A+ Advice for Parents

Q: Our elementary school is quashing creativity. A group of us parents thinks the lack of arts education, field trips and the like squeezes the joy out of learning. We aren't opposed to tests, and we don't want to home-school our kids; we just want a better elementary experience. How hard is it to start a charter school?

A: It's hard. That doesn't mean your group shouldn't pursue it. Just don't plan for it to open this fall. Charters are places to try out new methods. Some will succeed; others won't.

When Mary Mitchell, the late co-founder of New York City's successful Girls Prep, was asked about starting a charter, she'd advise: "Prepare for more homework than you can imagine, and be ready to jump myriad hurdles. Study the data on what makes a charter school successful long-term. Build in accountability from the start. Fill your planning group with people who will go the distance. It's a marathon."

The planning group's job is to articulate a clear vision and identify people and resources to bring your school into being. That vision should spell out the school's core beliefs and its instructional and management processes. Show the mission, costs and timeline to key parent, educator and civic constituencies. This helps refine the application and anticipate potential funders' questions. Know your state's rules, process and timeline for charter applications.

Be able to clearly define the educational need you're meeting. Florida parent Richard Busto helped lead a team that founded the successful charter Renaissance Learning Center for elementary-age students with autism spectrum disorders. They also founded the Renaissance Learning Academy, a nonprofit high school, as a transition from the Learning Center. The Learning Academy's mission was clear from the start: Help prepare students ages 14 to 21 with autism spectrum disorders for life after school.

You may not have to start a charter to get more of what you're looking for. Teachers also regret the loss of time for the arts, project-based learning and other activities that make school fun. "Most educators will welcome a parent initiative that can help add programs that motivate students and add richness to the offerings," says Tim Sullivan, the president and founder of PTOToday.com. These may be after school, on weekends or during school vacations.

"Family engagement covers a lot of ground," says Sullivan. "From helping create a new playground and ensuring a budget for field trips to working with educators to tweak a curriculum to offer more arts, STEM or other content a community wants."

Ken Robinson, Ph.D., the co-author of "Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education" (Viking, 2015) encourages parents to engage with educators.

Robinson is famous for his TED Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" He notes that recent efforts such as the U.S. Department of Education's 2013 family engagement report, "A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family–School Partnerships," and the PTA's "National Standards for Family-School Partnerships" spell out principles that foster win-win collaborations.

Clarify your group's goals and approach the principal and other key educators in your elementary school (including the PTO or PTA leadership). What you're seeking may be within easier reach than starting a charter school from scratch.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

More like A+ Advice for Parents