The Rhodes School opened its doors in 2007 to educate pre-K through eighth grade students in Houston, Texas. Throughout our decade of serving the northeast part of Houston, we have never experienced anything near the devastation that Hurricane Harvey brought to our community’s doorstep.

I encourage you to donate to the TCSA Harvey Relief Fund to help public charter school communities like mine that were impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Out of our four school facilities, one was severely damaged and a second is a total loss. The damage is so extensive it is difficult to list it all but primarily includes:

• The loss of nine classrooms, two cafeterias, 90 percent of administrative space for one location, 100 percent loss of all offices and space for central office staff in a second location, and also the loss of four school buses and one delivery van;
• 318 brand new Chrome Books that were purchased for student use as digital textbooks were totaled;
• Brand new library books, teacher supplies, special education testing materials, speech language testing materials were damaged; and
• Four copiers, three commercial refrigerators, furniture for all nine classrooms and several administrative offices were lost.

Painfully, a large portion of our musical instruments, costumes, set designs, and theater program props were also damaged beyond repair. I want to point out that Rhodes is a fine arts public charter school and it is the primary reason that our parents choose to come to our school. Therefore, the loss of the fine arts equipment is particularly devastating for our program.

Many of you may be familiar with the stories surrounding Hurricane Harvey and know that several road closures meant people could not get to their buildings to begin the recovery process. This meant we could not begin cleanup efforts at Rhodes until nearly a week after the storm, leading to significant mold issues that we are now working to remediate.

What I have described to you is merely the physical impact of Harvey. The gravity facing our community is much more severe. Our largest school campus is located in one of the hardest hit communities in Houston with more than 70 percent of families displaced in the weeks immediately following the storm and about 40 percent who remain displaced today. We have a double-digit increase in the number of students now legally classified as homeless as a result of the storm.

At Rhodes we are working to meet the very real basic needs of several of our families and staff. I wish I could say that our story is unique, but I know that many of my public charter school colleagues are also on the front lines working to rebuild and provide a much needed sense of normalcy for their families. To all of you that have reached out in support, thank you. Our community has suffered much loss, but it is with everyone standing together in support of each other that we will come out stronger on the other end.

Your donation to the TCSA Harvey Relief Fund will help public charter school communities that were impacted by Hurricane Harvey. 

Look back on the history of mankind, what do you see? Do you see peace, love and understanding? Or do you see war, hate and dispute? It partially depends on your perspective and how you view the world in general. However if you objectively peer through the crystal ball you will likely see the latter prevail more so than the former. Why is that? What is the underlying cause of such instability? Well, it varies depending on the moment in time, the precise location, the political climate of the day, etc. However, if you dig deep enough you’ll see a noticeable foundation it all stems from—a lack of education.

We tend to think of education in the present and immediate future. In fact we are often times selfish when we think of education. What will an education do for my kids? What kind of career will this education get my kids? What kind of paycheck will my kids receive? What sort of living will my kids have? That mindset is simply looking at education with tunnel vision and is short sighted. When in fact education has the capability to bring people together, unify and propel the masses upward and onward in harmony. It has the power to end conflict, creating a history which future generations can be proud to reflect upon.

But this kind of thinking about education is much different than most of us usually have. It’s pondering about how we can educate the people in areas where it’s most needed, not just our children and next-door neighbor’s children. This kind of thinking uses a very wide brush stroke with a realization that education can literally change the world for the better—not just our city, our state, or our country.

How do we get there? What works? What doesn’t work? There are a plethora of education models across the world—some are forward thinking and achieve remarkable results. Some on the other hand are backward, tired and should have been shelved long ago. On top of asking how we get there, we should also ask how this education model can be stretched, customized and executed to work throughout every corner of the world—not just in our own backyard?

What about the charter school education model? There are plenty of great aspects of charter schools, but looking at them with a wide global brush stroke one major detail stands out—adaptability. In fact that was the reason charter schools were initially created—to have the flexibility to adapt to the educational needs of individual students and encourage more innovation in education.

Charter schools vary in mission and model and simply don’t come in a “one-size-fits-all” option. The charter school types currently in this country include: college preparatory, specialized mission, dropout recovery, pre-k/elementary, and residential treatment center. This list can easily be expanded upon in order to fit the needs in educating other nations and cultures throughout the world.

