School Design for Success


History of Bellevue International School

Bellevue International School was the sole creation of six visionary teachers, and has consistently ranked in the top tier of schools nationwide...Read more

History of Kirkland International Community School (ICS)

Kirkland International Community School had no computers the first year, and our students were housed in portables with little shelter from the rain...Yet, by the second year we achieved the highest writing scores on statewide exams...Read more

Humanities Curriculum at Bellevue International School and Kirkland ICS

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were mere interruptions in one continuous curriculum...Read more

How Social Promotion Gives a "Pass" to Schools that Fail

Ask any teacher whether social promotion "works", and you will receive a clear answer: It doesn't...Read more

First Test Scores from Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

These scores were achieved by schools that were untried, built on promises, and which had yet to acquire a reputation for rigor and success...Read more

Creating A Powerful Teaching Culture

If the teaching culture is not transformed, then "school renewal" will be an empty promise...Read more

Making it Better vs. Making it New

"Better" and "different" may sometimes be confused as charter schools describe their mission...Read more

How Marysville Arts & Technology H.S. Began

"We don't have tennis courts. We don't have a gym. We don't have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."Read more


Should charter schools be different from the public schools that they intend to replace?

Not different in terms of coursework, but very different in terms of increased professional teamwork, coordination, instructional effectiveness, and student achievement. Those who would create a charter school need to keep this principle in mind.

A mythology has grown up around charter schools: that sometimes these new programs may ignore the programmatic rigor, systematic skill development or learning sequences that create high levels of student achievement. In the uphill climb to gain acceptance and boost enrollment, some charter school developers may themselves contribute to this perception.

When those who would create a charter school succumb to this myth, they forget that the alpha and the omega of school reform is not to make the outcomes of schooling different, but to make them better.

"Better" and "different" may sometimes be confused as new charter schools describe their mission.

A common trap would be to describe a charter school program where systematic skill development takes a back seat to exploration, experience, or the self-indulgent pursuit of interests.

It is part of traditional schooling's failure that these have come to be seen as opposed to each other: the dreadful either/or of bookwork, straight rows, and disengaged students versus its antidote, a neo-romantic, spontaneous acquisition of knowledge.

Both of course are extremes: Traditional public schools have too often confused "rigor" with rigor-mortis; and in order to justify their existence, some charter schools may go to extremes to reject that mis-defined (and all too commonly observed) "rigor." In their enthusiasm to break with the failed schooling structures of the past, new charter school program developers may temporarily forget that the activities that lead to student achievement should be carefully sequenced, prioritized and balanced-- not placed in an oppositional "either/or."

Those who would start charter schools are visionaries as well as entrepreneurs--otherwise they would be satisfied with schools as they are.

But sometimes the idealism of charter school vision statements can make light of the serious challenges that all public schools face:

Too many students who come to high school underprepared, semi-resistant or undertrained.

Limited budgets.

Crowded curriculums dominated by state graduation and university admission requirements.

Teachers who have only so much energy to give to the profession in terms of pro-bono, paradigm shattering planning.

There is only so much that can be accomplished within the time and spaces that are our schools. Given limitations like these, what is needed is a concept of innovation that is rooted in quality instructional practices, comprehensive skill development, and teacher content area mastery--all within a newly revitalized schoool culture where learning, engagement and meaningful application are the rule.

The great secret is that those who would create a charter school do not need to be novel to be successful. Neither do they have to commit their staffs to lying upon a Procrustean bed of exaggerated extremes or undeliverable promises. A newly proposed program that promises to consistently integrate all learning around "themes" or "interests" might be one example. Such over-promising not only requires planning time and teacher energy levels that are limited commodities, but also threatens to short change the quality and depth of student learning experiences.

Instead, content area integration, when it occurs, should be a natural and gradual outgrowth of increased communication within the teacher team itself --and should always be respectful of the learning targets and essential questions of each content area, rather than something mandated or required.

A real world example of this artificial knitting together occurs when two enterprising teachers decide to team up and integrate social studies and literature. Because the history side is doing the Civil War, the literature teacher decides to have his students read Red Badge of Courage.

