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Charter Schools Born in HGSE Course

Chris Cook, Ed.M.’12, hopes one day to open his own school.

Thanks to Senior Lecturer Katherine Merseth’s spring course, Charter Schools: Issues of Practice and Policy in American Public Education, Cook is one step closer to making it a reality. The recent alum, who is currently a principal at Community Charter School of Cambridge, says that he took the course not only to help in his current position, but also to develop ideas for an eventual charter of his own. “This was a class that you were literally walking out with a charter prospectus, which is something you can use,” he says.

This is the 18th time Merseth has offered the course to Harvard students. This past year, 45 students enrolled in the course, including students from Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As part of the final assignment, students have the option to design their own school. Sixty percent of the students took on this challenge.

Throughout the course, the students who choose to design a school build their charters via assignments focused on mission statements, vision statements, needs assessments, and justifications for what a community needs. Merseth says the aim isn’t just to create a charter that must meets state guidelines and scores well on standardized tests but also to focus on the qualitative, social, moral, and emotional questions facing school design.

In addition to focusing on the education content such as curriculum and assessments, the students must determine the school’s organization’s structure, answer questions about grade levels, number of students and teachers, and discipline structure. As part of the final assignment, students must present their charters to the HGSE community at an informal public showcase.

“An objective of mine is teaching and having students experience public speaking [and] communication, and also convincing people and being able to take questions on the fly,” Merseth says, noting that a the end of the course, students should be able to state why their charter school is needed in a one to two minute pitch. “It’s a pressure test to see how solid your design is.”

For Will Gardner, Ed.M.’10, who opened the Alma del Mar Charter School — a K–8 expeditionary learning public charter school — in New Bedford, Mass., in August 2011, Merseth’s course made all the difference when he applied for a charter.  After graduating in 2010, he submitted the prospectus that he had initiated in the course to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“It was a thrilling and daunting experience,” Gardner says. “This was my baby and it was in the hands of state bureaucrats to decide whether it was going to become a viable enterprise.”

Cook, who plans to follow suit, says the class helped in the actual writing of the prospectus for his charter, which combines rigorous academics and athletics. “I thought it would be easy to throw a design together but writing it as the state requires makes you think through minor details that will help it to get approved in the long run,” Cook says.

Gardner says that this course was one of the main reasons he came to HGSE and it has paid off. He says that without Merseth’s class, his charter “wouldn’t be the school it is now,” noting that the course also helped him to grow his personal network in the charter school world.

“For master’s students, it’s an advantage to walk down the graduation aisle with a plan in pocket that you can immediately implement or do so in five years,” Merseth says, calling the course a true intersection of policy, practice, and research. “A rock solid prospectus is very marketable and fulfilling thing to have when you leave here.”

Cook couldn’t agree more.

“I think everybody should have to do this type of intense experience where you design and put on paper what you believe in,” he says. “It makes you side with certain philosophical beliefs of what you think about schools. Through writing this charter, you get a sense of, ‘Hey, I can open this school.’ It takes it out of the theoretical and makes it practical.”


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