Everybody thinks charter schools are in the education business. They are really in the education innovation business.
Unique methods of teaching form the core of the charter school movement. Successful schools find imaginative ways to intrigue, captivate and ultimately educate students.
“Charter schools were created to innovate education,” said Les Harrison, an advisor at Jane Goodall Environmental Sciences Academy (JGESA) in Maple Lake, MN. “The best charter schools continue to do that.”
He should know. JGESA won the 2022 Building Hope Impact and Summit Award for Education Innovation. Harrison was also on the Selection Committee for this year’s Education Innovation award.
Innovation is one of those things that may be tough to define, but you know it when you see it. You can certainly see it at JGESA, where students design their learning experiences based on their passions. Their critical thinking is developed by connecting with experts and exploring a campus that spreads over 300 acres of woods, prairie, and water.
Not every school has a forest for a backyard, of course. But successful innovation does not require unique surroundings.
“Innovation is in the expectations,” said Amy Ruck-Kagan, Managing Partner of NEXUS at the National Association of Charter School Organizers. “It is finding new ways to achieve a school’s goals, doing them well and ensuring that they are reflective of the needs and aspirations of the communities they are serving.”
“The key is to demonstrate what makes your school different,” Harrison said, “and how it is transforming the educational conversation and approaches to learning.”
It’s become a cliché to say charter schools must “think outside the box.” But there’s danger in thinking too far outside of it.
The education business is demanding, especially when schools try to do things differently. Innovation must be mixed with enough pragmatism to produce programs that will stand up to the challenges.
“The first thing I’m looking for is survival,” said Hugh Jarrett, CEO of Central Charter School in Lauderdale Lakes, FL and also a member of the Education Innovation Selection Committee. “Is your school and its programs going to survive the test of time, or are they starting down a creative path and then closing two to three years later?”
The judging process is multi-layered to ensure the evaluation process considers all sides of innovation. The five criteria used to determine the BH IMPACT Grant Award recipients are Impact, Leadership, Program, Growth, and Support. Success in each of these areas looks different in each school. The outcomes, however, are the same: a great education that prepares students to succeed in the future.
“Traditional public schools are formulaic,” Jarrett said. “They have certain approaches and curriculums that cascade down from the heavens, and they have to do what they are told. We can be a lot more flexible and responsive to the subtle needs of students and parents.”
In a formulaic educational world, trying new formulas can be risky business. But if charter schools wanted to play it safe, they wouldn’t be charter schools.
“Innovative schools stand out by finding their niche, reaching the communities they serve, and helping kids grow and learn in ways that are not provided by traditional educational models,” Harrison said. “Innovation can be as simple as knowing your students and building community in a way that allows each learner to thrive.”