Which might be fine, were it not for the fact that Crane's novel is not so much about the Civil War as it is about mistaken idealism, the failure of the quest, the crushing power of circumstance and institutuional authority, temporary madness, denial, and what Freud called identification with the aggressor--among other things.

As such, Red Badge of Courage may have more in common with the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh than it does with the Civil War...and perhaps should be read alongside that epic while the history teacher is doing Mesopotamia. But when it is read and why it is read should be a logical outgrowth of the pursuit of developing themes in the literature class, not an ad-hoc, inauthentic, chronological detour required because a colleague in another department happens to be covering a topic.

The point for those who would create a successful charter school: curricular articulation is much more important than curricular integration. In an articulated curriculum, learning activities in each content area should link together as a logical sequence. This imbues class activities with a coherence, value and meaning that anchors an otherwise compartmentalized, fragmented approach to knowledge.

In a great literature class, therefore, Crane's work wouldn't be read because it was a teacher favorite, or because the Civil War was being studied over on the history side. Instead, it would occupy a special place in a series of readings that contributed to an ongoing commentary on course--and school wide--essential questions.

Other novelties can threaten the vitality of a new charter school. The use of a traditional administrative model may not be glamorous or innovative, but it allows teachers to focus on instruction instead of program management. We learned this important lesson in our first year at Bellevue International School, where the shared leadership model bogged down in unnecessary duplication and diversion from important things.

Such a conservative approach allows teacher teams to focus on the main tasks of schooling: the creation of quality instructional experiences, the development of consistent standards and expectations, and the team task of articulated curriculum design that gives students a clear idea what they are doing, and why they are doing it--program wide.

So, how different will charter schools be from the regular public schools that they replace?

In a typical 24 credit graduation sequence, 70% of a career-bound student's coursework is usually required for graduation (English, Social Studies, Math, Science, PE, Arts, CTE).

More compelling: up to 90% of a university bound student's coursework would be required when one factors in extra university admission requirements.

Given numbers like these, it is clear that high performance charter high schools have no choice but to be more similar to each other (and to the comprehensive high school) than different.

Overly enthusiastic claims about new ways of delivering, blending or side-stepping content in order to pique student interest cannot stand up to the imperatives of a crowded curriculum at the secondary level. Each program must ensure that content area competencies are met.

Charter schools, as part of the public system, are obligated to offer traditional subjects; but they must be more effective as they do so.

The use of essential questions, student centering, checking for understanding and strategies for engagement and interaction: these are the keys to creating dynamic classrooms where achievement and interaction are high.

In the most effective charter schools, core staff teams will have longer term relationships with the same group of students. As a result, both students and teachers will feel a stronger sense of obligation toward each other and toward the outcomes (see The Power of a Seamless Curriculum).

This is not hypothesis or hopeful expectation--it is a fact.

Can existing large high schools be successfully converted into a cluster of small successful charter schools?

Theoretically, "yes." But the first caveat is that "small is not necessarily better." The act of dividing up a large high school into small groups of teachers and students is merely a change of the first order. This is simply not enough.

The key to charter school success--regardless of size--has to do with deep level second order change--not with clusters or physical rearrangements of class rosters and team teaching assignments.

Well before the first students are admitted, charter school staffs must collaborate in the act of creating a new program with a special mission and focus. Key agreements must be hammered out, and then committed to by all staff as non-negotiables of the design.

And most important: Since literacy, decoding and knowledge of language are so important to student success, a school-wide introductory writing curriculum that emphasizes key skills, and that encourages full fledged student conversation about effective communication should be required for all entering students, regardless of grade level.

This "student conversation" and "student engagement" in evaluating and thinking about the work of schooling are the most important factors that drive school success and future student achievement.

A writing curriculum that accomplished these tasks would energize the entire learning community. It would equip students with the ability to acquire new information, to apply it, to judge its outcomes and then to evaluate alternative possibilities. Getting students to take charge of their own learning: This is absolutely critical for school-wide success.

Critical questions to be resolved would include:

What do we believe is important?

What classroom behavior and performance protocols shall we establish?

What are the most effective instructional practices that will guide students to fulfill these expectations?

