By James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center
A Reflection on the Last 10 Years
In 2003, then as Executive Director of SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, I found myself in conversations with philanthropists, charter leaders and officials at the New York City Department of Education (DOE) on what a new organization devoted to supporting charter schools in the City might look like. It would be a new organization, a public-private partnership between philanthropy and the DOE. Its mission would be to help grow a high-quality charter sector, one that would work in tandem with the Department as it sought to fundamentally reshape how it governed the schools it managed and transform New York City from a school system to a system of schools.
That organization, then known as the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, was unveiled a year later; and in 2005 it opened its doors. Little did I know then that I would become its leader in September 2007, after receiving the baton from Paula Gavin, the organization’s first CEO.
During its first few years, the Charter Center established the model for a city-based support organization. It made large grants to bring in human resources, including the first grant to Teach for America to provide corps members to charter schools—a talent pool that has proven absolutely essential to the growth of New York City’s charter sector. It also provided key tools and supports to individual schools, helping incubate new schools and new leaders, while working with existing charter schools to improve their outcomes. This model has proved extremely influential: it was the blueprint for sister organizations in New Orleans, Nashville/Memphis, Newark and Washington, DC, among others.
As the sector has grown and evolved—from the 32 schools that were in operation in 2005 to the 205 schools operating today—so has the Charter Center’s approach. With a much larger and more sophisticated sector, we moved from programs geared toward individual schools to finding solutions that had sector-wide implications. That’s why, for instance, we started the first charter school common online application and put our resources on the web, making them available to all. It’s also why we created the first-of-its-kind replication program to help charter operators looking to grow from individual schools to networks.
At the same time, we knew that our advocacy efforts would have to become not just more vigorous at both the city and state levels, but more nuanced and thoughtful too. The early, heady days of the charter revolution have yielded to the equally important, but more complex work of addressing how a mature and growing sector fits within the landscape of public schools. While holding fast to the principles of choice, autonomy and accountability that undergird the charter idea, we have been at the forefront of dealing with complex issues around enrollment structure, diversity and equity of access. That’s why we’ve grown our advocacy team and become known as the policy experts that advocate zealously, but always with the understanding that the ultimate issue is not charter schools but great public schools. As we look forward, we know there are plenty of battles ahead, but the progress we’ve made in just a few years is nothing short of astonishing.
Still as much as our tactics have changed, for me, and for everyone who works at the Charter Center, one thing remains constant. We deeply believe that children, especially those at risk of academic failure, deserve a great school and that charter schools are part of the solution. Of course, at the Charter Center, we don’t teach children; that work is the hard labor of leaders, teachers and staff at the City’s charter schools. But what we can do is make their work easier. And every day we come to work ready, willing and able to do just that.
It’s been a great ten years here at the New York City Charter School Center. We are grateful to our funders who have so generously supported us and made our work possible. We are just as grateful for the amazing leaders, teachers and staff who are working to make our public schools the place where children learn and grow, so that they will be equipped with the skills needed to succeed in college and careers in our great city and beyond.