Educators can learn a lot from a Columbus charter school. Really.
If you want to begin to appreciate the innovative ideas being practiced within the United Schools Network, watch what happens when it's time to switch classes at any of its four Columbus charter schools. Instead of students changing rooms, it's the teachers who move, creating a more efficient process that results in several additional minutes of learning time every day. “We have a thousand or a hundred of these little 1-percent solutions, and if you do all of them, they add up into a well-orchestrated school,” says John Dues, the chief learning officer for USN.
That tidbit is one example of the kind of ground-level tricks of the trade that Dues and other USN leaders began sharing with outside educators through a unique professional development program launched in the fall. Called the School Performance Institute, the initiative gives all comers—other charter schools, private schools, even traditional public schools—a chance to get a glimpse under the hood of USN, which runs schools in Franklinton and the Near East Side that quietly have developed strong reputations for creative curriculums, cutting-edge teaching and impressive academic achievement over the past nine years. “If we want to grow our impact and support education improvements beyond our walls, the School Performance Institute was something that we had to do,” says Andy Boy, the founder and CEO of the charter-school network.
Charter schools are often maligned in Ohio, as illustrated by the ongoing saga of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (better known as ECOT) and other high-profile cautionary tales. But not every charter has been an abject failure, as USN has demonstrated with its track record for turning disadvantaged children into academic achievers.
In 2008, Boy founded the first USN school, Columbus Collegiate Academy, in Weinland Park with the ambitious goal of establishing an academically rigorous, urban middle school. That school, which relocated to the Near East Side in 2011, was joined by another middle school in Franklinton in 2012, as well as an elementary school in 2014 and another elementary school this year. Despite some of the most challenging demographics in the city (about 90 percent of USN students qualify for free or reduced-rate lunches, Dues says), USN has been successful in the classroom from the start. State test scores have been less impressive in recent years as a result of tougher Ohio Department of Education standards, but USN still crushes its traditional public peers, managing to score A or B grades in the critical “progress” category, a measurement of student academic growth, in the latest state report cards released in September. (Columbus City Schools received an F by comparison.)
With little marketing effort, USN managed to fill 13 of the 15 available slots a couple weeks prior to its first School Performance Institute workshop in October, attracting participants from traditional public, private and charter schools. One was Alex Steinman, the principal of Harambee Christian School in Linden. Like USN, Steinman's students are mostly disadvantaged. “The challenges are real,” Steinman says. “They are daunting. And that's what I admire about Andy—his tenacity to say, ‘We're going to take on this challenge, and we're going to tackle it, and we're going to do what's right for kids.'”