Yes, there will be hurdles to overcome with items popping up which no one has remotely dreamed of. But that’s a good challenge to have with the end goal of an educated world. A world where people of any race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and background can work on their disagreements through peaceful means simply because all parties have the same foundation to work from—they are all educated.

In order to reverse the negative history trend that has shown time-and-time again we have to start somewhere. Why not here? Why not now? Why not charter schools? Peace, love and understanding have waited long enough.

The 85th Legislative Session is in full swing and more than half-way complete.  Several priority bills for the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA) have already received a hearing in committee, one of the first steps that a bill must take before moving forward.  This is truly great news as the sooner bills are heard in committee, the more time we have to move them through the legislative process. 

HB 795, by Rep. Jarvis Johnson, was heard on March 21, 2017, in the House Public Education Committee.  This bill allows public schools to appeal a preliminary accountability rating on the basis that the public school made a clerical error.  Currently, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) considers appeals only for errors caused by TEA, the education service center, or the testing agent.  Richard Rickey, Founder/CEO of Orenda Education and John Armbrust, Founder/Executive Director of Austin Achieve, both testified in support of the bill, which was well received by committee members.

That same week, on March 22, 2017, the House Ways and Means Committee heard HB 382/HJR 34, filed by Rep. Jim Murphy.  This bill exempts property leased by a public charter school from property taxes.  Elizabeth Camarena with Responsive Education Solutions, Peter Wofford, a 12th grade student enrolled in Harmony Science Academy, Tommy Fuller, a charter advocate and David Dunn, Executive Director of TCSA, testified in support of the bill. 

Importantly, this week for the first time in TCSA’s history, the House Public Education Committee heard testimony on facilities funding for public charter schools.  HB 2337, filed by Rep. Harold Dutton, was heard in committee on March 28, 2017.  There was strong testimony in support of the bill from the charter school community:  Kathleen Zimmerman, CEO of NYOS, Michelle Bonton, Superintendent of The Rhodes School, Priscilla Cavazos and Michele McCurdy - public charter school parents, Mike Feinberg and Albert Black – TCSA board members, Lalla Morris with Families Empowered, and David Dunn.  The committee members asked thoughtful questions and engaged in a robust conversation. 

Also heard at this hearing was HB 467, by Rep. Jim Murphy.  This bill would increase the capacity of the Permanent School Fund Bond Guarantee Program available to public charter schools.  Brent Wilson, Superintendent of Life Schools, Karalei Nunn, Founder/COO of Meridian World School, Tom Sage, a charter advocate, David Dunn, and former SBOE Member Thomas Ratliff all testified in support of the bill. 

There was opposition to both HB 2337 and HB 467, with stronger opposition to providing public charter schools facilities funding.  Though all bills received a positive reception, we are very far from the finish line.  It will take significant effort to get these bills across the finish line. 

We will continue to push these important priorities forward, but we need your help.  If you haven’t contacted your lawmaker yet and asked for their support, it’s not too late!  Find your lawmaker and contact their office, ask them to support these bills.   You may also directly send them an email by taking action.  Now is the time to get engaged – now is the time to tell lawmakers public charter school students are not worth less!

By Michelle McCurdy, Mother of a Charter School Student at Altamira Academy

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When considering Kindergarten for my daughter, Meredith, I researched every option to find the best school to meet her needs. I eventually selected Altamira Academy, one of three elementary campuses in the Wayside Schools. I chose a public charter school, and more specifically Altamira Academy, for various reasons including the year-round schedule, an international baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, an unwavering commitment to small class sizes, a generally smaller student population, and a required uniform.

 Meredith is now a first-grader, and she’s thriving in her classes. I couldn't be happier with our choice of a public charter school.

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing opportunity to join other parents in meeting with state legislators about our experiences with our children attending public charter schools. We discussed exercising our option within public education.

It was one of those roller coaster kind of days. I was filled with sorrow as I recounted the struggle and anxiety that surrounded our efforts to find the best school fit for my child as an individual, and for all of us as a family. I was filled with gratitude and pride as I told the legislators about our joy at finding a school that met so many of our needs.

But I was also filled with anger as I talked about the sacrifices our campus makes every day--the things we give up or trade off. I asked someone to explain to me why my child deserved about $1400 less than my neighbor’s child, simply because I didn’t believe the traditional school in my zip code was a good fit for my daughter. I implored them to come to our charter campus and see the amazing things that are happening. At the end of the day, I felt galvanized. I feel compelled to advocate, not just for my own children, but for every filled-with-potential face I see at my daughter’s public charter school.

