Learning the Challenges: Leading a Charter

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The original charter schools were developed in the early 1990’s with a goal to act as a place where new educational ideas and practices could be experimented (Khalenberg & Potter 2014, 175). However the number of charter schools has tripled since the 1990’s and we know that they are not just a phase but here to stay (Khalenberg & Potter 2014, 15). More students are now in charters and we know a student’s educational outcome is linked to a principal’s leadership ability (Bickmore & Dowell 2015, 1).The school principal is an instrument for implementation, effectiveness and school results. The principal has an important role in facilitating management of students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders in education. A study to analyze charter school principal’s leadership is crucial to understanding lessons both for traditional schools and for bettering existing charter schools. Since the creation of charter schools in the 1990’s, what unique challenges have charter school principals faced as leaders and what has been done over time to address those challenges?

Charter schools have nearly tripled in size from 2000 to 2013. (NCESdata.gov)
Charter schools have nearly tripled in size from 2000 to 2013. (NCESdata.gov)


This paper will evaluate and identify charter school principals to understand who is serving the principal leadership position. I will also analyze the attempts of charter school advocates to implement professional development for charter school principals. While I cannot over generalize about charter schools given the variation, there are some patterns that educational stakeholders should be aware of. Since the 1990’s, and to this day, charter school principals must balance two very different jobs of educational leadership and financial management leadership (Campbell & Gross 2008, 29) . Overall, charter school principals come from backgrounds that foster one type of leadership and are in need of professional development to further other skills as a successful, holistic charter school leaders (Campbell & Gross 2008, 29). In this paper, I will argue that charter school leaders have always been, in general, a passionate, but inexperienced group, but since the early 2000’s, more professional development has been available for charter school principals to become more well rounded leaders. Although there has been little change in the type of individual serving as principals, the resources available for professional development have grown since the early 2000’s. Many of the programs offered for professional development are provided by charter networks that have grown since the early 2000’s. This growth in support and professional development resulted from a better understanding of the unique challenges charter school principals face, as well as the growth of the charter school movement in general. Although charter networks are providing leadership, there are other opportunities for leadership training for non-network principals.

It is impossible to generalize charter schools as well as their principals. However, some statistics of overall charter school leadership help to highlight some key components to leadership abilities. One major finding is that the overall charter school principals have less experience and are often in their first three years in a leadership position (Sun & Ni 2015, 17). Many charter schools are serving smaller student sizes and and are being paid significantly less than traditional public school principals (Sun & Ni 2015, 25). One misconception of charter school leadership is that principals come from the outside of the educational world (Campbell, Gross & Lake, 2008). Although many principals are educational professionals, they often make a direct jump from teacher to principal and at a very young age (Sun & Ni 2015, 27). This jump results in a lack of overall experience and can result in struggles for both financial and educational leadership.

Although charter school principals are characteristically young, inexperienced and underpaid, they take the challenge of a charter school principal because of their passion for the job. Charter school principals are inspired and drawn to the leadership position because of the mission-oriented practices of the school (Sun & Ni 2015, 4). Charter schools are driven by specific missions and a target group of students that educational leaders identify as in need of change (Campbell, Gross & Lake, 2008). In a study done by Campbell and Gross (2008), 94% of charter school principals surveyed said they were confident in their ability to “Engage staff to work toward a common vision”. This mission driven model of charter schools is oriented for passionate educators to introduce themselves to the schooling model. The specificity of missions and target groups created a strong “buy-in” factor for a principal to take a challenging position. This “buy in” factor leads to principals becoming more willing to take pay cuts and to work extremely long hours for seven days a week (Campbell & Gross 2008, 14).  

Many charter schools lack a central office that can operate the financial management of a school system (Allen & Gawlik 2009, 5). The central office of a traditional school handles facilities, teacher and student recruitment, and other system structures. Therefore, charter school principals find themselves thinly spread across the management of the everyday educational leadership of managing teachers and students, while also struggling to guarantee facilities, money, and structures for the coming school years (Campbell, Gross & Lake, 2008). Budget, operations, and strategic management are all daunting tasks for a young  and inexperienced charter school principal, and additional support is not the one-stop fix. Campbell and Gross (2008) didn’t find a statistically significant difference between confidence in the financial management between principals with a charter management organization in place. This result illustrates that, with or without a central office, charter school principals still have high expectations to properly manage financial budgets, but have limited experience or confidence to achieve those goals (Campbell & Gross 2008, 26). Therefore regardless of a central office or network support, charter school principals are still facing unique financial and educational management challenges. These school level changes make the charter school principal a unique leader that must juggle day to day operations with looming big picture items that can impact the survival of a school.

Professional development for charter school principals engages the storied problem leaders face of time management. With the two decades of documentation of the stresses and daily routines of charter schools and its leaders, a better understanding has been developed for what is plaguing principals today. Since the early 1990’s—and even still today—charter schools are glorified for their youthful passion and drive for success (Campell & Gross 2008, 18). In one study by Bickmore and Dowell (2015), nearly all the teachers were alternatively certified teachers and had left the school within the time of study for different reasons. How does a charter school principal manage the inexperience and turnover of teachers?