What critical skills and competencies must staff commit to teaching at each level and in each and every class?

How can we create courses that an articulated sequence, not merely a randomized list that reflects departmental tradition or teacher preference?

What do we expect our graduates to know and to be able to do?

How can we arrive at this end point by the deliberate sequencing of learning activities?

What essential understandings, skills and habits of mind must be consistently targeted, developed, and carried forward from year to year as they are extended and applied?

Successful charter school programs must answer questions like these, and all staff on the team must commit to support and uphold these agreements before students can be accepted.

When it comes to effective school structures that maximize student achievement and the joy of learning in a purposeful and focused culture, there can be no key step omitted, and no weak link in the chain.

Does the start-up of a new charter school create problems for other schools in the district?

Whenever a charter school attracts notice because it is doing something right, it can serve as a catalyst and motivator for other schools to examine their own practices and, if necessary, take steps to create the same kind of commitment and support for strengthening their own teaching and learning cultures.

Successful charter schools should be thought of as laboratories, or as assets which can strengthen District programs by sharing new information about "what works."

What are some of the issues associated with starting a charter school at a new or existing site?

There are many challenges that must be faced in starting a new charter school. These not only have to do with establishing a physical site, but also with threading one's way (without losing one's way) through stake-holder expectations and strongly held values in order to arrive at a quality end-product.

It is essential to establish the focus and vision for the school early on--and stay the course.

Absent this clearly established focus, the question "which vision shall prevail?" can unsettle all aspects of school foundation and operation.

Those who would establish new charter schools must be able to effectively articulate a strong focus and vision--and provide a clear demonstration of the way that theory bridges over to practice and to results.

Most important is the issue having to do with the quality of instruction and program design. We must ask:

Why is this charter school being established?

Does it exist to serve a narrow ideological or needs-based point of view?

Is it offered mainly as an escape from the regular public program, or as a silver bullet that will at last "enable" students to "succeed" without requiring them to be accountable and responsible?

Or is it founded upon a vision of quality instruction, quality relationships and high expectations?

Once it is established, will this new charter school be able to deliver on its promises?

Does it have a philosophical and programmatic center that can guide its decision making, manage its growth and preserve its vision despite the addition of new staff or the infusion of new families?

What about the 7-12 configuration?

Long-term relationships and continuity of curriculum are crucial to the success of new, high performance charter schools. Every school must be accountable, and every school must ensure that students achieve competence in fundamental skills and scholarly attitudes before moving to the next level.

Locating the charter school in its own (vs. shared) building can accomplish this most easily--Bellevue International School, for instance, housed grades 6-12 together in an old elementary school, until it moved to its new site, an unused junior high.

If a separate building is not available, then schools within schools might provide these long-term relationships. New programs that utilized elements of the International Model could then exist on one, or on two campuses: a lower school located at the Junior High, and an upper school located at the High School.

Expert instructors would be identified who would pick up a class of 7th graders and move with them up to the high school. High school teachers who graduated their seniors might move back to the junior high to pick up an incoming class.

Is teacher quality the most important concern?

The quality and unity of the staff is paramount if a newly created school program is to deliver on its promises and succeed. Program initiators should endeavor to establish a new academic culture--not merely a new collection of teachers and courses, loosely organized under a vaguely defined thematic, career pathway or philosophical rubric.

In order to maintain this culture as the program grows over time, new staff will need to be oriented, and ample provision must be made for professional staff to evaluate the relationship between delivery of instruction and program goals.

This "delivery of instruction" is crucial to the success of charter schools that aspire to produce enthusiasm for learning and achievement.

Lessons and classroom activities must be connected and essential--a cumulative sequence of core knowledge and an extension of basic skills that both challenges and makes sense to the participants. In order for this to occur, teachers must know what they are doing and why (see Creating a Powerful School Culture).

It is not enough for a teacher to merely be knowledgeable; instead, each teacher must deliberately set about identifying those essential questions, themes and skill practices that will underlie and connect all student learning during that particular year, and even more important, that will be carried forward to the next year, rather than jettisoned at the conclusion of each unit.