by Devin Taylor
It’s been thirty years since the Minnesota Charter School law was enacted, stating that the purpose of a charter school is “to enhance students’ learning opportunities and achievement, improve teaching opportunities and methods, or improve accountability measures.” Since then, the number of charter schools in operation across the state has steadily increased. As the law stipulates, these schools are public schools and part of the public education system. Just like traditional public schools, they are open to all students on a tuition-free basis, employ licensed teachers, and are held to the same academic standards as all public schools in the state of Minnesota.
So what sets charter schools apart?
One important distinction is that charter schools are governed by teachers, parents, and community members. Instruction within charter schools is not limited to the use of Government-approved curricula and teachers are not limited to certain teaching strategies. As long as state academic standards are met, teachers are given the freedom and flexibility to use the curriculum and instructional methods of their choice or design.
This gives teachers more control and personal influence over how they teach and run their classrooms. It also creates learning spaces for students whose needs may not be effectively met in their resident district. This might mean that a school’s services are tailored to the needs of a specific student population or that programming centers on a particular focus, such as language immersion or arts education. It really depends on the individual mission and purpose of the school.
The bottom line is, not all charter schools are alike. Before deciding if teaching in a charter is right for you, it’s important to get to know your local charter schools.
So what kind of Charter School is Spero Academy?
Spero Academy is an elementary charter school specializing in personalized, adaptive education for students with disabilities and/or specialized learning needs. Our tuition-free programming focuses on addressing the needs of the “whole child,” with cutting-edge curriculum aimed at helping students develop socially and emotionally, as well as academically.
Spero Academy is a non-profit charter, which means our budget is not set to generate a profit at the end of the school year. Our goal is to be self-sustaining, bringing in enough revenue to fund our various programs, provide materials, and pay the teachers and school staff who make this programming possible.
In short, we exist because there is a need.
This non-profit status also preserves teacher and staff eligibility for student loan forgiveness – an indispensable element in a field that both benefits from and requires the education of its employees.
The rules of charter schools vary from state-to-state and even from school-to-school. Here are some of the attributes and incentives that educators can generally expect when teaching in a charter school:
Chartered public schools are held to the same academic standards as traditional public schools, but have more flexibility and freedom when it comes to the curriculum used to meet these standards. This gives educators more influence over what and how they teach – a critical element in meeting the needs of students with Individualized Education Plans and other unique learning needs.
The very reason that Spero Academy exists is to offer educational programming that is personally adapted to address the individual social, emotional, and academic needs of each child. Families searching for better, more truly individualized education often come up against the limitations and restrictions of their resident school district and turn their attention to other options for free and public education. When exploring the world of charter schools, families hope to find quality educators with the skills, freedom, and flexibility to accommodate student needs, celebrate student interests, and bring their own interests and educational philosophies into the classroom.
If the description above sounds like the ideal parent-teacher partnership to you as an educator, you most likely appreciate a high level of parent commitment and engagement. This is yet another characteristic of charter school education.
Parents who take steps to find more educational options to meet their child’s needs tend to be highly involved in their child’s education and are likely to be more invested in the school as a whole. When families and educators come together as stakeholders, they form a strong, mission-driven community with a common goal.
Veteran Spero teacher and Board member, Katie Rose Kammerude reflects on the impact of parent involvement saying:
“When parents are directly involved in their child's education they become a meaningful part of the team. As a part of the team they are able to help guide and support their child's learning.”
Charter schools were initially envisioned by teachers. The idea behind this vision was to create teaching environments where educators had control over the way classrooms were run, how instruction was delivered, and the curriculum itself. In fact, teachers were the majority member on every charter school Board of Directors in Minnesota until 2009, when an amendment to the law mandated that every Board of Directors include teachers, parents, and community members. Today, Minnesota law requires charter schools to have at least one teacher on their Board of Directors, ensuring that teacher expertise and perspective remain prominent in the decision-making process.
As a general practice, Spero Academy Leadership seeks input from those in the community who are most affected by organizational decisions and from those with expertise and knowledge in the areas of impact. From building safety protocol to the use of school funds, school staff are typically surveyed or polled regarding matters of importance. The results of these queries are discussed openly and all staff given the opportunity to voice their concerns or share alternative perspectives on an issue. This process has often led school Leadership to revisit and rework ideas in order to address educator concerns and accommodate needs and preferences.
Smaller Class-Sizes and Better Student-Teacher Ratios
Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of charter schools, for parents and teachers alike, are the characteristically smaller class sizes.
Public Schools are typically filled to capacity, meaning large class sizes and even overcrowding. Classrooms at Spero Academy range from three to fifteen students, depending on the classroom model and the needs of the students.
Personalized Learning Support (PLS) classrooms serve students who demonstrate a need for significant adult support throughout the school day and, with the help of teaching assistants and paraprofessional staff, may operate on a 1:1 ratio between students and staff. With small class sizes, low student-teacher ratios, and a focus on innovative methodology, our personalized, adaptive learning programs allow teachers to choose the curriculum that's right for their classroom and truly see the success of their students.
So why don’t all public schools operate as charters?
