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National Charter Schools Conference Heats Up in Sin City

Written by: Celia Alicata, Director of Marketing & Communications

More than 4,000 charter advocates, educators, school leaders, education policy wonks, edtech entrepreneurs, and authorizers descended upon Las Vegas last week for the National Charter Schools Conference. It was hot; okay that’s an understatement, it was 112 degrees, but as they say in Sin City it’s a “dry” heat. (Whatever that means!) But the conversations were even hotter inside the A/C-filled halls of Mandalay Bay.

As I reflected upon our work at Classroom, Inc., which aims to serve the most under-represented students from the most impoverished communities, talking amongst charter advocates and leaders made me feel right at home. Many charter schools (note: not all) strive to serve this exact population.

The tone of the conference was serious at times, hopeful at others, and occasionally confrontational from folks like political strategist Frank Luntz. There’s a passion that charter conversations often ignite, and it mirrors—and is essentially a subset of—the fiery education reform debates being had across the country this summer. Here and here are recent examples.

I left with three resounding themes that are applicable to educating children in the 21st century, no matter the school governance structure that you might support:

  • The three “T’s”: Conversations swirled around innovative uses of time, talent, and technology. Joel Rose of New Classrooms and Ray Schleck of MATCH Education charter schools were among the forward-thinkers discussing next generation models of schooling.
    • Time: In-person and digital instruction are being restructured in new ways that best serve students and maximize learning time—whether in school or out of school. It also means extending the school day when possible.
    • Talent: Next-gen schools are building specialized roles for educators—from coaches, to facilitators, to master teachers. This affords the profession more complex career ladders, adding nuance to educators’ jobs by allowing them to focus on their strengths.
    • Technology: If leveraged correctly, schools can employ advances in technology to allow students to move at a pace that encourages mastery of instructional concepts. There’s an enormous amount of new data that edtech provides too—now the challenge lies in helping teachers and administrators navigate that data and use it to improve student outcomes.
  • Empowering and engaging content: I was encouraged to hear the conversation shift away several times from “drill & kill,” to a recognition that we must provide curriculum that empowers students to create lifelong identities as learners. Core instruction should be balanced with inspiring, engaging, challenging, and effective education for all students, particularly those often marginalized. This closely relates to the next point.
  • Diversity and inclusiveness: Charter schools in many ways grew from the seeds of a movement focused on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps in this nation; being cognizant of diversity is paramount to its long-term success. Several panelists discussed how those working to address our educational injustices must be truly community-minded; one common suggestion included attracting more leaders of schools and organizations whose backgrounds reflect the local community. Jamilah Prince-Stewart of ConnCAN provided the astute reminder that any type of reform or effort serving traditionally under-served populations should be grounded in the historical context of the community.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who wants to impact young people’s lives disagreeing with these three themes. And still, the ideas of choice and charters can be hot-button topics, and terms laden with political undertones. At Classroom, Inc., we simply want to serve those most in need—whether they hail from public charter schools, traditional public schools, or Catholic schools. We’re fairly agnostic when it comes to the type of school; we are, however, evangelists of high-quality curriculum. What we care deeply about is ensuring educators have access to highly effective content that helps students succeed in school, work, and life. One comment from the audience sticks in my mind: kids over politics.

(Disclosure: Celia used to work for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which convenes the annual conference.)