Terry Ryan is president of the Idaho Charter School Network and a member of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho task force. Before moving to Idaho in 2013, he served as vice president for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for 12 years.
Ryan began his career in education as a teacher in Poland and worked with the Polish Ministry of Education and the Foundation for Education for Democracy in the mid-1990s. Ryan was a 2008 New Schools Venture Fund/Aspen Institute Fellow and is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
In this essay, he talks about the role of charter schools in rural Georgia.
By Terry Ryan
One of the most innovative developments in American education during the past decade has been the reconceptualization of school districts and how they should be organized and managed.
A growing number of big city districts across the country have embraced the notion of “portfolio school districts,” where superintendents use their authority to transfer power away from the central office to individual schools – and, most important, to their principals and teachers.
In a portfolio school district, leaders see their role not as running schools, but rather as creating the conditions for a “tight-loose” system of school management – “tight” as to results, but “loose” with regards to operations. Georgia embedded the concept of portfolio school districts into state law in 2008 when it revamped the state’s Charter Schools Act.
As a result of these legislative changes a number of Georgia’s 181 school districts, including some rural ones, have decided to pursue the option of becoming a “charter system,” a model Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission should take to heart in its recommendations on how to remake Georgia’s education system.
I had the opportunity to visit Dublin in Laurens County where I met Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter and his team. The rural Dublin City Schools was an early adopter of the charter system concept. As a charter system, Dublin receives some flexibility from state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for outcomes. The district serves about 2,800 students, 82 percent of whom are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch.
The charter system builds on nearly 25-years of charter school experience across the country. Dublin’s Saxon Heights Elementary school principal John Strickland said the district’s charter status allowed a “culture shift. It triggered a change in mind-set. We don’t have to do things here because of the system. We do things because we think it works for kids.” He said his school has seen a dramatic decline in referrals for discipline issues since the change in the district’s charter status. Dublin has also seen its graduate rate steadily improve since 2011.
As the Education Reform Commission looks into ways to expand opportunities for Georgia’s learners, increase access to education, and seek greater system flexibility, a good place to look for ideas is Dublin. Some of the lessons coming out of their innovative experience might include:
• Charter school flexibilities work for students and educators, and the state should find ways to give charter districts like Dublin even more operational flexibility.
• Raw test scores from the state’s assessment system don’t capture many of the advanced skills required of advanced learners or the skills and knowledge related to professional credentials.
• Seat time requirements are largely irrelevant to students spending half their time in an industrial fellowship or internship.
As Superintendent Ledbetter said, “Funding Carnegie Units doesn’t work for high school students participating in the Middle Georgia Aviation Program.” Further, he said, “Seat time should be waved and there should be a focus on mastery of content, while funds should follow students to the programs they actually participate in.”
Rural schools need to innovate to survive and thrive, and Dublin is helping to show what’s possible.