23 things you need to know about charter schools

Charter schools are growing like Topsy. But don’t jump on board unless you know what you’re getting into.

The bookless Digital Library at UNO Galewood Charter School, one of 13 UNO charters serving Chicago’s Hispanic community. Students sit at “genius bars” and use tablets and mobile devices to do their work. “UNO wanted to break the mold of what a library is,” says Patricia Saldaña Natke, Principal in Charge at UrbanWorks, Ltd., the school’s designer. Christopher Barrett Photography
April 10, 2013

When Minnesota passed the nation’s first law permitting charter schools, in 1991, no one could have predicted that more than six thousand such schools would be operating 22 years later. Nor could anyone have known that 18 cities would have at least 20% of their students enrolled in charters.

Today, charter schools are educating just under 5% of public school children in the U.S., according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (www.napcs.org). But don’t let that 5% figure fool you: Demand for charters is exploding, even as many public school districts are closing schools. In Massachusetts alone, 45,000 children are on waiting lists to get into charters, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (www.masscharterschools.org).

Charter schools have come a long way in just over two decades. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws recognizing charters, and resistance to charters by public school administrators and teachers’ unions has diminished over the years. Private-sector developers have moved into the field, and banks have become a bit more comfortable lending to charters for capital projects.

Despite this progress, getting schools built remains a daunting task for charter operators. Charters get funding on a per-pupil basis for day-to-day operations from the state or their local school district, but the burden of raising the money for capital projects invariably falls on the charter operator. According the National Charter School Research Project, “scarcity of facilities” was listed by 89% of charter management organizations as the single greatest external barrier to their growth.

ALSO SEE: 6 funding sources for charter school construction
Competition for grants, loans, and bond financing among charter schools is heating up, so make your clients aware of these potential sources recommended by experts we consulted for our charter schools report. Read 6 funding sources for charter school construction.

Most charters can only afford to allocate about 14-15% of their budgets to facilities, compared to 22% or more for public schools. Typically, charters will start with one or two kindergartens in leased space and move up a few years later to a K-3 in a renovated space. The real test comes when the charter becomes successful enough to consider building its own facility.

That’s where you come in. Before you get too excited about this opportunity, however, heed the advice of veteran AEC professionals and charter operators consulted by the editors of Building Design+Construction.


1. Learn to recognize the unique characteristics of charter school clients

“Charter starters” come in three basic forms: the disgruntled public school teacher or administrator who believes he or she can educate children more effectively than the public schools; the business executive who sees the free market as the salvation of the education system; and anxious parents desperately seeking a better education for their children. Look for strong representation from all three groups in any charter organization you’re getting into bed with.


2. Keep in mind that a charter operator’s first concern is the education program

With public schools, the design must meet preset parameters, notably square footage per student. These requirements are usually administered by officials with no direct involvement in the school, whereas charter operators invariably have a hand in every aspect of curriculum and operations. “Charter operators tend to be focused on making the space work toward the needs of the program,” says Karl E. Jentoft, Principal with TenSquare LLC, Washington, D.C. That level of involvement can, as we shall see, be both a curse and a blessing.


3. Do your due diligence to avoid getting burned

“You can hit a charter school that really doesn’t know what they’re doing, so do your homework before you get into bed with one,” says Christine Schlendorf, AIA, Principal with Perkins Eastman (www.perkinseastman.com). “Usually the financing for their buildings is dependent on CDs being complete, so we want to be paid before that. The charters we’ve worked with have been very responsible.”
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (www.qualitycharters.org) is the private nonprofit group that sets standards for half the nation’s charters. Authorizers vet charters’ education programs, staffing, and business plans—valuable information you should review before taking on a charter client.

“Meet their board and staff,” advises charter facilities consultant Jentoft. “See how well they’re doing attracting parents. If they’re not educating kids, the parents will vote with their feet.”


At Boston Renaissance Charter School, HFMH Architects converted a warehouse into a complex of spaces—two gyms, two dance studios, a cafeteria, and two raised music rooms. These activities are separated by partitions which, when pulled back, create an assembly space that can host a thousand people for a graduation or fundraiser. “It’s the most intensely flexible space we’ve every done,” says HFMH’s Pip Lewis. The K-6 school embraces a “whole child” philosophy—foreign language (Mandarin as a second language), dance, fine arts, vocal and instrumental music, technology, and martial arts—espoused by Superintendent/CEO Roger F. Harris, PhD, a former Boston Public Schools principal. Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto / Courtesy HFMH


4. Choose the right partners for your charter team

“Experience counts,” says Jentoft. “If you’re an architect looking to get into charters, partner with a contractor with a track record in charters. If you’re a contractor looking at charters, partner with an experienced charters architect.” Populate your Building Team as much as possible with firms that have charter chops. “Find consultants who have done charters with the school district and know the district’s standards,” says Brianna García, Charters Executive, Los Angeles Unified School District.

