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A Public Charter School Is Trying to Model Itself After a Private School: Is That a Good Thing?

02/05/2015 10:01 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

Yesterday Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) stuck his foot in it when he suggested that not all charter schools are, in the end, public.

"There are some private charter schools, are there not?" Alexander said at a Brookings Institution event about school choice.

In fact, charter schools are publicly funded, privately run entities, although the extent to which they err on the public or private side of the equation has become grist for an increasingly contentious public debate about the future of American public education.

That debate matters greatly. After all, charter schools exist to inject more creativity and autonomy into perhaps our most sacred public trust: our public schools. Yet there's also another side of the debate that is much less contentious and much less talked-about: the extent to which public charter schools can learn from, and then export, some of the best ideas that undergird our nation's most outstanding, innovative private schools.

It was this question that led Marlene Magrino and Emily Bloomfield, the founding principal and executive director, respectively, of Monument Academy, a new, not-yet-opened charter school in Washington, D.C., to spend a few days in the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside late last fall.

Magrino and Bloomfield's school is designed to be a residential boarding school for children who have experienced stress and trauma -- especially young people who are either in foster care or in contact with the child-welfare system. As a startup school, they have no students, no staff, and, until last month, no building. What they do have is a well-thought-out idea about how to provide the requisite supports and services that can help their targeted student population learn and grow. And so they were in Pennsylvania to observe the inner workings of the Milton Hershey School, a private boarding school that works with children with acute financial and/or social needs, a school with more than a century of history, nearly 2,000 students, and an endowment of nearly $6 billion, making it one of the wealthiest schools in the world.

At first blush, such a visit could quickly feel like a fool's errand -- or an inadvertent lesson in discouragement. When you have nothing and you're trying to make something, does it help or hurt to see an example of someone else who has everything?

But Bloomfield and Magrino didn't spend their time traversing Hershey's lush campus and endless resources feeling overwhelmed; they spent it taking notes on what design principles could most easily be borrowed in order to improve their nascent public project.

"I started thinking about this school after getting involved in trying to close the achievement gap," Bloomfield explained. "What I saw was lots of charters that were doing good work, but there were still all these kids who were falling through the cracks. And a lot of those children were either homeless or in the foster care system.

"That led me to wonder: How might we create a public school that could give those kids the sort of round-the-clock treatment and support they needed to become successful? And that question led us here."

Magrino, fresh from a tour of the school's expansive auditorium, agreed. "This hall will probably be the size of our entire school," she said. "But being here is helping me think about how to maximize the spaces that we will have, and how to make do with less in order to provide our kids with as many opportunities as possible.

"This school has a dance studio. Will we have a dance studio? No. But setting up electives like tap dancing aren't expensive. Can we sponsor a band? Probably not. But we can probably afford to establish a choir. We can match the people, and we can match the practices, even if we can't match the money. It's thinking about what's most important and then figuring out how to make that work on our scale and with our resources. So it doesn't make me wish for things we don't have. It makes me think about how we can choose wisely about where we're putting our resources."

Monument will open its doors for the first time in August 2015, with an inaugural class of just 40 students. Its ability to translate the essence of a model like Hershey, and to make it available to increasing numbers of underserved young people, remains to be seen. But its willingness to try is precisely the sort of bet the charter experiment is designed to incentivize people into making.

So let's keep guarding against the proliferation of for-profit entities in the charter space, insisting on financial transparency, and demanding that charters and districts find ways to work collaboratively. And let's start seeing how well some of our most celebrated models of private education can be transported into our most sacredly held public spaces.

In the end, having some public charter schools with the right amount of private in them might actually be a good thing.