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For this CHARTER EDtalk, Janet Johnson, Charter School Capital CMO, and our Head of Business Consulting, Tricia Blum sat down with Sharon Thompson, the Board Chair for Wayne Preparatory Academy in Goldsboro, North Carolina. We wanted to talk with Sharon in order to understand what, if any, specific challenges she faces running a charter school as someone with a non-education background. Watch the video and/or read the transcript to hear Sharon’s tips on how to run a charter school as a non-educator and what she’s learned over her time as a charter school leader.
Tricia Blum (TB): So, Charter School Capital is doing a campaign We Love Charter Schools. Can you tell me, please, in a sentence or two, what you love about charter schools?
ST: I think it’s the fact that not every child fits into the traditional school format, and so especially in the life of my children, who are now adults. I was very excited to find that the charter school, at least in our area and I’m sure in other areas as well, were going to offer something different for those students that just needed a choice to go to a school that more exemplified the way they could learn and what was going to be best for them. so, it’s exciting to have that option because we’ve not had that in our county at all except for one other charter school.
TB: So, since you’re a board president, tell me a little bit about the day in the life of a Board Chairman. What’s that look like?
ST: Well, I think it’s different for each person. For me, personally, I spend, some weeks, 30 hours, some weeks, 60 hours. I mean, it just depends on what we have going on. Of course, we’re in the project of a great new building, so I’m excited about us opening that this summer and having a picnic and to cut the ribbon, with all of that going on. So, that will be great.
It’s like it is for any other business. As Chairman of the Board, my responsibility is to make sure that everything is moving the way it should be from the business standpoint. That was the commitment that we made to our Managing Director because we wanted our administrative staff to focus on the scholars and our academic side, and the board was willing to take on the other responsibilities from the financial side.
I’m doing those things that a typical business would do. I’m answering emails, I’m on the phone, texting, having meetings with different people, but once we get this set up and I’ve got a working relationship with a vendor, then I can turn that over to our business person at the school, and then they’re able to continue and work with that. They should give us reports—to the board, so that we know what’s going on. I’m running the business. It’s not just sitting back and hoping somebody does it. You’ve got to get in there and actually get the work done.
TB: Do you think that once … Like, you said 30 and 60, and I know that’s legitimate, but do you think once some of the challenges that you’re facing, that’s going to become less, or do you think you’re going to find new tasks and projects that keep that at that kind of … You know, what I call part to full-time job.
ST: Right. I think that it can certainly go to more of a part-time position once we get some of the things kind of nailed down. I want a foundation put there, so that all you have to do is come in – the next Chair or the next board member in a particular area – and all they’ve got to do is tweak that policy, or the thing that we put together—that strategic plan, so that it’s not reinventing the wheel every year.
We actually got to see what that was going to look like this summer. We just had our annual strategic planning session, and so it was very nice to be able to sit down and just kind of tweak a few things that we needed to do, and then we can move forward.
We’ve got still a lot of work to do as far as putting those policies together and making sure that they’re sound and where they need to be. But, once we get the foundation laid, then we’re going to be able to go do some of the fun stuff! More focus about the community and marketing, and then going back into the classroom and seeing all the fun programs that the children do. We don’t have that opportunity right now because we’re running a business.
TB: So, I think we’ve talked a little bit about challenges, but specifically, I know you don’t have an education background, so tell me what challenges do you face in running the board with a non-education background?
ST: That was huge because I didn’t expect for the education side of the business to look so different from the private sector, but it does. It’s a very big difference, so there was a huge learning curve for me.
You still have to have those good, sound business practices, but I call it knowledge by fire hose, not water hose. I really had to [quickly] get up to speed on how the educational side of things really worked, even though again, we’ve asked the Managing Director and the administrators to handle the education side.
I still have to understand it and so does the board.
A lot of times, I may go to different conventions or conferences. Any time the state offers something, I try to be there for that training. I know some people say, “No, no, don’t deal with the state because we’re a charter school,” but I don’t find that to be the case.
If you build those relationships, and then everybody’s on board with it too, and if you go and let them know you’re really trying to be a part of it, you want a great school, and you’re trying to set the right example, then they’ll come on board with you as well, if they weren’t to start with.
We’re very fortunate in North Carolina, in my state, that we have a great supporter of charter schools, and that we’re able to go and do that.
