A New Approach to School Turnaround: Charter Operators Managing District Schools

For decades, charter schools and district-run schools have been placed on opposing sides by advocates and policymakers. With support from the state and other partners, the Lawrence (Massachusetts) Public School District (LPS) state receiver brought these two seemingly opposing ideas together as a turnaround strategy for the district’s lowest performing schools.

The receiver has received praise for the early success of the open-architecture approach to supporting schools. A key component of this approach is providing targeted and customized support to schools, especially in the district’s lowest performing schools. The district offers intensive support to its neediest schools by leveraging partnerships with high-performing charter operators and other external providers, who provide leadership of these district schools through a management contract.

An analysis of the LPS turnaround strategy reveals three key stages of turnaround: (1) recruitment, (2) start-up, and (3) implementation. Throughout each of these stages, charter operators and district leaders had opportunities to forge relationships, align their vision for collaboration and school improvement, and explore the boundaries of autonomy in their schools.

Key Findings

  • In all cases, the charter operators acknowledged that with this type of engagement with the district receiver came uncertainty about how they can adapt their existing model in the more restrictive environment of a district.
  • Charter operators engaged in Lawrence’s external operator turnaround strategy in a political environment that is currently supportive of this invitation; however, they lack the legal authority provided by the state’s Commonwealth Charter Schools and Horace Mann Charter Schools. For example, charter operators who manage LPS schools have a one-year memorandum of understanding (MOU). Commonwealth and Horace Mann charter schools are given a five-year contract.
  • The time required to negotiate an MOU resulted in significant limitations on the time needed by the charter operators to hire, prepare their school buildings, train staff, and engage in community outreach prior to the start of school.
  • Ultimately, the shared vision between the charter operators and the Lawrence receiver is the major incentive for engaging in this experiment in school turnaround; beyond this, however, there are very few incentives.
  • The lack of incentives limited the LPS receiver’s ability to recruit external operators, especially the experienced pool of charter operators to manage Lawrence’s lowest performing schools.
  • The charter operators who are managing the Lawrence schools bring with them substantial experience and infrastructure, which mitigates some risk, including staffing, staff development, and adaptation of their school models. In each case, charter operators reported drawing significant amounts of support from their organizations.

Lawrence’s strategy for providing intensive support to a district’s lowest performing schools through an external operator is new but shows some promise. In the current environment, however, there are significant limitations to expanding this strategy; the authors suggest some actions and considerations that may be taken to limit the risk to external operators and grow the field.

What State Leaders, Policymakers, and District Leaders Can Do

  • Capitalize on the political will that supports the external operator strategy to consider clarifying the authorization of the district–external operator relationships.
  • Develop a set of incentives for external operators engaging in this work. For example, resources and funding in the first year were cited as needs by the charter operators.
  • Provide training and support to districts and external operators. This may include offering facilitators to negotiate the initial and ongoing issues that arise in terms of the external operators’ autonomy.
  • Study the implementation of the external operator school turnaround strategy to improve the conditions for implementation in the state and to ensure that it is realizing the ultimate goal of improving educational outcomes for students.

What Districts Can Do

  • Dedicate ongoing support to the external operators as they assimilate to their roles.
  • Develop structures that allow for the sharing of promising practices between the district-managed and external operator-managed schools.

What External Operators Must Do

  • Prepare for the uncertainty and risk of managing a district school, and be ready to adapt their models to the specific needs of their students. The experienced charter operators engaged in Lawrence had integrated a purposeful effort to continually improve and adapt the model to fit the needs of their students.
  • Ensure that their vision and the district leader’s vision align, or at least accommodate the vision of the external operator.