COMMUNITY VOICES | Charters 2.0 — Charter Incubation: Refining the charter strategy to close the achievement gap


In Minnesota, our achievement gap is one of the largest in the nation. A recent national study on graduation rates reinforced this. It showed Minnesota’s Native American’s are last in graduation rates, Hispanic students 49th and African America students 48th.  This is just plain and simply — unacceptable.

In an effort to address the growing inequity in our state’s education system, Governor Dayton and the Minnesota legislature, to their credit, put an unprecedented $485 million investment in new education funding for all schools, including $134 million for All-Day Kindergarten and $40 million for early education scholarships – large steps in the right direction.

However, less inspiring was their goal to close the state’s achievement gap by 2027. 2027? Really?  Another generation of our kids cannot be lost while we try another state experiment that might close the achievement gap — in 14 years!  No, we have examples of successful schools that are already closing the gap – today.  Namely, a group of charter schools, nationally and locally, who are producing astounding results for low-income kids. Let’s utilize the charter site-based model that gives more autonomy for more accountability as a way forward – for both district and charter schools.

Houston’s Yes Prep, Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools, Rocketship Education and many of the KIPP schools, as well as hundreds of others are successful close-the-gap models nationally. Here in Minnesota, we have our own homegrown success stories including Harvest Prep/Best Academy, the Hiawatha Academies, Global Academy and others who are academically out-pacing some of the best suburban schools in the state.

Charter Incubation: Key to closing the achievement gap

So let’s replicate what works! We think a key ingredient of a multi-pronged approach to closing the achievement gap is ‘charter incubation’ of a new generation of high performing public schools. One of the lessons of the first twenty years of charters is the sheer difficulty of starting and successfully maintaining a high quality charter school.  It is just tough work and the best vision, academic program or business plan by a community group or talented teachers often fall short of the high ideals that were part of the founding vision.  

CSP’s charter incubation effort is one of a few groups nationally doing this work. We recruit, competitively select, and support high-quality school founders as they design and build new schools. By investing in and developing talented school leaders and connecting them to local networks of support, we believe it will increase the likelihood that new schools will perform well – from the start.

The CSP Fellowship ‘professors’ and teachers are made up of seasoned school leaders and charter experts who have expertise in the start-up process and can help new leaders navigate the particular challenges inherent in starting a charter school. We provide training and support as the leaders build school boards, locate and develop facilities, recruit great teachers, and make connections with local and community stakeholders. Fellows spend their first year in successful ‘resident schools’ including Harvest Prep/Best Academy, Hiawatha Academies, Global Academy and Higher Ground Academy.

What is different and unique about CSP’s Fellowship is that we are agnostic as to the type of educational model a fellow pursues and develops. We are not agnostic, however, about the program successfully serving low-income students in need. A key component of the fellowship is for the fellow to have the space to deeply explore and then finalize an academic program that fits their individual passion and education vision. This includes visiting and experiencing first hand some of the most successful schools nationally that will help fellows craft their own unique program.

CSP’s first cohort of fellows are opening up schools this fall. They include ARCH Academy, (South Minneapolis), led by Angela Mansfield, West Side Summit (St. Paul) led by Matthew Bannon and Daniela Vasan will head up Hiawatha Academies third elementary school – Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Northrop. James Robinson will be part of the leadership team of a new Mastery School in North Minneapolis and Carl Phillips will be opening Northeast College Prep in Northeast Minneapolis in 2014. In addition, we have just announced the three new fellows for the 2015 Cohort – Ellen Stewart, Gregory Gentle and Faysal Ali, all who will be opening separate schools in Minneapolis in 2015.

CSP’s Fellowship is part of a larger New Schools Initiative, the goal of which is to start 25 new innovative and high-performing charter schools serving low-income students in the coming years. In three short years, CSP has already helped launch or is in the process of launching a dozen new  schools. In addition to its fellowship program, CSP assists schools with a Charter Start consulting effort as well as directs Walton Family Foundation start-up grants to assist selected home-grown charter start-ups that show great potential to be high-performing schools.

In the coming decade, charter incubation will be a key strategy to help reset the charter movement  both nationally and in Minnesota and help close the immoral achievement and opportunity gap that exists in our public schools.


Al Fan is Executive Director of Charter School Partners, a Minneapolis based non-profit charter support group