At a time when school districts across the Commonwealth are feeling the triple squeeze of the federal No Child Left Behind law, MCAS tests, and shrinking budgets, officials in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable are taking an unusual tack. Rather than tightening their grip on teachers and principals, they’re loosening it, encouraging each public school to determine the best course to meeting stricter federal and state standards. Their solution? Charter schools.

There are already two charter schools in town, and last year the Barnstable School Committee voted unanimously to encourage the other 11 schools in its jurisdiction to follow the same model. This year, three of Barnstable’s elementary schools are preparing to apply to the state Department of Education to become Horace Mann charter schools–a middle ground between traditional public schools and Commonwealth charter schools, which are accountable to no one but the state. Five more schools–including the town’s middle school and high school–are exploring the possibility of conversion for the following year.

Teachers’ Union president Jack McLeod:
an unlikely charter cheerleader.

Although the words “charter school” raise the hackles of many teachers and administrators, others view the concept as an opportunity for innovation and choice (see “Multiple Choice,” CW, Winter 2003). By embracing, however tentatively, this notion of schoolhouse autonomy for an entire school district, Barnstable has jumped to the forefront of education reform in Massachusetts–and, by some measures, the country.

Best known for its beaches and summer homes, Barnstable seems an unlikely candidate for radical change. But the school district is larger than Everett’s or Revere’s; with 7,000 students, it’s about the size of Chicopee’s. Its students are enrolled in nine elementary schools; the Barnstable Horace Mann Charter School, for grades five and six; a middle school, for grades seven and eight; and Barnstable High School. There’s also the Sturgis Charter High School, created with the state’s other charter school model, the Commonwealth charter. Barnstable’s MCAS scores put it smack in the middle of the state, ranking 117th out of 212 districts on the spring 2002 exam. Per pupil spending is $5,651.

The Barnstable district is part suburban, part urban, and part rural, with seven villages spread out over 76 square miles. But those villages have striking disparities in income and educational levels. Osterville sits at one end of the spectrum, with old-money elegance, million-dollar seaside homes, and gated communities. Hyannis, with a more urban feel and a highly transient immigrant population, sits on the other. Barnstable is dense with retirees, but it is also attracting growing numbers of young families with children.

Even with this odd demographic mix, Barnstable wasn’t seen as a particularly troubled school system when it unveiled plans for reform that many see as cutting-edge. Local officials say the town is in a hurry, but not in a panic.

“We are not in crisis mode,” says superintendent Andre Ravenelle. “We’re in development mode.”

Charter of a different color

The push for Horace Mann charter schools in Barnstable began with an unlikely character: the president of the teachers’ union. Seven years ago, Jack McLeod, head of the Barnstable Teachers Association, attended a Massachusetts Teachers Association conference about this new breed of charter school. Until then, Massachusetts offered only Commonwealth charters, which were anathema to the teachers’ unions. Commonwealth charters operate independently of school districts, they can hire non-union teachers, and they don’t abide by collective bargaining agreements. Horace Mann charters, on the other hand, were created with input from the MTA, and they require the approval of the school district, the school committee, and the local teachers’ union before they can even file charter applications.

Horace Mann charters have not caught on statewide.

They have not exactly caught on, however. Since 1997, just seven Horace Mann charters have been issued, even though current legislation allows for as many as 48 statewide. This compares with 46 Commonwealth charter schools. But these union-approved alternatives to Commonwealth charter schools caught McLeod’s attention. At the MTA conference, McLeod listened to how Horace Mann schools required innovation and featured alternative methods of instruction, school design, and management.

Principal Tom McDonald recruited townspeople,
including his own teachers, to put together a
charter model the town could run with.

“All I could think about was Tom McDonald,” recalls McLeod, referring to the principal of what was then the town’s fifth-grade school. “He’s a very innovative, can-do kind of principal. He already had a Main Streets Learning Program in place that partnered with local businesses. He’d even marketed a board game, developed with students and staff, which was featured on the Today show. I thought it was a perfect match.”

As it turns out, so did McDonald. With his distinctive entrepreneurial spirit, McDonald started searching for local supporters, including his own teachers, to help develop a model the town could run with. It turned out that Barnstable also had a charter school expert living in town. Managing director and co-founder of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, a nonprofit education foundation, Jack McCarthy co-founded the Boston Renaissance Charter School in 1995. He created a charter school incubator in Washington, DC, that launched two college-prep charter schools in that city, and he was a founding director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association. Needless to say, McCarthy was eager to join the cause.

