Ellen Foley
The intended role of charter schools to stimulate innovation is often ignored in debates between advocates and critics – but one district in Rhode Island is showing how it's done.


Public discussion about school reform often positions charter schools and district schools in opposition to each other; if you’re in favor of one, you’re against the other. But the Annenberg Institute has found that in what we call a “smart district,” charters can work with district schools to provide a laboratory for new ideas that can be scaled up to benefit all of the district’s schools.

One of the key roles of a smart district is to encourage new ideas, methods, and partners to ensure the availability of the most effective supports and services for schools. In his January 2 op ed, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera highlighted one of the Institute’s local partners which is doing just that.  Since 2007, the Central Falls (R.I.) School District has been collaborating with the city’s Learning Community charter school on its Growing Readers Initiative, a program designed to build strong early-grade readers.  Through this professional development partnership, teachers, coaches, specialists, and administrators from the K-8 charter school are working alongside their Central Falls School District colleagues, sharing best practices and systems of support and data analysis, and encouraging a team approach to student achievement.

The results have been dramatically positive.  At the pilot school, 86 percent of the participating students were reading at or above the national benchmark after six months.  Based on that early success, the initiative was expanded district-wide in 2009-10 to include every K-2 classroom in every elementary school.  Between October and June, district-wide performance increased 30 points, a 54 percent gain. 

One of the very few examples of collective practice between an urban school district and a charter school nationally, this partnership embodies the original promise of the charter school movement: To spur innovation in the larger system of public education. Leaders of that collaboration co-authored an article featured in our Spring 2010 quarterly journal, Voices in Urban Education (VUE).

We highlighted this effort in VUE because it was such a rare demonstration of our vision for the roles of both school districts and charter schools. Many stakeholders oppose the expansion of charter schools, fearing that they draw money and relatively more advantaged students away from traditional public schools; that they are a way to skirt collective bargaining rights; and that they are considered the absolute antidote for all that ails public education.

Those are valid concerns that need to be considered as state and district leaders make decisions about education policy. But in this overheated debate, one of the often-overlooked roles envisioned for charters is serving as catalysts for innovation. Certainly not all charters fulfill this goal, but at their best, they effectively use their flexibility to develop curricula, climate, and supports that better serve students who often fall through the cracks in traditional public schools, such as English language learners and students from low-income or immigrant families.  State and local policy should support this role by:   

  • Granting charters to schools that are specifically designed to serve populations that have not generally succeeded in traditional public schools

  • Creating accountability mechanisms and flexibilities for charters that spur – and do not deter – innovation as well as credit for efforts to share those innovations with traditional public schools

  • Developing incentives and supports for traditional public schools and districts to learn from innovative schools, whether they be charter schools, private schools, or schools in the traditional districts that have managed to innovate despite the many constraints they face

More school district leaders should look to the example of Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo, who sought out opportunities to learn from effective charter schools serving students from her district.

Prepared by:

Ellen Foley
Former Associate Director, District Redesign and Leadership.
Annenberg Institute for School Reform