January 18, 2011 The first word that often comes to mind when people think of charters is autonomy. This overriding impression is no surprise when you consider the determined mindset required of a pioneering charter operator in order to achieve success and the creative resilience that charter leaders inevitably develop in the process of finding a way to make it work (with less). This independence is practically defining!
While it behooves the charter movement to uphold the freedoms we hold dear, it would be naïve not to acknowledge the costs associated with playing the singular role. True, charters are not part of a bureaucratic system chalk-full of red tape and redundancy, but they are more prone to organizational exhaustion and failure, especially in the start-up phase when school communities tend to work to the bone and find few opportunities to look up or out. And, if and when serious trouble hits, most charter schools do not possess the same degree of inertial force that allows established institutions to absorb impacts and successfully weather storms. These are the assumed risks in going the charter route.
Fortunately, as the charter movement has evolved and matured over the past 19 years, we have learned a thing or two! It is from these lessons that the Oakland Charter School Collaborative emerges.
What is the Collaborative?
In a sense, the Collaborative is simply an organization of key partnerships, supports and services that are beneficial to members of the charter community. In its current conception, the Collaborative sets strategic direction, acts as a policy advocate at local and state levels, cultivates internal and external partnerships, develops and hosts needed infrastructure, and provides a range of development services to members. This is a living support structure that promotes cohesion and collaboration where and when appropriate, while simultaneously honoring the implicit autonomy of charters by responding to the various needs of each unique school. The Collaborative serves a function similar to a centralized District system, but in contrast, largely relies on the involvement of its members rather than a dedicated staff and is nimble on its feet.
Why the Collaborative?
The dangers for charters are very real. Take for example the cash flow challenges many small charters are faced with as the California education budget takes hit after hit. As a result, some charter schools have been forced to close their doors. In this situation, the Collaborative can amplify a message of funding inequity and pro-actively seek solutions by working with District partners, legislators and other allies. The Collaborative also has a value-add function that can be seen in the example of fostering instructional leader networks that promote centralized problem-solving and the reciprocal sharing of best practices across the Collaborative. Without this function, charter leaders are left to their own devices to create professional development opportunities for themselves and their instructional staff, which can be so taxing that it never materializes.
The Collaborative helps to ensure that each charter school is doing its part to positively impact Oakland's educational community by offering unique schools with a strong base of support. For more information, contact Kate Nicol, director of the Collaborative.