equitable schools in California.

Moonshot EdVentures: Surfaces and supports underrepresented leaders in developing new learning environment models of tomorrow in the Metro Denver area.

Charter School Application

The charter school application is the first step towards realizing your dream of establishing a start-up charter school, and it is like writing a business plan in that it includes your mission, growth projections, hiring practices, budget, as well as curriculum design and more. All states with charter school legislation require an application and have a unique approval process.

A common thread throughout your charter school application will be your mission, which is ultimately your reason for being. Your school’s mission statement should communicate what you aim to accomplish and how you plan to meet those goals, and everything outlined in your application should support its achievement.

For help with the application stage, your first step should be to reach out to your state’s charter school support organization as they often provide critical startup support and can connect you to financial and other experts as needed. Some organizations also run charter school startup workshop series (there is often an admissions process) to guide you through the process.

EdTec provides support with the charter school application and budget process.

Student Recruitment

The enrollment pipeline for your new charter school has substantial implications, as funding is based on a per-pupil basis. Creating and executing a recruitment plan and outreach strategy is hard work, especially without a proven track record or facilities.

A good recruitment plan focuses on meeting potential families where they are and effectively communicates why your school is the best option for their children. It is important to spend time getting to know families in your target community and establish strong relationships with them, as they will be your best advocates when it comes time for authorization.

In terms of timing, you will want to start the outreach process as early as possible to create awareness and be able to demonstrate an interest in your school to your authorizers.

Your plan should include tactics and communication activities for each stage in the recruiting funnel: interest, apply, enroll, attend. A best practice is to aim to over-enroll by 10-20% more students than needed. Some potential funnel building tactics and activities include:

  • Knocking on doors: You can involve others from your founding team along with supportive families and community members.
  • Hosting town hall meetings: Either in-person at a community center that is willing to share space, or virtually, which might make it more accessible for working parents. You could ask local neighborhood associations if they are willing to give you time on their meeting agendas so you can spread the word about your school.
  • Traditional media (newspaper, TV, local radio): Inquire if there are free or discounted placements available for nonprofit organizations.
  • Distribute fliers: Post these at grocery stores, churches, museums, and other frequently trafficked areas in your target community.
  • Social media: Facebook is a good place to start, and it is easy and cost-effective to start running ads that target families in relevant zip codes.
  • Newsletters: Keep interested families engaged and informed about what is happening with your new charter school by staying in touch and reminding them of key dates such as upcoming open enrollment deadlines.

Facilities

Charter school leaders across the nation have a challenge in finding suitable school buildings and facilities due to inequitable access and higher costs. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “Access to school buildings is one of the biggest obstacles to expanding charter school choices.”

Finding a location that is suitable or adaptable for a conducive learning environment requires innovation, creativity, and flexibility. As a new charter school leader, your search for a facility should start with how much space you need.

How many students do you plan to have in Year 1? Do you want to grow into your original space, or is this just a starter space? Does your school require unique areas? These considerations will help to define your needs.

To find affordable space, look at ‘borrowing’ community resources that are already available or approach organizations that might be willing to donate or lease facilities. Your search might include office spaces and unused floors in public schools, churches, and university institutions.

Take into consideration that some of these spaces will need to be renovated to meet the requirements for education use.

It is also important to be aware of financing options for your new charter school facility. One opportunity within the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) funding area provides federal funding to help newly authorized charter schools find suitable facilities. The Charter School Facility Center at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools offers a snapshot of how states are enacting policies to help offset the cost of leasing, purchasing, and maintaining public charter school facilities; see the State Policy Snapshot: Facilities for Public Charter Schools to learn more about your potential funding options.

Staffing

Human Resources (HR) Management is a critical element in starting and operating a successful new charter school. Recruiting, onboarding, and engaging your founding staff using positive HR practices will encourage your team of dedicated teachers and staff to develop and thrive.

Your staffing plan should focus first on hiring your co-captains and main crew, which should include the head of school or principal, operations or office manager, and the lead subject or grade level teachers. Filling these positions with the right people is critical to the success of your school. As noted in The School Leader’s Toolbox: Teacher Recruitment and Selection put together by the New Teacher Project, “The first step to creating a high performing school is choosing the right team. An effective recruitment and selection process brings in strong teachers and sets expectations for a school’s unique culture.”

When hiring, timing is not always on your side, so it is vital to find a balance between in-depth vetting and efficiency. Here are a few recruiting and hiring tips for successful staffing before your first day of school for your new charter school:

  • Hire early: Provides the opportunity to see if they are a good fit.
  • Be strategic with onboarding: Engage new hires with regular touchpoints and share important information such as the charter document and literature on the school’s educational philosophy.
  • Do not neglect HR documents: Work with a legal team to develop a comprehensive employee handbook.
  • Develop well-written position descriptions: This will help to clearly define roles, make employees more productive on the job, and eliminate confusion down the road.

Explore the many resources and hiring portals that are available to help assist in your recruitment, such as local newspapers, specialty newspapers, local colleges, job fairs, school board associations, education job boards such as EdJoin and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Job Board, and your state association of charter schools.

Authorizer Relations

Authorizers determine who can start a new charter school, set academic and operational expectations, and oversee school performance (National Association of Charter School Authorizers). Because authorizers are responsible for ensuring schools operate in accordance with their charter, they can also make the decision to close a charter school for poor performance.

Creating an authentic and transparent relationship with your authorizer from the start will help you down the road. Before you open your school doors, it is important to work with your authorizer to understand processes, expectations, and deadlines. Keep in mind that the job of the authorizer does not stop at approval, and neither should your relationship with them.

Here are a few tips to help you establish a good relationship with your authorizer:

  • Be collaborative: Your success is their success and vice versa.
  • Make friends: You both share a common goal of improving the quality of public education.
  • Get a healthy start: First impressions make lasting impressions.
  • Stay up to date: Develop working norms around compliance and reporting.
  • Keep in touch: Maintain consistent communication.

Finances

The financial health of your start-up charter school can ultimately determine your school’s viability. Your new charter school is subject to the same financial audit procedures, requirements, and reports as traditional district schools, and often more. Most charter schools that fail are forced to close for non-academic reasons, most often because of financial difficulties (Center for Education Reform).

Budgeting & Fundraising

Your budget should support the mission and vision of your new charter school by appropriately allocating resources to meet the goals outlined in your charter.

Begin your budget planning process with enrollment in mind. While it is best to aim high and push for a healthy waitlist during recruitment, you’ll want to be realistic with your budget’s enrollment projections as they are used to calculate projected revenue. Your budget should consider all potential costs while cultivating a culture of frugality when it comes to spending, especially in Year 0 to conserve as much as possible for your first few years in operation.

An excellent tool to use is the Cost Estimation Tool developed by the National Charter Resource Center on Charter School Finance and Governance, which helps start-up charter school operators to identify the underlying cost assumptions and use those assumptions to estimate operating costs.

Raising funds for your new charter school can be a challenge since it is hard to gain access to bank loans without a track record. However, there are other funding options to explore. As mentioned above, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) provides funding to support newly authorized charter schools, provided your SEA hasn’t already received CSP funding in the fiscal year in question. Other options include grants from local and national foundations, private individuals, and the local business community.

EdTec’s grant writing experts have a proven track record with the CSP grant as well as foundation grants.

Overall, surround yourself with a passionate team that is committed to your mission, and stay laser-focused on the goals you set out to accomplish. If you don’t have expertise in a certain area, know your limitations, and seek help to complement your strengths from charter support organizations, special programs, and service providers.

Starting a charter school has never been easy, but the impact on the future of education is well worth it.

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