Can Authorizers and Schools Share Powerful Relationships?
Amanda R., Nov. 7, 2012
When I met with the staff of the charter office at Eastern Michigan University this summer, Dr. Malverne Winborne, director of the office, shared that one of the charter team’s criteria for new schools was that they were within an hour of their campus in Ypsilanti. This followed their desire for strong understanding of and involvement in their schools, including their attendance at all board meetings. While my inner dialogue appraisal of the delivery was along the lines of, “You should know…,” and thus “You should prepare yourself for something undesirable to you…,” I was confident I represented my teammates in sharing that we embraced this idea as well.
Dr. Winborne and Dr. Quiroz, the office’s associate director, framed their contributions to the operation of the school as their “responsibilities”: supporting board training, providing certain technology, and so on. As a clear F over T (some savvy readers will understand the reference), I tend to “vibe.” While interviewing for teaching jobs years ago, I always felt like I could “take the temperature” of a school within a few minutes, getting an immediate whiff of the culture and making a threshold prejudgment as to whether working there was even possible. In much the same way, I sensed that the culture of this office was positive and that we could partner productively. To be clear, I am not delusional; the heavy lifting is ours to bear and oversight is their main role. There will be disagreements and maybe even upheaval. However, to me, in the present, the culture I sensed was that the office would be part of the team that would make this school successful.
This approach aligns with what we hope to create in the school itself. In contrast to what we have seen in other Detroit schools, we want our students, parents, and staff to be familiar with the less visible but important members of the school community: board members, community supporters, and our authorizer. When things are going well, all involved can pause together to celebrate our collective success. If things are going poorly, a range of perspectives is more likely to shed light on problems and solutions. And when conflict arises, which it will, having all parties familiar with each other, placing faces with names and names with roles, can only help create understanding around needs over positions and bring each stakeholder’s resources to the table.
Optimally, this works in the opposite direction as well. In addition to our hope that our authorizer plugs into our school community, we hope to hold out representatives of that community, i.e. our board members, as positive players in the realm of the university authorizer. As the purpose of charter schools in the early years was to allow parents and teachers to create schools free of cumbersome bureaucracy, the reality has become that CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) often create boards that serve their needs as opposed to boards creating schools and seeking out CMOs that will support their models. In our case, we began as a project team that planned to eventually staff the school. We had the benefit of being able to assemble our own board – one that we believe understands our values and mission but is at the same time a group of thoughtful and driven professionals who challenge us often on our thinking and products. As the future staff of a self-managed school, one of our most difficult yet exciting tasks is to create a very deliberate and balanced relationship with the board to work together for the success of the school.
Drs. Winborne and Quiroz are in the process of vetting our board candidates, who have been serving ably as our project team board for over a year. These members of our team are of the community and thus strengthen the fabric of that community as liaisons for the school. If the directors decide to accept our nominations, they will have taken an immediate first step toward connecting with the school’s community. This benefits all involved as the board sits in the official position between the authorizer and the staff of the school but also, as part of our model, within close proximity to the students, parents, community members and community partners.
I realize I may reread this one day and laugh at my own naivete’. For now, though, I will run with this MHAG (Medium Hairy Audacious Goal). We have dreamed and made promises around a new culture in Detroit education, so it’s time for us to walk the walk. We hope to be an example of a school where multiple stakeholders walk the walk together.