Identifying Leaders for Urban Charter, Autonomous and Independent Schools: Above and Beyond the Standards: Volume 18


Table of contents

(26 chapters)

“Where was this book in October of 1992?!!!” That was my initial reaction after reading Kim Hughes and Sara Silva's edited book. As the founder of California's first charter school (and the nation's second) and CEO and Co-founder of the nation's first charter management organization, it's clear to me that this text would have been invaluable as education entrepreneurs worked in the early days of charter schools AND even more important today.

We did not wake up one day and decide to develop an edited book on charter and autonomous school leadership. It actually happened because we both seem to have these serendipitous moments in which random events come together. As educators working for the Division of Adult Career Education for Los Angeles Unified School District, we observed what we perceived as inequities of a monolithic, bureaucratic school district in its treatment of the education of our “at-risk” youth. We believed that there must be more authentic leadership providing improved educational outcomes for these students underserved by the current one size fits all system. In our minds, moving away from the classroom into the administrative arena seemed to make sense if we were to effect change in the current landscape. What better way to garner more authentic leadership than to become leaders ourselves? We decided to return to school to get our administrative credential and a masters in Educational Leadership. Little did we know this one seemingly small decision would have such amazing results.

Driving home from my 10th YCSC high school graduation in less than two week's time, having just seen our 1000th graduate walk the stage, I reflected on the joyous cheers of families and friends celebrating a victory they never thought they would know. Basking in their happiness, I started thinking about the last five years and what it had taken to achieve this dream of mine.

The national educational landscape shows exponential growth of charter, independent, and autonomous schools. Lake and Gross (2012) states that, “According to the most recent numbers available, 5,275 charter schools now enroll about 1.8 million students-about 4 percent of all public school students creating a similarly expanded need for specialized resources to train an expected 7,000 to 23,000 new charter leaders over the next ten years (p. 10). Most educational leadership books focus on skills needed for leaders in traditional public schools; the charter and autonomous school pathway is the road less traveled; asking us to think anew about what leadership on this less-traveled road should look like. Leading a charter or autonomous school in these tough economic times is much like riding a bicycle for the very first time without training wheels, on an unknown road. Those who lead in such an environment will need more than passion and conviction for improving the educational opportunities for our nation's disenfranchised youth. This chapter focuses on the unique realities that confront leaders of smaller autonomous schools. It is designed to give perspective and furnish aspiring, new, and veteran small-school leaders with ideas, skills, and tools to deal with the myriad challenges that confront all urban public school leaders.

Educational leaders promote the success of all students by responding to diverse academic, social, and emotional needs within the school community. The effective collection, analysis, and use of data to guide decisions are critical factors to maximize student progress and sustain an effective school culture. Amidst the volumes of data derived from a learning community, administrators need to be savvy in selecting data that will help inform sound decisions. Data should be aligned to standard-based instructional practices and be unbiased, relevant, meaningful, and manageable. The use of data is part of a larger inquiry process as school leaders seek to positively affect the learning progress of each student. Critical to this process is the capacity of each community member, whether teacher, parent, student, or administrator, to feel empowered and equipped to gather, analyze, understand, and apply data results to improve the instructional program for each child. Educational leaders must develop and sustain the capacity of the community to use data effectively to ensure the growth and success of the school. This process has even greater importance and significance for charter school leaders who have taken the initiative to step outside the traditional boundaries of education and who seek to implement innovative models for education.

Given the fundamental role of public education in the foundational framework of equity and social justice leadership, as well as the demonstrated shortcomings of the current system of education, the primary goal of this chapter is to explore issues of social justice, leadership, and equity, in the context of charter schools. A corollary purpose is to build on the work of Wells, Slayton, and Scott (2002) who called on progressive supporters of charter schools and public schools to couch their arguments for democratic schooling in a call for social justice and equity as opposed to greater “liberty” for educational consumers.

School leaders often feel compelled to safeguard, manage and promote the mission and vision of the school in order to keep staff on task and on track. An alternative approach is to do just the opposite. This chapter examines school leadership at an innovative charter school that believes that the mission and vision of the school belongs to the school community, is organic and needs to evolve over time. Teachers have created the framework and design for the curriculum, have planned and implemented professional development to support the design, and essentially have re-shaped the structure and format of instruction, leading to a stronger sense of ownership and increased engagement within the school community.

The term Instructional Leader is often given to the leader of the school, even if she/he doesn’t deserve it. Instructional leadership consisting of four “main ingredients”: (1) a true understanding of and appreciation for the craft of teaching on the part of the site administrator, (2) the capacity to gauge the quality and effectiveness of instruction by individual teachers as well as teacher groups, (3) a practical, consistent, and ongoing teacher support and development system, and (4) the ability to remove teachers who prove to be ineffective from the classroom, is provided to guide the behaviors and actions of the school leader in becoming an Instructional Leader. Components of this “recipe” include the administrator teaching in classrooms, creation, implementation, and monitoring of a framework for instruction, as well as the teacher evaluation as an extension of the implementation of the framework. Instructional Leaders are made and the authors identify ideas from Fullan's Motion Leader (2010) to support a manager's change to becoming an Instructional Leader.

The school leader of today needs to be a passionate individual with the ability to stay focused on multiple areas to ensure the students achieve in their learning community. Leaders with a skill set that includes successfully understanding and managing the operations and finance of the program is critical in a time of increased pressure on schools to accomplish more with limited revenues and resources.