Charter schools are on the rise in Minnesota and continue to provide a useful alternative to the traditional learning environment for a variety of reasons and needs. Of course, every alternative comes with its own potential drawbacks. If you do your research on the challenges of charter school teaching, it isn’t hard to pick up on some recurring themes: increased teacher workload, pay discrepancies, variable facilities and resources.
Here are some of the ways that Spero Academy works to counter these challenges:
Preventing Overwork and Burnout
The first and perhaps most important step to keeping educator workloads reasonable is awareness at the administrative level. The administration at Spero Academy is composed largely of licensed teachers who have taught right here at Spero Academy. These administrators have the advantage of experience, knowing where workload excess might occur and being able to predict patterns of burnout, especially in new teachers.
Aside from basic administrative cognizance, Spero fortifies its teaching staff through the use of Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSA). These are licensed teachers whose primary role is to provide support to classroom teachers through a variety of means. Each year, Spero designates one or two TOSAs whose roles are tailored to meet the needs of the school year. They may take on some of the burden of due process, provide mentorship to new teachers, or work with administration on initiatives to support staff and students. When the Department of Education tasked Special Education teachers with making up for “learning loss” following a year of Distance Learning, Spero Academy TOSAs were able to step in and prevent this work from falling on the shoulders of classroom teachers.
Also providing critical support to teachers are our Teaching Assistants. For years now, Spero Academy has offered TA positions to Spero staff who are enrolled in teaching programs and have their sights set on a career in Special Education. This year, the Academic Team developed a new version of the Teaching Assistant program designed to allow more of our highly skilled and dedicated paraprofessionals to advance in their careers. This new iteration of the TA position eliminates the teaching program requirement, recognizes the indispensable role of Teaching Assistants, and rethinks the notion that a motivated TA must be in pursuit of a career as a classroom teacher. This evolution of the program recognizes that teaching assistantship is a skill, an aspiration, and a need in and of itself.
All of these measures are intended to improve quality of worklife, reinforce staff stability and morale, and provide consistent support structures for teachers and students.
Of course, the number one factor behind work-related stress across all occupations and fields of expertise continues to be low pay. With talk of pay inequities between district and charter employees, it’s not surprising that some teachers might think twice about making the move to charter. So how does Spero ensure that employee salaries remain in line with local district employees?
Ensuring teacher wages and benefits are in line with local district schools
Spero’s compensation plan follows the same “steps and lanes” as local school districts, ensuring that teachers are paid according to their licensure, education, and experience and that their wages match those of their district colleagues.
Furthermore, Spero Leadership allocates additional funds to support employee mental health, including reimbursement for Mental Health services and the addition of extra paid mental health days to the school calendar.
Ensuring the quality of facilities and available resources
Spero Academy is fortunate. Through years of sound fiscal management and accountability, we reached our eight-year milestone in 2012. At this point the amended Charter School Law allows public charters to build or purchase their own space through an affiliated company. After years of leasing a variety of spaces, Spero Academy moved into the newly built Minneapolis Schoolhouse in 2018. You can read more about our first new building and the history and development of Spero Academy in other blog posts.
Having a modern, accessible, and sensory-friendly building has proven essential to our mission. But a building alone does not provide the quality programming we promise our students and families or the teaching opportunities we promise our educators. To deliver on these, it’s imperative that teachers have access to the resources they need.
In a 2022 Spring Survey, Spero teachers and specialists were asked if they were provided with necessary resources. Ninety-three percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed. Of the three percent who did not agree, some clarified that what was missing was further instruction on utilizing the resources or time during designated work hours to learn new curriculum, etc.
The Professional Development Committee at Spero uses this feedback to plan future staff development. Input from the surveys helps the Committee strike a balance between structured training time with focus on areas of greatest need, and designated work hours in which teachers have the time and space to learn and plan new curriculum.
For a look at just a few curriculum options employed at Spero Academy, check out:
But how do you tell Charter School Fact from Charter School Fiction?
The challenges outlined above are valid concerns that many charter schools work continuously to manage. But many unfavorable notions of charter schools are based on notorious misconceptions regarding what charter schools are, who they serve, and how they operate. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools addresses some of the myths surrounding charter schools, ultimately stating:
“The entire public school system is strengthened when choices and options such as charter schools are available to students and families. When families are empowered to make decisions about their child’s education, the family’s ownership and involvement in the education process increases, as does the school’s accountability to parents.”
Charter schools are a feature of public education. They provide variation in curriculum, instructional methods, and teaching opportunities in ways that district schools may not. For some students, the adaptations and flexibilities afforded by chartered public schools are the most appropriate or equitable means of accessing the free and public education to which they are entitled.
With more charter schools opening every year, offering inspired and innovative new programming, parents and guardians have more options than ever when it comes to the public education their child receives. In order to ensure that the quality of these choices matches the quantity, it is essential that we place educator needs and concerns at the forefront of the decision-making process. This includes listening to teachers, providing resources and professional development opportunities, and developing policy and procedures under the guidance of our educators. When teachers are empowered to teach, students are empowered to grow.
Does Spero Academy sound like the right school for you? We’d love to hear from you! Visit our employment page for current teaching opportunities or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.