As the Education Dept. gears up for another round of competitive grants to promote the growth of charter schools, the department is touting the success of an Arizona program that used federal money to expand the state’s charter school system.
The ED Office of Innovation & Improvement is now preparing the FY 2015 round of Charter Schools Program grants (CFDA Number: 84.354) with a NOFA anticipated at the end of the year or early January.
In Phoenix, the CASA Academy and six other charter schools partnered to form the New Schools For Phoenix initiative that was funded by a three-year, $1.2 million Nat’l Leadership Activities grant from OII’s Charter Schools Program to the Arizona Charter Schools Assn. in 2010. The CASA Academy opened its doors to 149 students in kindergarten through second grade this August.
With the OII grant, the ACSA created a program to train new charter school leaders to focus on quality of instruction and academic success from the start. Along the way, the association also worked closely with the state Department of Education to redesign the focus and timeline of the state’s Start-Up Grant Program to support the leaders of developing schools in low-income communities and allow a longer planning period.
The 36-month federal CSP grants support programs which expand the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the nation by providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools. The grants also provide funding to evaluate the effects of charter schools, including their effects on students, student academic achievement, staff and parents.
The winning grantees had to show how their projects would enhance and expand a state’s capacity to support high-quality charter schools in one or more geographic areas, particularly urban and rural areas, in which a large proportion or number of public schools have been identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring.
From 2010 to 2013, the association assisted leaders in opening 14 new charter schools across Arizona, 11 of which successfully received start-up grants through the Arizona Charter Schools Program. Through the association’s support, the schools have flourished and the program received praise from Arizona’s primary charter authorizer, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.
The CSP leadership grants are flexible. With the grant, the Association developed an interactive map and data communication tool — the Education Evaluator — which allows parents, legislators, and other community members to find and evaluate Arizona’s 2,000 public schools by using a variety of filter options, including searching for schools by grade, number of students, ZIP codes, academic achievement scores, and more.
ED also applauded the state effort for its thoroughness. The effort made recruiting potential school leaders a first step. Starting under the federal grant, aspiring leaders apply for selection into an initial five-month fellowship. The process is competitive. In its inaugural year, 20 Aspiring Leader Fellows were chosen from more than 60 applicants. During the five months, the fellows attend seminars, visit highly effective schools, and begin to cultivate their school visions.
The public schools in Phoenix have gotten low marks for closing the student achievement gap for low-income and Hispanic students. The charter school effort seems to be working, however. Two of the charter pilot schools in Phoenix that serve predominately Latino and low-income students have completed at least one year of operation and have already seen success. After its first year of serving 4th and 5th grades, Empower College Prep helped students make dramatic academic improvements, receiving an “A” rating and ranking among the top 3% of schools in Arizona. Vista College Prep also achieved impressive early results; its students made an average of 1.6 years of literacy growth in their first year of attendance. In addition, its kindergarten and first grade scholars exceeded the national median.