Quality is What Counts – New School Growth in Idaho

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by Terry Ryan 

“Growth in Treasure Valley spurs 4 new charter schools” read the headline of a recent Idaho Statesman article. It is undeniable that Idaho is rapidly adding students and families, districts like West Ada are bursting at the seams, and a number of public charter schools have burgeoning waitlists.

Growth is opportunity. Quality is our focus, however, because quality is what counts. As reported by the Statesman, my nonprofit organization, Bluum is committed to what we call the ‘20 in 10’ strategy; creating 20,000 new high-performing Idaho school seats in 10 years.

Since 2014 we’ve partnered with 13 public charter, private and district innovation schools to launch 5,975 new seats. As a collective these schools have garnered commitments of about $12.75 million in direct grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. Several of these schools have worked with our nonprofit facilities partner Building Hope to construct $50 million in new or renovated buildings across Idaho.

Key questions we use to identify successful start-up school partners:

  1. Does the school have a committed board of trustees that owns the school process, demonstrates responsibility for the school’s success and failure, and do they understand their roles and responsibilities vis-à-vis that of the school leadership team?
  2. Does the school have a quality instructional leader who is either experienced and proven in running a successful school and/or has received world-class training?
  3. Does the school demonstrate the ability to attract, recruit, retain and continuously develop top talent? Can they successfully compete for top teachers and support staff?
  4. Does the school have a sustainable business plan that includes appropriate start-up capital? Experience from Idaho and across the country suggests it takes, depending on school size, location, academic model and students to be served, somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million to launch a successful start-up school.
  5. Does the school have a well-developed and realistic facility plan, ideally coordinated with a well-established lender like Building Hope, USDA, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association or a community bank or lender? Charter schools that spend more than 18 percent of their annual operating budget on facility costs have a markedly higher risk of long-term failure.
  6. Does the school have market demand and a demonstrable need for the school? Successful schools in a changing Idaho have a deep commitment to serving a diverse student body. They actively seek out and welcome children of all ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  7. Is the school model innovative and effective? Will it bring something unique and meaningful to Idaho’s students? Idaho’s top schools have strong and well-articulated cultures, with clearly stated achievement goals, strong educational visions and sound assessment practices.

It is an exciting time to be working in Idaho education. To maximize the opportunity we must balance growth in new school seats with a focus and intentionality around academic quality and student performance.