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MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:  DECEMBER 2004 ISSUE

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND CONSULTANTS — CHOICES ABOUND
BY AARON NORTH & JOE NATHAN


How can busy charter operators select among the many consultants and service providers offering their services? This column aims to help answer that key question. As increasing numbers of students and families choose public charter schools across the United States, the demand for professional services by these schools is also growing. More and more independent contractors and businesses with varying levels of expertise in the public school arena are offering services to charter schools–everything from food service to financial management to curriculum development.

Charter schools are public schools funded with tax dollars. Both schools and taxpayers want quality service. The Center for School Change (CSC) at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute is doing some of the earliest research into effective consultant relationships in the charter school community. With the help of Humphrey Institute graduate students, the CSC staff has compiled several case studies based on interviews with charter school leaders and consultants. They’ve developed a rating system whereby schools can confidentially score their experiences with various consultants on a five-point scale, and they’ve compiled a summary list of lessons learned from both successful and disappointing charter-consultant partnerships.

To view these materials online, visit the CSC website’s consultant project at: http://www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/school-change/consult.htm Below are some of the lessons learned based on interviews with several charter school leaders. A key component of the public charter school movement is learning what works best for students and then providing them the best service possible. By utilizing the experiences of charter schools and consultants, this concept can be applied to the wide range of business relationships helping charter schools serve their students.

A key component of the public charter school movement is learning what works best for students and then providing them the best service possible.

Lessons Learned from Successes, Disappointments, and Disasters

Here are a few of the lessons learned by charter school educators who shared with our staff their experiences (some great, some frustrating) with consultants:
  • Do be as clear and specific as possible in writing a contract. The clearer you can be about what you want, and when you want it, the more likely you are to get it.
  • Be clear about the audience for the consulting work. Is it your school's board? Your faculty? Families? The broader community? Depending on your answer, you may wish to involve representatives of these people in selecting the consultant. For example, if you want to do a brochure for families, you may want to have some family members look at previous work a consultant has done. If your goal is to improve math, you may want to involve faculty members who teach math in selecting a consultant to provide training.
  • If possible, look at previous work consultants have done. For example, look at evaluations that consultants have prepared as part of the school's annual report to the Minnesota State Department of Education.
  • If a consultant tells you about his role in establishing or assisting another school, check with that school's director. Some consultants are taking credit for work they did not do or for work that is not as well done as the consultants represent.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, trust your gut. Some consultants make promises they cannot fulfill. Some consultants make offers that turn out to be much more complex than initially presented.
  • Check references.
  • Cheapest isn't always the way to go.
  • Most expensive isn't always best either.
  • Consider building penalties into a contract if work is not completed on time.
  • Recognize the personnel change in schools and in companies.
  • Sometimes consultants who do a really good job for some schools get so busy the quality of their work suffers.
  • An attorney who works for YOU should review any major consulting contract! Some consultants have their own attorneys, which is fine; but a company's attorney is not looking out first and foremost for a school.
  • CAVEAT EMPTOR! Let the buyer beware. There are some very fine people providing consulting services. There are some good people who have become very busy. And there are some people, in the views of at least some charter operators, who do not provide the kind of service most schools want, or they provide it at an excessive cost.
Aaron North directs the Minnesota Charter School Resource Center,
Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.
Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute