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Success Depends on Building Coalitions

Most of the media attention on charter schools emphasizes individual struggles or isolated success stories. One of the most exciting possibilities gets little press outside youth policy circles: chartering may help many more at-risk teenagers stay in school or return after dropping out.

The relationships some CBO charter schools have maintained with their larger school systems indicate that coalition-building is possible. “We created [in the past] new schools for people who had dropped out,” notes Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild USA. “We didn’t do it with any expectation that the public schools would embrace us – but lo and behold, they have.”

Some public schools already refer troubled teens to CBOs for help. In the best circumstances, once that organization opens a charter school, partnerships with other schools, agencies, local colleges, and businesses continue to thrive.

“We’ve always had good relationships with other public schools,” Call-a-Teen CEO Bernice Lever emphasizes. Before getting a charter, Call-A-Teen ran an alternative education program for a high school in Phoenix. Now, to fill the individual needs of kids who walk through their doors, this CBO and its charter school collaborate with homeless youth programs, the state Department of Corrections, even Charles Schwab and Co., a private employer. “Bartering works for us,” Lever says.

YouthBuild Philadelphia has also maintained cordial relations with the high school that originally granted diplomas to YouthBuild students. This charter school is helping with curriculum development for “Twilight Schools,” the district’s alternative education program for at-risk kids. In addition, an organization called Youth Empowerment Services has grown out of YouthBuild Philadelphia, with funding from a U.S. Department of Labor Youth Opportunity grant. According to the new organization’s director, Taylor Frome, its mission is to “spread the development of services to out-of-school youth, partly through networking and partly through training.”

Other networks have formed to help charter schools with standardizing procedures and financial development. The Charter Friends National Network provides a web site of state contacts and publications (www.charterfriends.org). The Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center, with a web site of its own (www.pioneerinstitute.org), offers technical assistance and training programs. Through the Resource Center’s Development Initiative, for instance, the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School has just hired a development director.

In Washington D.C., there’s a resource center and a sports league for charter schools. Seventeen of these schools joined together to win $2.64 million a year in federal Safe Schools Healthy Students money; the grant goes to one of the schools and is administered by the Public Charter School Center for Student Support Services. Such coalition-building will bear fruit, says center director Eve Brooks, “to the extent that charters see themselves as voluntarily working together. What this collaborative approach promises is some reaching across the charters. We’re training 17 school coordinators, and they come together each week. We’re hiring a mental health worker for each school. But we’re not about recreating a bureaucracy.”

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