McDonald led a two-pronged campaign to win support for a conversion to a Horace Mann charter. Inside the school, he let the staff decide on a reform model. They chose the Modern Red Schoolhouse, a restructuring plan that focuses on traditional school subjects and high academic standards, as well as finance, technology, and community and professional involvement. The school’s teachers developed a single curriculum for the entire school. That means that each of the 24 fifth-grade classrooms follow the same lesson plan, and all students take the same test at the end of each unit and complete the same “culminating activity” to show they’ve mastered the material. At the start of each unit, parents receive an overview of what their children will be learning, along with tips on home activities they can do to reinforce the lessons. Last year, the school added an online component that allows parents to log in and monitor their children’s grades and progress.

Outside the school, McDonald, McLeod, and McCarthy focused on winning the support of the school committee, the teachers’ union, and the parents. They enlisted facilitators to run community meetings to build a consensus, and they won the necessary support to apply for a charter. With union and school committee approval, Barnstable applied for its first Horace Mann charter in 1997 and two years later opened a districtwide school that served the entire fifth grade. In September, Barnstable Horace Mann also opened its doors to sixth-graders as well.

Under new management

On the outside, the school resembles countless others across the state. It’s on the inside that the school stands apart, with significant differences in finances, curriculum, and attention to student achievement.

Each June, the charter school receives its annual funding in a lump sum from the town of Barnstable. While traditional public schools get their costs, such as payroll, covered by the district’s central office (which also manages purchasing for all the schools), administrators at Barnstable Horace Mann invest their appropriation, typically depositing the funds into money market accounts and certificates of deposit, then dole it out as needed. In each of the last several years, the school’s investments have yielded about $50,000 in interest, and that money is reinvested in instruction, professional development, and teaching materials.

To make the most of this fiscal authority, the school has a director of management and finance, a sort of CFO for the school. Susan Dahn, who has held that title for five years, believes the financial independence of the school has a direct impact on the quality of the education it provides. “The needs of the student population are increasing, but in most schools, there aren’t the resources to meet those needs,” she says. “But if you have control over budgets and teacher training, you’re in a much better position to react.”

Susan Dahn took on the
duties of a CFO.

That control means that Barnstable Horace Mann administrators can spend where they like and save where they can. In the past four years, Barnstable Horace Mann has banked $1 million in anticipation of a larger fifth-grade class in 2003. Traditional public schools can’t save like that, so a year of smaller classes can mean layoffs, followed by the need to rehire and retrain when enrollment swells.

That long-range planning appeals to teachers, who, like parents, are often disgruntled over the perennial shuffling in response to budgetary swings. Teachers have also relished the chance to help create the new school.

“We had close to 100 percent buy-in,” says McLeod. The school has also set aside money for professional development that is in line with its new curriculum. At a weeklong paid “summer institute,” Barnstable Horace Mann teachers earn graduate-level credits in courses tailor-made to their school’s educational approach.

All these tools help the administration keep the focus on accountability and performance. “The MCAS has caused all the schools to focus on standards, data, and annual progress, but it hasn’t told you how to do it,” says McCarthy. “But under the Horace Mann charter, we have to focus on performance. And it gives us control over the planning and management.” Under their charters, Horace Mann schools must file accountability plans and make annual reports to the public. And like Commonwealth charters, their charters come up for renewal every five years.

The success of the Barnstable Horace Mann–both financially and academically–has propelled the district to explore how to replicate it in its other schools. Fifth- graders’ performances on the Stanford 9 tests have been improving steadily, while MCAS scores across the district remain just above the state average. Meanwhile, the district’s demographic trends pose an increasing challenge. Although the number of single-parent families is holding steady in Massachusetts, that group is on the rise in Barnstable. As the rate of poverty decreases statewide, it remains even in Barnstable. And as the number of parents who are college graduates–the leading predictor of student achievement –increases across the state, it’s declining in Barnstable.