What was once and sometimes still is the glory of charter schools, is the freedom from tenure and teachers unions, which has its downsides, such as how principals often are left to face inexperienced struggling teachers. Although professional development has been defined in the scope of finances, there are clear educational issues that charter school principals need the skills and background to address. Managing and organizing young, inexperienced teachers to serve a historically low-performing community presents many challenges. The combination of financial and educational struggles a principal faces in a charter school became prominent at the turn of the century. The influence and power of charter school networks also created new resources that were not present in the 1990’s.

Since their creation, identifying how charter school principals have generally been young, inexperienced passionate leaders shows that professional development is vital to a successful charter school. The growth of charter schools over the last two decades has created a large group of leaders that are either lacking in financial or educational leadership (Allen & Gawlik 2009, 5). Many principles come from an educational background and are not trained in managing buildings, hiring teachers, and fundraising (Superville 2015, 1). The other group comes as passionate outsiders with business or management experience, but that does guarantee they can facilitate teacher, student and parental relationships (Campbell & Gross 2008, 24). Both groups have certain skills, but no traditional training can address and educate principals of the specific needs and struggles of leading a charter school (Sun & Ni 2015, 8).

In the early creation of charter schools, new leaders relied on mentors to help guide them through a new but exciting process (Maxwell 2008, 1). David Levin and Mike Feinberg, the founders of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools, originally would rely on veteran teachers to best learn modern practices (Guggenheim 2010, 1:15). However, in 2000, the KIPP Foundation began training charter school principals (Robelen 2008, 3). This year-long program incorporates summer coursework, residencies at KIPP schools, and individualized tutelage from KIPP staff (Robelen, 2008, 3). Charter school leaders always looked for mentors, but in the 1990s, it was an informal process, as training programs began to provide mentors and leaders to learn from.

David Levin and Mike Feinberg explain the veteran leaders they turned to in Waiting for Superman (Guggenheim 2010, 1:14). (Note: Jump to 1:14:50 if your browser does not automatically allow.)

KIPP’s programs are just one example of charter school networks providing professional development services. In the 1990s, many schools were alone in establishing themselves, but the creation of large networks in the 2000s also created professional development opportunities. In 2010, New Leaders for New Schools created a partnership with Perspectives Charter School Network in Chicago (Sloan et al 2010, 3). This program, like KIPP, provided veteran mentors and seminars that fostered charter leadership, but also explored what other challenges that principals faced (Sloan et al. 2010, 5). The report done by Sloan et al. (2010) reveals the growing support charter networks have been able to foster—especially the need for mentor principals to learn from. Many charter school leaders feel that their best opportunity is not from a lecture, but from “hands on”  experiences other professionals in the same position can provide.

Charter school leaders still look for mentors when taking over as principal, much like Levin and Feinberg did in the 1990s. However, for many principals with mentors, the process has become much more systematic. One example are two principals, Hardrick and Sanders, trained by New Leaders for New Schools program, who were recruited to leave their jobs in Memphis to start a new school in New Orleans (Maxwell 2008, 2). The two trained principals went to start the school, but not without guidance. Hardrick and Sanders both had the same veteran mentor that was given to them through New Leaders for New Schools, the same program that partnered with the Chicago network (Maxwell 2008, 2). New Leaders for New Schools was also created in 2000 as networks were forming and the demand for leadership training grew (Newleaders.org). New Leaders for New Schools has played a pivotal role in providing the needs of charter school principals, and as a result, more programs are learning from this model.

Professional development is offered in an array of possibilities which can meet the challenging schedules and demands of the charter school principal (Robelen 2008, 1). Charter school principals work around the clock to guarantee that the many needs of students, parents, facilities, and donors are met at all times (Sun & Ni 2015, 8). With limited time, professional development has to be offered in a time and place that meets the needs of aspiring and current charter school principals. Summer institutes, part time programs, and online courses are available for current charter school principals with already hectic schedules (Robelen 2008, 1). Additionally, full-time programs, such as masters programs, now specifically concentrated in charter school leadership prepare those in an intensive one-to-two year program (Robelen 2008, 1).

Most charter school leadership programs report that they stay away from purely lecturing and focus of “field observations, project and task based learned and discussion” (Robelen 2008, 2). This professional development has grown in the 2000s as a response for the growing number of principals that have trouble grasping the business and managerial aspects of running a charter school (Aarons 2008, 1). The Center for School Change created a program in Minnesota, which was focused on a business-first model of training (Aarons 2008, 1). Like many other programs, participants were paired with both a business executive and a veteran education leader (Aarons 2008, 1). Again, this systems approach of new leaders learning and growing from veterans has come out of an understanding of the needs charter school leaders have.