Choose partners with deep pockets, because you might not get paid for six months. “If we’re going to finance some of the design and construction up front, we look pretty hard at the charter’s financing and credit standing,” says Tom Rogér, Vice President/Project Executive, Gilbane Building Co. (www.gilbaneco.com). “We don’t want to be the last one paid.”


5. Help your charter client find the perfect property

This is a crucial step, and your expertise can prevent a disaster. “The key is finding the right property,” says Pip Lewis, AIA, LEED AP, Principal with HFMH Architects (www.hfmh.com). “We have dissuaded many rosy-eyed charter operators from buying properties that had bad column spacing or severe zoning restrictions,” says Lewis.

Patricia Saldaña Natke, AIA, Principal in Charge at UrbanWorks (www.urbanworksarchitecture.com), a Chicago firm that has conducted early feasibility studies for charters, says, “You have to warn them about the risks of building codes and help them with ADA accessibility, sprinklers, parking requirements, structural elements, and student drop-off areas.”

Don’t limit your search to vacant public or parochial schools. Warehouses, old mills, car dealerships, nursing homes, strip malls, bowling alleys, grocery stores, even seminaries—all have been adapted for reuse as charter schools by AEC experts consulted for this article.


6. Look for space in a charter incubator—or help create one

High-tech startups often share costs in an incubator facility until they’re ready to go out on their own. That concept has spread to charter schools.

CONTRACTORS: Be prepared for delays in financing projects

“Starting off, you’ve got a client who’s really squeezing pennies, and that affects your choice of materials,” says Tom Rogér, Vice President, Gilbane Building Co., whose projects include Amistad Academy, in New Haven, Conn., and a new charter on Governors Island in New York. “For a public school, we’ll use materials that will last 50 years, but charters are not looking at life cycle costs. They’re thinking maybe six months ahead.”

Rogér says that as a Project Executive, he wants to be involved early in the design process. “The architect is doing his best to satisfy the owner, but my experience is that a lot gets lost in that discussion that can generate costs,” he says. “The teachers may want a chem lab, which is expensive. Maybe all they really need is a general science room.”

Rogér prefers working with a designer who has charter school experience—“someone who’s very efficient and willing to make compromises on costs and aesthetics.” To that end, he uses Gilbane’s proprietary tool, the “Cost Advisor,” which provides cost data from more than 100 recent school projects. “If the owner has $10 million and the first cut is $15 million, you’ve got to change the program right up front,” says Rogér. “It’s our job to make the best use of the charter’s money.”

In Washington, D.C., Perkins Eastman worked with the nonprofit social agency Building Hope to create such an incubator at the decommissioned Birney School. “It’s a kind of gestating program, where you have a couple of small charters in different wings under the same roof, sharing food services, a cafeteria, and assembly space—the D.C. government even provides a nurse,” says Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP, Perkins Eastman’s K-12 Market Sector Director. One of the charters, Septima Clark, is looking to find new home; the other, Excel Academy, is preparing to occupy the whole incubator.


7. Help your clients locate financing sources

Charters have three primary funding sources: 1) traditional bank financing (i.e., a loan); 2) rated bonds, whereby the charter uses its per-pupil revenue stream to get underwritten for tax-exempt bonds by an investment bank like Piper Jaffray (www.piperjaffray.com); and 3) lease with an option to buy, where a developer builds the school and leases it back to the charter.


8. Brace for pushback from the local public schools

While 41 states and the District of Columbia have laws granting charter schools access to leased space in public schools or the right to purchase closed schools, only 14 have policies to implement those rights, according to the NAPCS.

The most cooperative states, says the NAPCS, are Alaska, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia, but cooperation can vary from district to district, especially in older cities.

For example, Boston has shuttered a dozen or so old school buildings in recent years, yet “there are a lot of charters looking desperately for space, but the city bureaucracy is hesitant to let them use the schools,” says HFMH’s Lewis, whose firm has numerous charters to its credit.
Don’t assume, however, that all public school officials will shut you out. “We, too, want the best schools for the kids,” says LAUSD’s García. “So knock on our door and we’ll help you.”

García says she routinely pulls together staff from multiple LAUSD departments to answer technical questions and help charters with specifications. “Check in with us, so that when something comes up that we’ve never encountered before, we’ll have that relationship, and we can work it out.”


Teachers at United Neighborhood Organization suggested the idea of creating offices with visual access to the corridor and classroom, so that teachers could stay in contact with their students while providing an extra pair of eyes on the hallway. Two teachers from the same grade share an office to foster collaboration. Sprinklers are focused on the glass to provide a one-hour fire-rating. Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto / Courtesy HFMH


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