When Superintendent Ravenelle first eyed the Barnstable Horace Mann charter, he observed that one of the key elements was site-based management–something he believed the district’s other schools should have, too. At the same time, two distinct but parallel movements were underway in the district. The Barnstable Horace Mann’s strategic planning group was meeting to determine how to expand its initiative and pass along its best practices. And the school district launched a strategic planning committee to set long-term objectives for the schools. The committees appeared to be heading in the same direction, so they formed a joint committee to see how the ideas could be integrated.

Two major outcomes emerged. The first was to explore creating more Horace Mann charters in the district. That eventually led to the school committee’s resolution to encourage all its schools to become Horace Mann charters. “I absolutely do not feel that for any district to be a success it has to have all Horace Mann charters,” says Ravenelle, but the superintendent wants all of his schools to exercise that option if they want. Toward that end, Barnstable created the Horace Mann Resource Center earlier this year to assist the district’s traditional public schools in preparing charter applications. McCarthy now serves as a consultant to that center.

Ravenelle relishes the conversations that have ensued from the exploration of more charter conversions. “Stimulating educational plans are a rarity today, because you’re spending all your time on budget conversations,” says Ravenelle. “It’s hard to bring a group of educators together and really talk about the delivery of education. So much of what we do is really a reaction to financial problems and other social ills. But this process has offered us a wonderful opportunity to dialogue about ways to educate kids and get greater accountability and success.”

Superintendent Ravenelle:
working toward a charter district?

The second outcome was more of a question, and it remains unanswered today: Would Barnstable become a charter district, or a district of charter schools? “The Legislature allows for the creation of individual charter schools, but it does not recognize a charter district,” says Ravenelle.

Cutting knots

Though Barnstable’s emerging charter district is an anomaly in Massachusetts, it is not without precedent in other parts of the country. The interest in charter schools has snowballed into scattered districts in which most or all public schools are charters. They bear scant resemblance to traditional school districts. Instead, these districts enter into contracts with individuals or groups to run the schools, and the roles of the school committee and superintendent shift from quotidian concerns–such as hiring custodians–to big-picture issues, such as the schools’ missions, standards, and performance.

“So much of what we do is a reaction to financial problems.”

“Charter districts haven’t quite risen to the level of a trend,” says Todd Ziebarth, program director of the Education Commission of the States’ National Center on Governing America’s Schools, based in Denver, although he notes pockets of charter-district activity from coast to coast. Small and mid-sized school districts in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have converted all or most of their schools to charter or contract status. And cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are creating strata of charter schools that operate almost like districts within districts.

“Charters are appealing to districts for several reasons,” says charter school proponent Paul T. Hill, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and author of the book Reinventing Public Education. Primarily, he notes, chartering puts schools on a performance contingency. “It says that the school exists only if it meets performance expectations, and only if parents choose to go there.” Money is a second reason, with charter schools having funds much more concentrated at the school level, as opposed to a districtwide office. In true charter districts, Hill envisions diminished central offices that consume less money and spend less time dictating to the individual schools. Third, Hill says that charter districts have an advantage in their largely autonomous schools’ ability to hire the teachers they want, rather than taking on staff according to elaborate, districtwide “bidding and bumping” rules.

Hill acknowledges that, theoretically, traditionally organized schools could have performance contingencies, control over money, and freedom to hire. But this hasn’t happened, and for good reason, he says. “There are so many barriers–collective bargaining, the job rights of people in the central office, categorical funding schemes,” he says. “But chartering is a Gordian knot cutter. Instead of negotiating issues one by one, you create a whole new system.”

Barnstable’s plan can’t cut through all of Hill’s Gordian knots, nor is it intended to. Accountability and fiscal autonomy, yes. But not the end of collective bargaining, at least not yet. For that reason, Hill believes that Barnstable won’t be able to go far enough to make an educational difference.

“Charters, like cholesterol, have good and bad forms.”

“The Horace Mann charter is a counter-change initiative,” says Hill. “It’s a way to say you have charters, but you don’t. It’s a false front, a Potemkin village,” he says, referring to the elaborate cardboard facades built to mask shabby Russian villages before Catherine the Great rode through.

Hill would prefer to see the spread of Commonwealth charters. But even advocates like McCarthy have taken note of the hostility and resistance toward Commonwealth charter schools, which are routinely accused of siphoning money away from traditional schools. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, puts it this way: “Charters, like cholesterol, have good and bad forms. Horace Mann programs are far superior.”