There have been many lessons learned since the creation the first charter school in 1990. The charter school principal has been forced to handle students, teachers, philanthropists, and legislators. Each come with their own distinct set of challenges that no individual is fully equipped to naturally handle without any specialized training. Yet, for the first time in a decade of charter school implementation, principals were expected to be the great change “agents” that could handle everything and anything required of them due to their passion and grit (Campbell, Gross, & Lake 2008, 4). Now, as charter schools have become more mainstream, there is a better understanding that the charter school leadership qualities are not inherent, but gained through professional development. By using the systems perspective proposed by Allen and Gawlik (2009), we can begin to work towards a holistic approach of professional development. Traditional leadership programs fail to prepare and train individuals for charter schools because it does not address the multiple variables of financial and educational challenges. The formation of charter school networks have created a foundation for professional development programs. Although these networks are providing training to some, it is limited to the network operating and not to the other principals in need of support. For many principals without a network, they must find their own professional development, but programs such as NewLeaders.org are expanding and trying to fill the gap between principal expectations and abilitiies.

Overall, since the creation of the first charter schools, there is a better understanding of the unique challenges principals face, and now, in the last decade and a half, training has been provided to help address those challenges. Finding better ways to not only reach principals and train them as leaders of students and communities, but also as leaders in a financial system, will be both challenging and necessary if we want kids to receive the best possible education. Charter school principals are passionate and should embrace that they are the foundation to a successful school by engaging in professional development. The creation of networks in the 2000s helped to evaluate the lessons from the first charter schools in the 1990s and to introduce strategies for young, inexperienced principals forced to take of financial and educational management. Networks and other stakeholders are producing more effective and confident leaders, but more can be done to foster better leadership from charter school principals regardless if they are part of a network or not. Charter schools are growing each year, and embracing the challenges that principals face will pave the way for professional development opportunities. Although there has been an effort in recent years, more can be done to strengthen and grow the charter school principals financial and educational management.



Works Cited:

Aarons, Dakarai. “Business Lessons Guide Training for Charter Leaders.” Education Week 28, no. 4 (December 2, 2008): 7.
Allen, Ann, and Marytza Gawlik. “Preparing District and Charter School Leaders: A Systems Perspective.” The Connexions Project, June 2, 2009. http://cnx.org/contents/137a3572-0ac9-456f-b1ba-cb50935d1abb%401.
Bickmore, Dana L., and Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell. “A Case Study of Middle Grades Leadership in a Conversion Charter School.” NASSP Bulletin 99, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 43–69.
Campbell, Christine, and Bethany Gross. “Working Without a Safety Net.” Center on Reinventing Public Education, September 2008. http://www.crpe.org/sites/default/files/ICS_Highwire_Inside_Sep08_0.pdf.
Campbell, Christine, Bethany Gross, and Robin Lake. “The High-Wire Job of Charter School Leadership.” Education Week 28, no. 3 (September 8, 2008): 6–8.
Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.
Maxwell Lesli. “Open a School Draws on All of Founders’ Skills.” Education Week 28, no. 3 (September 8, 2008): S10–15.

New Leaders for New Schools (2016)  


Ni, Yongmei, Min Sun, and Andrea Rorrer. “Principal Turnover: Upheaval and Uncertainty in Charter Schools?” Educational Administration Quarterly 51, no. 3 (August 1, 2015): 409–37.
Robelen, Erik. “Preperation Programs Can’t Match Demand.” Education Week 28, no. 3 (September 8, 2008).
Sloan, Kay, Maura Pereira-Leon, and Michelle Honeyford. “Investigating the Impact of EPIC Professional Development on Perspectives Charter School Principals. An Evaluation of the EPIC Professional Learning Model. Evaluation Brief.” Education. MetLife Foundation, September 2010. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED531756.
Sparks, Sarah. “School Climate: Missing Link in Principal Training.” Education Week 32, no. 23 (March 5, 2013): 8.
Sun, Min, and Yongmei Ni. “Work Environments and Labor Markets: Explaining Principal Turnover Gap between Charter Schools and Traditional Public Schools.” Educational Administration Quarterly 52, no. 1 (February 1, 2016): 144–83.
Superville, Dennis. “Principals Go to School to Learn Management Savvy.” Education Week 35, no. 11 (November 3, 2015): 1,14.

One thought on “Learning the Challenges: Leading a Charter”

  1. Doug, this essay raises thoughtful questions about the challenges facing charter school principals since the movement began in the 1990s, and how these issues have been addressed over time. The thesis statement recognizes variation within charters yet argues two key points: charter principals balance both educational and financial leadership roles, and that professional development has grown over time, often through charter networks. While this thesis is insightful, a richer analysis would tell us whether the educational-financial leadership challenges of charter school principals are substantially different from traditional school principals. Later in the essay, you acknowledge that traditional school principals often have support from central offices, but my question is: do pressures for innovative pedagogy and financial creativity make the charter principal job something that is substantively different?

    The body paragraphs contained good background and supporting evidence for your claims from appropriate secondary sources. Your analysis of how charter principals are relatively younger and less experienced than traditional principals added detail that I suspected, but had not seen documented. Your analysis of how charter networks evolved from providing informal mentoring to programmatic support also was persuasive. Good use of selected digital evidence.

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