Why Long-Term Facilities for Charter Schools are Critical for Success

I have been following the debate between the Los Angeles charter school community and L.A. Unified with interest. While the outcome doesn’t affect my school directly, at least one part of the debate is very familiar, and I hope that decision makers will learn from educators like me who have already handled these difficult issues.

When four other teachers and I began planning to open SOAR Charter Academy in 2008, one of our biggest concerns was stability, for both our students and our teachers.

We knew other charter schools that had bounced around from site to site because they lost leases or were only working on one-year agreements. After hearing about a charter school that had to leave their campus and find a new one just a month before school started, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Could that be us?”

My concerns seemed well-founded when the only space we could find for our initial 140 students was temporary classrooms at a church on a one-year lease that required upgrades – upgrades that cost money we would rather have used to educate kids.

It obviously would have been a huge disruption if we had to suddenly leave that site, so we spent time each week looking for other locations in case of emergency, or if we outgrew the church. I would jot down details of vacancy signs as I drove through town and even checked out the site of a former beauty school to see if it could be converted, all time that would have been better spent finding ways to improve education for our SOAR students. Even so, our students were thriving, to the point where families were choosing to move closer to our school, making our site uncertainty even more concerning.

This isn’t a minor issue. We all know parents who have organized their schedules, their commutes, even their careers around where their kids go to school because getting your child into the right school is among the most important jobs parent have. Teachers also need to know where they are going to work every day – imagine if where you go to work had the potential to change location, by miles, on a year-to-year basis.

Luckily, SOAR found a solution to our instability through a common-sense approach that has proven to benefit both educators and families: long-term leases.

In 2011, we moved into a space at a district school and signed a five-year lease agreement with the San Bernardino City Unified that gave us the stability that we had been searching for.

This move let families know that they could count on us being in their lives for the long term, and they wouldn’t have to relocate again or find another school. And rather than spend time scouting new locations or reading the fine print of lease agreements, teachers and staff could concentrate on what they do best.

There were issues that had to be hammered out, and we had to make sure that the school district had the legal protections it needed, while ensuring our own certainty and stability. But we partnered with the district and came up with a solution that is working for all of us.

Our charter is up for renewal this week and we are asking for another five-year lease, and possibly a longer term agreement afterwards. Long-term facilities solutions are not only possible, but critical for the success of any great school. We are so grateful that we found a solution to our needs and were able to settle into our space, helping us improve our educational efforts. We think every great school – and every student – deserves a great, stable home.

This Op-ed was submitted by:
Kristin Kraus is the director of finance and operations for SOAR Charter Academy, a 460-student K-8 public school in Yucaipa.

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