That’s certainly the view the MTA has taken. A staunch opponent of Commonwealth charters, the group is supportive of Barnstable’s efforts because the district is using a charter model the association helped create. “We’re very open to their charter district proposal because we support the philosophy that underlies them,” says MTA president Catherine A. Boudreau. “You can’t complain about that which you helped found.”

Brave new school district

Exactly what a charter district will look like if it’s established throughout Barnstable is an open question. Indeed, since the existing Horace Mann school serves all the town’s fifth- and sixth-graders, the district hasn’t even addressed the potentially thorny question of choice. But as three of the town’s nine elementary schools ready their applications for Horace Mann status this year, the town will have to face the issue head on. Individual elementary schools may adopt reform models that appeal to some parents but not to others. For example, one might follow a Montessori model, while a school across town might pursue a curriculum centered on technology. School choice has proven complex even in cities with extensive transportation services; how choice will play out in more bucolic Barnstable is a looming question.

Charter expert Jack McCarthy: “We have to focus on performance.”

The duties of the superintendent and school committee are also certain to change. In a charter district, the school committee would set the policy and vision for the district, approve school improvement plans, and carry out strategic planning. The superintendent would hire and fire district administrators, oversee district funding, and act as a liaison to the district’s charter office. But at each school, the principal would act as CEO, hiring and firing his or her own staff (within the constraints of union contracts) and overseeing data collection and reporting. The principal would have to serve many masters, reporting to the state Department of Education, the individual school’s board of trustees, and the town’s schools superintendent.

James Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, hopes that Barnstable’s experiment will stimulate more interest in Horace Mann charters. “Barnstable’s initiative to encourage all of its schools to become Horace Mann charters is certainly a good one, and it’s encouraging to see, since there has been very little movement on the Horace Mann front since the law was put into place.”

At the same time, Peyser does not want to see Barnstable create charter schools in cookie-cutter fashion, merely mimicking the existing Horace Mann school in the district. “It’s important that the Horace Mann model is not simply used as a vehicle for institutionalizing school-based management and gaining access to some additional funds that are available [through grants] for charter schools. They need to be used to drive reform and change in the classroom.”

David Driscoll, the state’s education commissioner, is optimistic about Barnstable’s efforts but doubtful about the precedent it’s setting. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “Quite frankly, it may not be for anyone. It’s one thing to have a school within a district that you give some authority to, but it’s quite another to declare that you’re going to be a complete charter district.” The impediments he cites range from issues of state legislation to local politics. The Legislature created school committees to govern local schools, he notes; if a school committee doesn’t do that, it may require special legislation.

Then there are the teachers’ unions. So far, with union president Jack McLeod one of the framers of the Horace Mann initiative, they haven’t been a problem in Barnstable. It helps that the only existing Horace Mann school encompasses all of the town’s fifth- and sixth-graders and their teachers. If elementary schools start to convert, however, problems may arise, especially if layoffs occur and teachers exercise their seniority rights to claim a post in another school. That development would erode a charter school’s ability to hire teachers of its choice and build a faculty committed to and trained in its unique mission. Currently, the school committee and the teachers’ association have negotiated some exceptions for the teachers at Barnstable Horace Mann. Theoretically, the teachers’ association will have to renegotiate with each new charter school that opens on hours of operation, flex time, and training.

But these hurdles don’t deter the Barnstable team. “A lot of what we’re doing now is making lists of the difficulties and the concerns as we move forward,” says superintendent Ravenelle. In addition to helping more schools apply for charters, the Horace Mann Resource Center is also helping to identify and address issues that arise in the transitions. These range from longstanding concerns, like collective bargaining, to future opportunities, like giving charter schools more latitude in bidding for competitive services in areas such as food service or supplies.

If recent history is any indicator, Barnstable will iron out these difficulties, as Horace Mann proponents have done to date, using professional facilitators to work with teachers, parents, and business leaders toward a consensus. “Everyone has to feel that they have a buy-in into the process,” says McCarthy. “You can’t force people to do this.”

And if all schools don’t convert, that’s okay with Ravenelle, too. “I’ve seen ongoing student success in schools all over Massachusetts without the framework of the Commonwealth or the Horace Mann charter,” says the Barnstable superintendent. “What’s important is that every school should be constantly asking whether they can make the better the best.”

Michelle Bates Deakin is a freelance writer based in Arlington.