I hope you’ll feel compelled, too. We are at a historical crossroads, with companion bills, SB 457 and HB 2337, in the state House and Senate and bipartisan support. I want to thank the legislators who sponsored these bills, but I’m also asking for others at the Capitol to support it. Now is the time to stand up for our students and demand equity in funding. Call, write, visit your elected officials and let them know that choice shouldn’t mean compromise.

It’s not too late to submit an expansion amendment effective for the 2017-18 school year, but time is running short. The last day to submit an amendment to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is April 1, 2017. Since that day falls on a Saturday this year, the effective deadline date is actually Friday, March 31, 2017. Schools can expand no earlier than the start of the fourth full school year of operation. This restriction does not apply if the affected charter school has as its most recent rating “met standard” and is operated by a charter holder that operates other charter campuses and all of that charter holder's most recent campus ratings are “met standard.” In addition, for any school to expand, the most recent rating for 90 percent of the campuses operated under the charter must be “met standard” under the standard accountability procedures and received a district rating of highest or second highest rating for three of the last five years with at least 75 percent of the campuses rated “met standard” and no campus with the lowest performance rating in the most recent state accountability ratings.

The charter expansion amendment request form is pretty straightforward and one form can be used for one or all of the four types of expansions that are set forth in 19 TAC 100.1033 including adding an additional campus, adding additional grade levels, expanding the geographic boundary of the charter holder, and increasing the maximum student enrollment.

To add an additional campus, the school must have an “E” (education) occupancy code or a statement verifying that this certificate will be obtained prior to serving students. The application addresses a number of questions that must be considered for an additional campus, including the number of students, the number of students in tested grades (must be 50 percent by the third year of operation), the proposed number of instructional minutes, what grade levels will be served, if the campus will need a new campus number, and the type of accountability (standard or AEA). If the campus will be under Alternative Education Accountability (AEA), the campus must meet AEA criteria and register to be an AEA campus.

To add additional grade levels, the number and percentage of students to be evaluated under the state accountability system must be included in the application. In addition, an educational plan including a scope and sequence and specific curriculum to be taught for the additional grade levels must be submitted. There is no specific format provided by the state for this requirement, but it’s a good idea to provide more detail than not enough.

If you are expanding your geographic boundary, you must submit evidence that an impact statement was sent to each school district that may be affected by the expansion. The impact statement form and a sample district notification letter can be found on the TEA charter school amendments page. Since the commissioner’s rules don’t specify who should receive the notification letter and impact statement form, a best practice is to send those to both the district superintendent and the president of the school board. These names can be found on AskTED. The evidence that the notifications have been made is in the form of certified mail receipts, which you will need to submit as part of your expansion amendment.

To request an increase your maximum student enrollment, you must list your current enrollment and your requested maximum enrollment. You are only allowed to request an increase in your enrollment once during each calendar year.

As you complete your amendment requirements, remember that prior to April 1 you must convene your board to consider a charter holder board resolution, with printed names and signatures indicating that a quorum of board members voted favorably to amend the charter. As part of the resolution, you must indicate that the board has considered and approved a business plan and that a majority of the board considers that the proposed growth is prudent. The business plan is not submitted with the amendment request but which must be submitted to TEA within 10 business days if requested.

Finally, as part of the amendment you must submit an alphabetical list of districts in your current geographic boundary that may be affected by your request, evidence (certified mail receipts) that impact statements have been sent to each school district affected by the expansion request, a signed statement attesting that for the last three years no board member or employee has been deemed ineligible to serve due to instances of nepotism, conflicts of interest, or criminal history revelations, and evidence that your by-laws and articles of incorporation are current and on file with the agency. This can be accomplished by posting an up-to-date URL that links to your charter by-laws.

Again, the expansion process is not complicated, but amendment procedures can be tedious and require that you submit the proper documentation to TEA by the April 1 due date. That deadline is not flexible, so if you miss the date you’ll generally have to wait until the following year to submit a new amendment. Also, remember that things like changing the school or charter holder name, governance structure, articles of incorporation, bylaws, charter management company, admission policy, or educational program of the school are considered to be non-expansion amendments, and these amendments can be submitted anytime.

