Why Many Charter Schools Were Better Prepared for Covid-19
By Baker A. Mitchell
May 29, 2020
“U.S. schools were not prepared for an overnight shift to virtual learning,” USA Today reported recently, a fact that became obvious to most parents as soon as schools were shut down by the pandemic. In fact, however, some schools—including many charter schools—were better prepared than most traditional public schools.
As Robin Lake and Bree Dusseault of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell noted recently, charter networks in particular were able to make “rapid leaps from the classroom to the cloud.”
That’s because charters typically are more nimble and less bureaucratic than traditional public schools, recruit teachers and administrators who often have prior experience dealing with time-sensitive challenges, and rely more heavily on technology than traditional public schools, all of which apply to the four Title 1 charter schools managed by The Roger Bacon Academy (RBA), the charter management organization I founded in southeastern, North Carolina.
Parents have many reasons for choosing one school over another: convenience, educational rigor, academic focus, safety, values. When they select one of our schools, it’s typically because we have safe and well-mannered campuses and our students do extremely well on North Carolina’s annual end-of-grade tests.
Parents know this when they choose us. What they don’t know is that I, and a number of our key people, come from professions that stress attributes such as rapid response, analytics, on-the-run decision-making and high-tech innovation—all keys to being successfully goal-driven.
For example, I’m an electrical engineer, former Associate Biomathematician with the University of Texas, and retired entrepreneur.
After selling my computer company, I began volunteering as a science instructor at local elementary schools. That’s how I met Thaddeus Lott, principal of Wesley Elementary School in north Houston, a high-achieving school with a student body of 1,100 low-income African Americans.
Despite the barbed wire fence surrounding the school for protection, the students were well-behaved and academically advanced, reading Shakespeare in the fourth grade, for example. That’s how I caught the education bug: from a successful school reformer.
While the RBA schools are admittedly highly structured and traditional—we’re firm believers in Direct Instruction—we also had several advantages when Covid-19 closed us down.
First, our classrooms are outfitted with some of the latest technology, which our teachers were using every day to interact with students in delivering instruction. Likewise, most of our administrators were tech savvy.
Secondly, we’ve always been firm believers in “lateral-entry” hiring, bringing outsiders with diverse backgrounds into our schools as teachers, managers, and administrators. For example, we currently have a former meteorologist as a science teacher, a former analytical chemist as head of quality control, compliance, and human resources, and our lead headmaster is a 28-year Marine Corps veteran for whom rapid decision-making, leading and motivating teams, and improvising on the run are second nature.
We had one other advantage as well. Unlike traditional public schools, charters by their nature are less encumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy.
So, when we had to transition to on-line instruction, we were able to move quickly. By March 23—shortly after the governor ordered schools closed—we already had surveyed parents, many of them low-income, to assess their computer needs; we had produced training videos for our teachers; and we had rostered all of our 2,153 K-8 students into more than 400 live Zoom classes covering every grade and subject at each school. Between April 6 and 10, we distributed 776 loaner computers to students and teachers who needed them. Whiteboards were designed, produced, and distributed for teachers to use at home. And we started familiarizing teachers and parents on the new normal on April 13, holding dress rehearsals for teachers, students, and parents to shake out any problems with their live, on-line classes. On April 20 we were ready to go, with every teacher providing a full day of live on-line classes in each subject. Attendance that day was 88 percent and has grown slightly higher since.
What are the lessons for other schools and school districts in case there’s a need for classes to continue online through next Fall?
First, as Grant Freeland, a leading business strategist, suggested in a 2019 Forbes column, organizations “need to be less rigid and more improvisational” than they’ve been. He wasn’t talking about schools, but they need it more than most.
Second: Technology is not an option. Our classical curriculum (which includes cursive in first grade and Latin beginning in fifth grade) may be considered old-fashioned, but the technology we use for instruction and management is cutting edge. It’s a necessary investment.
Third: Schools need to broaden their view of diversity and embrace individuals with expertise in fields other than “education.” In our case, it’s business, the sciences, and the military. That diversity enabled us to jump on the challenge and quickly support teachers to get the job done.
And we didn’t have to wait for paperwork to be approved. That’s number four: Bureaucracy slows things down, reducing efficiency and innovation while increasing costs. Less bureaucracy is better, especially during these challenging times.
Baker A. Mitchell is founder of The Roger Bacon Academy, which manages four charter schools in and around Wilmington, NC, with combined enrollments of more than 2,100 students in grades K through 8.