New Branches Charter Academy has been in existence since 1971 – they started as a private school and evolved into a self-managed public charter school in 1994. As a self-managed school, this meant the Board of Directors managed all daily operations. From handling disciplinary issues to assisting the principal with administrative duties to managing the finances and dealing with parental issues head on, the New Branches Board was managing all aspects of their academy, even far beyond the Board’s scope of management.
In 2015, the Board of Directors agreed that help was needed to take the school to the next level. They took the leap of faith and hired Choice Schools Associates, a full-service management company.
This story highlights the Board’s perspective of the challenges they faced and their decision to make this transition that’s had a tremendous impact on how they operate today. As you may know, it takes an infinite amount of energy and time to navigate the day to day of running a school. These board members have seen and done it all and have since moved from the day to day operations to a governance and strategic planning role.
One school year later, New Branches Charter Academy is thriving. There’s been a strong positive shift in the school’s culture. Immediately before Choice began their management in the spring of 2015, 60% of NBCA parents surveyed were overall satisfied with the school. When reviewing the end results this current spring, 91% of the NBCA parents were overall satisfied. That’s an increase of over 30%. Families are attending events, less discipline issues are occurring, enrollment is increasing, and the Board of Directors could not be more pleased with their decision.
This is the story of New Branches Charter Academy from self-managed to full-service, as told by members of the Board.
What made you decide to join the NBCA school board?
I wanted an opportunity to be involved with kids, with my children’s education, and stay in touch with the school.
I learned Ryan became the President of the Board and I wanted to join as well since my daughter was a student at NBCA.
Dawn Martinson (D)
I was looking for community events and things I could be involved in with families and education. This opportunity caught my eye.
What made you decide to seek out a Management Company?
R – Each year, things were getting more and more difficult to manage. We’re spending many hours each week with phone calls, and keeping things moving. The idea of having a full-service Management Company became reality. We needed help.
A – My daughter began attending a different charter school in the area and I greatly enjoyed the environment and the atmosphere of that school as a parent. I liked that it still felt personal. So I wanted to bring that back to NBCA. We didn’t want a cold environment in our school, and I knew that Choice could bring warmth.
D – Let me just put it this way… We now get through a board meeting in 45 minutes. Before hiring Choice, there would be times when we, as a board, would still be here until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Things were not getting done, and there were too many issues going on that we were dealing with that had become too much.
The change has been fantastic. It truly allows us to get back to being strategic instead of being buried in operations.
What were the behind-the-scenes like at NBCA before Choice?
R – There were a few months when I was spending 20-25 hours a week here at the school. We were more involved in the operations side than we needed to be. We were juggling having to stay in the Open Meetings Act, while meeting with principals regularly and staying legal.
A – It was challenging. As the school was struggling with academics and finances, I felt it equally as challenging to be a parent. It was a big challenge for a year or two. We spent many hours being a managing board rather than a governing board.
D – I am not a parent here, so instead I would get those calls from parents who were worried and asking what was going on here, what was happening. Many parents were leaving the school and that was a huge red flag. We want the school to stand on the mission of what they were here for, and it was frustrating. How could we talk to those parents as a board, and not as a Board. It was difficult. It was a very difficult time.
What type of challenges did you address as a board before you had a Management Company?
R – A lot of the day-to-day operations fell onto us; finances, calls about students, how do we do this… from the school leader. We were very operations-oriented instead of being a governing board.
D – Daily meetings with the school leader. We spent 40 minutes everyday meeting and discussing discipline issues… telling them how to run the school and handle everyday problems.
What has been the outcome of choosing a Management Company and has the outcome been productive and successful?
R – It’s been tremendous for us. We’ve been able to work more toward a governing board. We just had a meeting tonight and the changes from meetings before is so different. Some of the feedback, when you walk in the school, it’s very positive, clean, Mrs. Larkin does a tremendous job reaching out to the families, communicating with them and the board members, as does Stan (Board Liaison)… the overall atmosphere is positive and back to where we were. The reason we decided to go with Choice is because of why we first sent our kids here – that sense of community, and we wanted Choice to restore that, and very quickly it has gotten back to that. It’s getting back to the same school that was here.
D – In the past few years, we would have events and no one would show up. The past year and a half, the events are full; everyone is here; there is excitement in the school. And that had gone away from six years on down… until the past year and half. It started to come back up. It’s just a complete change, from the students to the parents, they’re seeing the changes, feeling the changes, and the positive feedback is fantastic.
A – I agree with all of that. As a board member, I’m most excited to be planning for the future. We were in such a day-to-day management, that now we can start thinking about what we want to start doing for the students, families, staff, and community as a whole… and it feels really good.
Has Choice Schools Associates produced a product based on the standards and guidelines you’ve expressed? If so, how?
R – Definitely. We’ve already seen academic improvements over the short time. The culture has improved tremendously. The amount of discipline issues we’ve had to address last year have pretty much gone away. That’s been a huge thing for me. I used to spend a lot of my time at behavioral meetings, and I haven’t had to go to one this year.
D – I recall nights where there would be 50 parents in the board meeting room expressing their opinions, and we just don’t see that anymore. It’s a wonderful thing! Needs are being met on a daily basis.
A – We were still working on firming up our strategic plan for the school, and just a few short months after Choice came in we set some goals and I already see us progressing toward them. Academics are improving, we see finances improving, we are able to plan for the future… which is all part of our strategic plan for the school and the best interest of the students. Lots of positive things happening.
What might you say to another board member whose academy may be considering a Management Company?
R – Don’t wait. I reached out to Choice 2-3 years ago… we went through the process ourselves. We went to partial management for a year and then as we were moving through it, it took us awhile to get there. Going from self-managed to full-management was a huge jump for us. We were all a little nervous about how staff would react, how parents would react, but after going through all of that, it’s been nothing but positive since day one. I say don’t wait.
A – I think New Branches has come a long way from when it was started almost 30 years ago. It was a really small school as the Climbing Tree. It was meant to be a community, a school community. We lost that sense of community along the way when we started to grow too big. Choice has come in and brought that sense of community back. Don’t wait. It’s not as scary as you may think. It has benefited the staff, kids, and community.
D – We were worried about letting everyone down. Worried that it meant we failed. But honestly, it has nothing to do with failing. It just got bigger than what was physically possible for us to handle. And when you see something starting to fall down, you need someone to bring you back up. And when you see that, don’t wait. Go for it. It was past our time – past a self-management time, and we needed something else. And it’s been amazing.
R – We had to keep in mind the kids. We had to throw out how it was going to affect the teachers and parents- and know that we were doing the best thing for the kids. And going to Choice was the best thing for the kids.
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