Great school leaders understand and embrace the elements of Educational Leadership Policy Standards (2008) while regularly engaging in the areas of operations and finance to keep a pulse on the backbone of the organization. Understanding the “business side” of operating a school is key for a leader to balance academic outcomes for students, while managing the business of education within their organization.

Leaders with a willingness to grow can harness their educational backgrounds and connect key elements of business fundamentals to achieve the balancing act necessary for success that benefits students, parents, and the school community.

Literature reveals that charter schools were established to improve learning, support low-achieving students, offer innovation and school choice, and create greater competition within the public school system to stimulate continued educational improvement. However, charter schools have political, organizational, and financial challenges that are unique to their settings. Unlike traditional schools that depend on district central offices, charter schools must identify their own sources to sustain organizational needs (Smith, Wohlstetter, & Hentschke, 2008a, 2008b). Conzemius and O’Neill (2001) argue building a community of collaboration among faculty is a key component of charter school success. Studies reveal that the development of school–family–community partnerships is a key component of education reform and school improvement (Bryan, 2005; Sanders, 2003) and building partnerships is necessary for charter schools to acquire much-needed resources. The intent of this chapter is to provide urban charter school and autonomous leaders with the knowledge, skills, and tools to build collaboration among school faculty, engage a variety of community stakeholders, and build and sustain strong community partnerships in ways that lead to school improvement.

A charter school is a public school but without some of the constraints that bind public school leaders. On the other hand, charter schools are businesses, needing to find space, market their “product,” and attract teachers who share their mission. This business aspect of education combined with a specifically articulated mission and somewhat greater freedom and flexibility in educating children can, and often does, raise the ethical stakes for administrators and teachers as they endeavor to provide leadership in charter schools. These issues are best addressed through examining standards and dispositions set forth by professional bodies as well as a consideration of the ethical frames of justice, care, critique, and the profession.

This chapter focuses on the importance of having a working knowledge of school law. Such knowledge is critical for all schools officials, but is especially important for leaders of charter schools. If school leaders always strive for legal compliance, it can help insure the survival of the school, as well as their own tenure. Legal compliance, however, is often a moving target. Not only must charter school leaders be aware of state and federal law pertaining to charter schools, they must also be aware of the laws regulating public schools as well as policies in school districts with which they may be affiliated. A charter school site administrator must know the law or have access to legal counsel to address specific areas of the law including special education, school code, public bidding, student discipline, labor and employment practices, public meeting requirements, and their respective state's charter school law. Understanding the law is a monumental task which carries with it important safeguards not only for the future of charter schools but also for the future of our educational system which is served so well by these leaders.

Special education issues and considerations often perplex and confuse many educational institutions, regardless if they are traditional or autonomous organizations such as charters. However, research indicates these issues tend to be more complicated with charters because the realm of special education is highly regulated and in many cases, in direct conflict with charter core tenets of autonomy, innovation, curriculum, and accountability. Since the emergence of charter schools in 1991, researchers have investigated the relationship between charter law and the highly regulated domain of special education. The literature has evolved as charters have become more prevalent and established. But one thing remains the same, charter law and federal regulations are often in conflict with one another and cause great tension for autonomous leaders who strive to improve educational practices and learning for all the students they serve. Thus, this chapter focuses on important leadership considerations when building, improving, and maintaining an effective charter organization with regards to working with students with special needs. Essentially, the tension between autonomous leadership and federal regulations can be eased by planning for students with special needs. The key to successful planning and implementation is through alignment that goes beyond the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standard.

The Purpose of this chapter is to survey innovations and best practices in charter schools from a theoretical and empirical perspective. The goal is to identify essential elements needed to close the acheivement gap, and identify effective practices that enable all students to reach their fullest academic potential. The scope of this chapter focuses on the practices of charter schools form a national and local level, and incorporates anecdotal evidence collected from charter school personnel, authorizing districts, charter management organizations as well as an extant review of the literature. Furthermore, this study seeks to understand and identify those practices that are effective in improving student performance and why within any given set of variables these variables will not yield the same results. Ultimately, there are countless factors that determine school success, which are integral to what constitutes best practice. Findings revealed that although there is much evidence to support best practices in charter schools, in the end it is not about what is best; it is about what works effectively at each individual school.

When we set out to work on this book a year ago, our mindset was very different than where we are today because of the interactions we have had with truly innovative and authentic leaders. We have grown and changed in ways we never thought possible. As we have moved forward to run a charter school in a consultancy capacity, we still do not have the answers. What has happened is now we have more questions. How can charter leaders continue to grow, thrive, and be supported in the good work they do? Who out there can help? Certainly, folks like Dr. Issa-Lahera at the Charter and Autonomous School Leadership Academy at California State University, Dominguez Hills. What we do know emphatically is that there are authentic leaders out there doing extraordinary work. Our hope is that this book informs, shapes and inspires those who choose to work in charter, autonomous, and independent schools – urban or not. After all, it is about improving the learning outcomes for our young people and providing an opportunity for growth and development in traditionally marginalized communities.

The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards were developed by the Council of Cheif State Scholl Officers (CCSSO) and member states. Copies may be downloaded from the Council's website at

Andrew L. Armagost is a doctoral student in educational leadership at the Pennsylvania State University. He holds a baccalaureate degree in education and policy. His interests in future research include education law, school finance, and teacher employment and certification.

Publication date
Book series
Advances in Educational Administration
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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