District and Charter Leaders Talk Collaboration…In a Fishbowl

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

District and Charter Leaders Talk Collaboration…In a Fishbowl

It’s common knowledge that school districts and charter schools rarely collaborate. At best, they are like oil and water and at worst, like cats and dogs. This is too bad: districts and charter schools share a deep commitment to educating children well, and they work in the same neighborhoods and serve the same families.

Last month, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we brought together leaders from cities where districts and charter schools are looking for ways to live and even work together. We heard about sharing professional development programs, co-located district and charter schools, districts sharing special education expertise with charter schools, and ways that some district schools are adopting charter-like practices.

But it was obvious even among participants who have a strong and sustained commitment to working across sector lines that the “Age of Aquarius” was not about to break out—and shouldn’t. Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg led a panel to consider what’s next for district-charter collaboration where one panelist cautioned: the two sectors shouldn’t get too cozy lest they risk losing the beneficial edge of competition.

In one session, the pain points for collaboration were front and center. We asked attendees to participate in a “Fishbowl” exercise: first, district leaders listened as charter leaders vetted the idea of a partnership with the district, and then the positions were reversed. Within minutes, each fishbowl had surfaced some common frustrations and fears. Charter leaders said things like:

“How could we trust the district?”

“Any partnership with the district means we will have to give up some of our autonomy.”

“The district wants to restrict our enrollment.”

When their turn came, district leaders returned the favor:

“Charter schools do not understand how complicated the work of the school district is.”

“Trying to serve an entire city is a far different proposition than just running one or two schools.”

“The school district is not waiting for Superman.”

The fishbowl exercise made it clear that even under the most promising conditions, misperceptions still have tremendous power. But the second half of the activity—to imagine with your peers the promise of a district-charter partnership unencumbered by the current political and logistical barriers—illustrated why this work should persist.

“If a charter school successfully partnered with the district, it would help to counter the negative narrative around charter schools.” – Charter leader

“There are strong charter operators that we would actually really like to work with.” – District leader

“A partnership like this could give families something special, something innovative.” – District leader

Presenters at the meeting echoed some of CRPE’s research on cross-sector collaboration for what education and civic leaders can do after their own Fishbowl moment—when both sides see the advantage of working together. Cities we’ve studied have seen success when they have started with the goal of improving education, and not with the goal of collaboration. Bringing in a neutral, third-party facilitator to help leaders set priorities has also helped get early efforts off the ground, as has establishing the expectation that agreements must evolve as local conditions change. All of this dovetails with the reminder from Kevin Huffman’s meeting keynote: this work rests on relationships—which sometimes means saying what you think, and sometimes means considering what someone else might be thinking.

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