TB: Early on, what was it like, since you didn’t have a background in that, right? I think there might be more to that, even.
Relying on mentors, administrators, and personal experience
ST: I had to rely very heavily, at the beginning, on the administrators, so that they could explain. When you start talking about all these different testing elements and things that you’re using in the curriculum, that is really tough.
You either need a mentor that you can go and ask the questions of. You know, what is MAT and what is DIBELS, and how does this work? Or do they really expect me to have an 8% contingency set aside, and those kinds of things? You really have to have someone that you trust to be able to do that with. It never hurts to ask more than one person. It’s always great to have a mentor, but it’s okay to get the views of other folks to see what they’re thinking as well.
It was a little bit different for me because I had two children that had high-functioning autism, so I had kind of dealt with the school system from that level, and for me, that was why I was so excited that the charter school had come along in our county because we needed something different.
My children were very high-functioning, but they just, again, didn’t fit in that public school education setting. Had they been in this school setting, I think they would have flourished so much more.
I’ve kind of been able to look at it from both sides, from the school aspect and from the parent side of what that looks like, so that’s been a help in some areas dealing with our children with special health care needs or special needs within the school system.
Again, you can’t figure it all out at the start by yourself. You’ve got to have some help, and so you’ve got to rely on someone that will be able to explain it to you, or hopefully you’ve hired the right people, and those educators that are there in the school, those administrators, will be able to explain it to you.
One of the things, too, that we do at our particular school, is we have two board meetings a month. The first one of the month, we discuss financials and operations and kind of what’s going on with that, and then the second meeting of the month, it’s academics, so that we know exactly where our students are as far as where they’ve been placed in testing, and how they’re progressing along in their school for that year.
That’s been great in helping the board understand because most of our board members aren’t educators, and so they need to understand how we’re doing. Because although testing’s not our goal, it is a byproduct of what we have to do in North Carolina and all the other states. We’ve got to have that outcome as well as financially being responsible.
TB: Do your average board members or your standard board members, do you think that they instead of working 30 to 60 hours a week, do you think they work 10 hours a week, five hours a week, and then with meetings they have a little longer?
ST: Right, and we’ve got some board members that have just come on that, I think, are going to be a little bit more active, and so it’s kind of that old rule. You know, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. It doesn’t change on the Board.
Now, I think there are those times that you really do get that group that’s just going to mesh really well and everybody will be able to kind of take the load. I can see that starting to happen, but we’ve had to gel as a board first and get to know each other, and the strengths.
We’re looking for particular strengths now when we bring on board members, so that helps a lot as well because having one person that’s trying to figure it all out is not good for several reasons. I told a group earlier today, you know, if I get hit by a Mack truck, that’s a problem, but if there had been other people there with me that had been in the same trainings, then they’re going to know what I know, and that’s most important, to spread out that knowledge – all the way across – as much as you can.
TB: If you would, please tell me or us a little bit about your experience working with Charter School Capital?
ST: Oh, I could talk a long time about that. It has really been a knight a shining armor for us. It’s been amazing having you to be able to come in and deal with us, or help us one-on-one as we were at the beginning with our partnership. That was a big help because you want that liaison with that person you know you can call.
Then to find out there was a whole team, and Janet was part of that team, and some of the other folks, was really very reassuring for many because we had not been in that position where we had had that kind of support.
To have Charter School Capital provide not only that for us, but the opportunity to get our building built that we’ve been waiting for for a long time (that we’re all going to celebrate in the next month or two) has been very, very exciting! I would highly encourage anyone, if they’ve got the opportunity to work with Charter School Capital, to do so. And you [,Tricia]. You’ve been a wonderful, wonderful support.
JJ: Thank you, Sharon.
TB: Thank you. Thank you, Sharon.
Since the company’s inception in 2006, Charter School Capital has been committed to the success of charter schools. We help schools access, leverage, and sustain the resources charter schools need to thrive, allowing them to focus on what matters most – educating students. Our depth of experience working with charter school leaders and our knowledge of how to address charter school financial and operational needs have allowed us to provide over $1.8 billion in support of 600 charter schools that have educated over 1,027,000 students across the country. For more information on how we can support your charter school, contact us. We’d love to work with you!Learn More