At TCSA, we’re more than happy to help any school with questions about the expansion amendment process. Please contact Bruce Marchand and we’ll help guide you through the expansion amendment process!

I recently had the opportunity, along with fellow TCSA staffer Elliott Nguyen, to attend the 2016 National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The NACSA gathering allowed an opportunity to better understand the national charter landscape as a whole and the particular challenges that charter authorizers face in regards to ensuring that high quality charter schools start successfully and are empowered to meet the needs of students in the neighborhoods they serve.

It struck me that one of the most fascinating aspects of charter authorizing is the diversity of the types of authorizers; agencies and organizations that are as unique as the 42 states that by statute allow charter schools. While many states such as Texas have an authorization process that allows state education agency authorization and to a lesser extent local districts, other states such as Ohio allow a broad mix of authorizers to approve charters, including local districts, higher education institutions, and non-profit agencies.

Greg Richmond, CEO and President of NACSA, noted in an address to the conference that charter school authorizers have a three-fold responsibility. First, he mused that authorizers must provide unlimited access to those students whose educational options are limited to the nearest traditional public school, a school that may not be meeting the needs of students in that neighborhood, especially if they are low income, racially diverse learners.

Second, he described the obligation that authorizers have to understand the autonomous nature of charters as part of the charter approval process. He suggested that while authorizing standards are vital to charter success (NACSA rates each state and provides an index score to quantify the effectiveness of their authorization process), the strength of the charter movement is built upon the idea that creativity, flexibility, and originality to meet the educational needs of diverse learners should continue to define the charter movement.

Finally, he suggested that authorizers must accept responsibility for the overall quality of the schools they approve. This was a particularly noteworthy statement, considering that in almost every breakout slot there was at least one session related to closure or revocation, with topics such as “By the Numbers: What Do We Know About School Closure Around the Country”, “Building a Closure Plan Focused on Kids”, “When and How to Revoke a Charter”, and “Interventions for Struggling Schools”. My thought is that the need for these kinds of discussions is not an indictment of charters in general but rather a reflection of the maturing of the charter movement.

As at any conference, one of the most beneficial aspects is meeting and networking with people who possess the same passion and advocacy for the charter movement that is shared by all of us at TCSA. The attendees comprised a diverse set of individuals all vital to the authorization process, including national and state policy experts, local and state education agency leaders, and a myriad of service providers who assist charters and authorizing agencies in accomplishing their objectives. I was also struck by the fact that a majority of the attendees were in the 30 to 40 year-old age demographic. Of course as a post-age 50 attendee I was the outlier in this observation, but I was encouraged by the relative youthfulness of the attendees, reflective in a way of the youth of the charter movement and the energy and creativity that is inherent to school choice. Indeed, beginning in Minnesota in 1991 at the ripe old age of 25, the charter revolution in the United States has evolved into a viable (and I believe the best) educational option for students not only in Texas but across the nation.

One of my takeaways from the conference was a reminder that sound policy is the driver of legislative reform in every statehouse; legislation that is written to improve access to a charter education for all students while improving quality and maintaining the autonomy that makes charters uniquely suited to meet the needs of all learners. Educational policy is like your auto policy; you don’t think about it much until someone runs into you. There are lots of accidents waiting to happen in the skirmishes inherent to the school choice battle, and the only way to protect and improve charter schools is to have strong policies that drive effective charter legislation.

The other benefit that comes out of any serious gathering of educators is that of self-reflection; being challenged to think critically about different ways to approach educational challenges in our schools and organizations for the benefit of kids. TCSA is doing just that as we set our legislative priorities for the 85th Texas legislative session beginning this January. First, TCSA is promoting important improvements in facility funding equity that will allow the more than 130,000 Texas students on a waiting list the opportunity to attend a charter school. Your organization is also focusing on legislative change in regards to small school accountability; changes in rules that will help to minimize the risk of failing to meet state standards faced by smaller charters due to lower student accountability group ratios than what is typically found in larger school systems. Finally, TCSA is supporting changes in the appeals process for accountability ratings to allow a rating to be corrected when the school can show the preliminary rating was based on incorrect school data.

TCSA is your organization and we are here to serve Texas charter schools and their students. I was reminded this week that our goal at TCSA, to improve student achievement by advocating for and strengthening a diverse set of high quality charter schools, is shared nationwide by educators and policymakers who believe that charter schools are the best public school option for students. I hope you will join us at TCSA to help us accomplish this important mission!