Professional Learning

A Model for Charter Schools: The Marin School of Arts and Technology

July 5, 2007

On June 16, 2007, Envision Schools, a nonprofit organization that manages charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, held its first commencement for its flagship school, the Marin School of Arts and Technology. This occasion allowed me to reflect on my journey thus far. As I think back on the successes and challenges of coleading Envision Schools with my partner and fellow CEO Daniel McLaughlin, I pondered these questions: How does a high school teacher become a cofounder of a leading nonprofit charter-school-management organization? And why would anyone want to start an entirely new school system?

Prior to starting Envision Schools, I taught social studies, served as a student-activities director, and was a mentor teacher, a reform leader, and the head of a school within a school, Academy X, at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. While I was at Drake, my colleagues and I achieved great academic results from the students as a result of a redesign of the school to support project-based learning and by building a strong, professional learning community. Hundreds of visitors came from around the country to see what we were accomplishing. However, many would leave saying, "This is wonderful, but my kids could never do this type of work." I didn't believe them -- their kids can do the work.

In 2000, I left Drake to join the Career Academy Support Network, where I was a consultant to schools and school districts from around the country in school redesign, project-based learning, small learning communities, and school leadership. Though I enjoyed working with my colleagues at CASN, I became frustrated with the slow pace of change in urban schools and even more frustrated when excellent programs were decimated due to change or lack of leadership, budget cuts, and/or seniority rights. I call this the "Bang, bang, bang!" period of my career -- that's the sound of my head against the wall as I tried to change schools from within.

In 2002, I decided to stop complaining and start doing something -- and that's when Daniel and I founded Envision Schools. Our goal was, and still is, to create new types of college-preparatory high schools to demonstrate that redesigned high schools can deliver excellent results for kids, including a college acceptance and graduation. We believed we needed to start a new school system for several reasons:

  • Schools need both support and accountability to implement an educational model built around project-based learning and performance assessment.
  • Schools need operational, financial, real estate, and development support so the focus can stay on teaching and learning.
  • Schools need to be part of a like-minded community.
  • We need to create multiple proof points for our educational model -- no more "Yes, but . . ."

Envision Schools started in an office no bigger than a closet. Daniel and I developed a business plan to support our educational model; central to our plan was creating charter schools not because we believe charter schools are the silver bullet but because we believe the charter structure gave us the autonomy we needed to implement and sustain our design.

Fortunately, the New Tech Foundation, in Napa, California, as well as the California Department of Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believed we had a solid plan, and the expertise to implement it. In September 2003, we cut the ribbon and opened the Marin School of Arts and Technology, and the journey truly began. Four years later, MSAT has achieved great results:

  • The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission recently awarded MSAT a six-year term of accreditation, the best possible outcome -- and extraordinarily rare for a new school.
  • More than two-thirds of MSAT's first senior class has been accepted to at least one four-year college, receiving more than $800,000 in financial aid. (The average MSAT senior garnered $12,000.)
  • The senior class boasts a National Merit Scholar and acceptances to schools such as Stanford University, the University of California campus in Los Angeles and Davis, Wake Forest University, Northeastern University, and other prestigious colleges.
  • All MSAT graduates met the course requirements for entrance into the UC system. (Statewide, 25 percent of graduates meet those requirements.)
  • Our students have thrived with the school's innovative project-based learning curriculum, consistently producing powerful and creative displays of work through exhibitions.
  • The state Department of Education awarded MSAT a Dissemination Grant to support other schools in implementing the Envision education model. Our school was one of two charter schools throughout California to win a Dissemination Grant last year.

In light of these extraordinary achievements, the following statement may be surprising: Because of an extremely difficult relationship with the Novato Unified School District, which has oversight authority for the school, MSAT no longer exists. This decision came at the end of five long years of trying to work with NUSD to find common ground -- the students. It was the most painful decision of our professional careers and one Daniel and I never imagined having to make when we started Envision and MSAT.

Though the ending of MSAT is sad, we are amazed that more than half of the student body has applied to Envision's San Francisco schools, signing up to commute for forty-five minutes each way just so they can go to another Envision school. People have been fleeing urban areas for years to find "good" public schools in the suburbs, but families of MSAT students are willing to have their children travel to San Francisco for a first-rate, college-prep, twenty-first-century public school education.

Here's a question I'd like to be asked, and another I would expect to be asked, and their answers:

Q: How does a teacher build and lead a charter-school-management organization such as Envision Schools?

A: You just do it!

Q: Why would anyone want to start schools like the one Envision Schools has launched?

A: As I hugged every one of our founding graduates and wished them well on their journey to college knowing that they were well equipped, the answer was more than clear.

Any thoughts? I'd love to hear them.

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