February 10, 2015

From Co-location to Collaboration: building charter-district partnerships

By Trevor Baisden

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña recently visited a professional development workshop hosted by an Uncommon charter school in Brooklyn for neighboring district teachers and school leaders. In her remarks, the Chancellor made a powerful call for more partnerships of this kind, saying, “I'm thrilled that Uncommon Schools has invited you, but also invite some of them back to your schools… The future of this city depends on how all kids do, no matter what kind of school they come from.”

Fostering a genuine two-way street of inter-school collaboration was central to recommendations for improving the co-location process, released last year by a working group formed by the de Blasio administration. Given the ongoing controversy around co-locating public schools, particularly those involving public charters, there is no better time to act on this call for collaboration than now. Indeed, expanding these practices is precisely the approach policymakers should take to reduce tensions surrounding co-locations and to create new opportunities to support teachers and serve all city students.

The recent Uncommon workshop is emblematic of a larger trend driven by some city educators: New York’s large charter networks have made a concerted effort to fulfill the Chancellor’s vision of a more collaborative city-wide schools system through shared professional development. Many are hosting workshops throughout the year that address insights around common challenges, such as implementing the Common Core and differentiating instruction. Some charters have targeted their outreach to the specific district schools they share space with in the hopes of initiating an ongoing dialogue.

Meanwhile, the New York City Charter School Center has offered a plan of its own to share best practices from innovative charter models across the city with the 94 struggling schools slated for additional district support in the new Renewal Schools Program.

Taken together, these efforts work to fulfill one of the original aims of public charter schools: to serve as laboratories of innovation that inform broader education policies and practices. But educators aren’t the only ones working to enhance collaboration. Students, many of whom live in the same neighborhoods and apartment buildings even as they attend different co-located schools, are perhaps the most natural collaborators of all.

At Success Academies, the charter network where I teach, our Bronx 2 elementary recently formed a joint student council with P.S. 55 Benjamin Franklin. These students had their first meeting last month, discussing how to work together on learning and community service projects. Some of our other Brooklyn schools have begun similar work with co-located district schools, building a student mentorship program that pairs older students with younger readers. All of these initiatives were driven by educators in these schools that took that first step, sometimes literally, to build relationships with colleagues across the hallway or down the stairs.

However, this is no easy task, particularly for teachers who must go above and beyond their usual roles to make collaboration a reality. Logistical challenges in scheduling , as well as different intra-school pressures and priorities, make this work genuinely challenging.

We need New York City and State policymakers to act on their expressed desire to encourage collaboration by developing systems for this work that provide the incentives, time, and resources to make it successful at scale. And across the country, districts and states are showing that this is possible.

In Denver, for example, charter and district leaders are tackling the challenge of providing equitable special education services. The district agreed to funding parity for public charter schools, and now charters host special education centers for the highest-need students across the district. In St. Louis, the district has embraced its role in providing facilities for charters that do not receive funding for their own buildings, as is the case for most operators in New York, and now the KIPP charter network has opened its highly-recognized internal leadership development program to district school leaders.

In other places, state education authorities are designing initiatives to encourage collaboration. Florida’s state department of education is piloting a new grant program targeted specifically for county systems that commit to district–charter collaboration that promotes best practices across all schools. These formal compacts between charter operators and departments of education are turning exceptional cases of collaboration into system, and even statewide, cultural norms.

Here in New York, more than 900 schools are co-located – a mix of charter and district – and these placements offer an unparalleled opportunity to turn shared physical spaces into shared learning environments that improve teacher practice and build student relationships. With a mutual desire to build these partnerships clearly established, we must act to leverage the talent of our city’s educators across every school by creating systems that are concerned less with how schools are labeled and sited, and more with how we can spread the best of each of our schools to serve all of our students.

Trevor Baisden is a founding fifth grade lead teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2 Middle School in the South Bronx.