Charter High Schools


Innovations in Education

On December 7, 2006, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement released a 72-page guide profiling eight charter secondary schools that are making headway in meeting the achievement challenge. Chosen from over 400 charter secondary schools across the country that are meeting achievement goals under NCLB, these eight schools are achieving remarkable success, particularly with traditionally underserved populations. The Minnesota New Country School (MNCS), which became the prototype for the nationally recognized EdVisions Schools model is perhaps the most non-traditional school profiled in the guide. Funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided EdVisions with the resources to create and sustain a national network of 35 small, personalized secondary schools that replicate the design essentials of MNCS. These schools serve diverse students in urban, suburban and rural communities. 

The following is an excerpt from this important guide. In the Forward, Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education shares, “I hope that educators nationwide find these examples as inspiring as I do. Together, through proven strategies like these, we will achieve our goal.” The full report is available on the Department’s website at:


Closing the achievement gaps that separate the academic performance of various subgroups of students is a central goal of current education reform efforts nationwide. Hard-earned progress has been made at the elementary school level, but high school students are not progressing nearly as well. Indeed, it is at this level that performance gains in general have been most elusive and chronic student achievement disparities among significant subgroups seem most intransigent. Yet success is not beyond reach. 

This guide profiles eight charter secondary schools that are making headway in meeting the achievement challenge. They are introduced here so their practices can inspire and inform other school communities striving to ensure that all of their students, regardless of their race, ZIP code, learning differences, or home language, are successful learners capable of meeting high academic standards.

The Role of Charter Schools in Closing the Gap

Charter schools are uniquely positioned to contribute to this effort. Charter schools are public, but they operate with greater autonomy than many non-charter public schools. States vary in their charter school laws9 but, in general, these schools are exempted from many state regulations in exchange for explicit accountability for results, spelled out in the terms of their charter or contract with a state-approved authorizing (i.e., oversight) agency. 

Under these conditions of increased autonomy, school communities can mobilize to work together in new ways to achieve success. Compared to regular public schools, they often have greater control of their budgets, greater discretion over hiring and staffing decisions, and greater opportunity to create innovative programs. 

Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, puts it this way: “Charter schools are giving administrators the freedom to innovate, teachers the ability to be creative, parents the chance to be involved, and students the opportunity to learn—creating a partnership that leads to improved student achievement.”

The Schools Profiled in This Guide

The eight schools profiled in this guide are all outstanding in many ways. They were chosen from over 400 charter secondary schools across the country that are meeting achievement goals under NCLB. They are setting and aggressively pursuing high expectations, and they are achieving success in closing achievement gaps. They are meeting the needs of traditionally underserved student populations (in these cases, African-American, Hispanic, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and special education students).

To understand what was contributing to success in these schools, a “snapshot” case study of each school was conducted. An external advisory group helped guide the development of a research-based conceptual framework for analyzing schools and also informed the site selection criteria. A two-day site visit was made to each school, to see the school in operation and to talk directly with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and members of the governing board, both individually and, sometimes, in focus groups. Illustrative materials, such as the schedules and assessment tools highlighted in the figures in this guide, were collected from all sites. 

This descriptive research process suggests ways to do things that others have found helpful and practical “how-to” guidance. The research revealed that while the differences across these schools are interesting in themselves, it is the schools’ significant similarities that are more instructive for understanding their effectiveness. They:

Are mission-driven. Determined to get and keep their students on track for higher education, they create a safe learning environment and a strong school culture, with school leaders, teachers, parents, and students all relentlessly focused on ensuring student success. 

Focus on college preparation. They provide students with a rigorous, relevant, and engaging curriculum, as well as with co-curricular opportunities, such as internships and travel programs to broaden student experiences. 

Teach for mastery. Teachers are not simply imparting a rigorous curriculum; they are expected to teach for in-depth understanding. As needed, students are given remediation, acceleration, and more time on task to learn and master key academic standards. 

Provide wraparound support. In ensuring support that responds to students’ academic and social needs, they expect and receive help from families and community partners. Personalized support is evidenced through systems, such as advisory programs, college counseling, academic tutoring, and mentoring. 

Value professional learning. The principal often serves as an instructional leader, and teachers are collaborative and actively engaged in ongoing professional development throughout the year. 

Hold themselves accountable. These schools tend to be well-run organizations with strong, active governing boards that generate creative solutions to challenges that arise and empower administrators and other leaders to make and implement decisions expeditiously. 


The underlying themes of these charter schools are consistent with the principles outlined in the high school reform research on high-performing secondary schools. Such schools are shown to hold high expectations for students; offer rigorous curriculum; provide a range of instructional strategies to engage students and to connect their learning to real-world applications; foster strong connections between students and staff; have strong leadership and a school culture that is mission-driven; create a professional community of learning among staff; and provide additional supports for students who need them. 

Minnesota New Country School 

Minnesota New Country School is located an hour outside Minnesota’s twin cities and serves 118 students in grades 7-12. MNCS provides two innovative elements—a teacher-owned cooperative and student-driven project-based learning. MNCS is one of the least typical high schools likely to be found and has the motto, “No Child Left Unknown.” Education Evolving reports that MNCS spends 86% of its funds on instruction, a higher portion than any district in the state.

MNCS looks like a modern version of a one-room schoolhouse: one large, central open space, a few adjacent rooms, such as a science lab, a library, art and recording studios, and a shop room. Students each have their own workstation with a computer, and in the center of the building is a stage, a dual-purpose conference and classroom made from a grain silo, and common tables for group work, lunch, and meeting space. Class banners like the one that asserts, “The world always steps aside for people who know where they are going,” decorate the walls, affirming the school’s spirit of independence. 

Even more unusual than the building is the fact that MNCS’s teachers own and operate the school. In the early 1990s, a small group of teachers, aspiring administrators, and community members, each frustrated with traditional school models, started planning for an innovative high school. Sponsored by the Le Sueur-Henderson public school district, MNCS opened in 1994 with 65 students, the seventh charter school in Minnesota and one of the first 100 charter schools in the United States. 

Its formal mission statement says “MNCS is a learning community committed to quality personalized project-based learning with demonstrated achievement.” But Dee Grover Thomas, who, as lead teacher in a school that operates without a principal, handles many administrative duties in addition to teaching, explains that the school vision is much larger. The vision is to cultivate motivated students who have the skills and confidence to solve real-world problems. MNCS is not interested in the number of minutes or hours a student spends at a desk or works on a particular course. “I want students to know they can do postsecondary studies and be successful, whether that’s technical training after high school, college, or other pursuits,” says Thomas. 

Twelve percent of the students in the local high school district qualify for special education compared to 24% at MNCS. Yet even with an alternative education program, students are on par with or outperforming their peers at the local district. In 2005, MNCS 10th graders scored 80% proficiency in math compared with 73 in the local district. MNCS students average ACT scores in 2005 were 23.3 compared with a national average of 20.9.

EdVisions provides comprehensive services to help create and sustain schools designed to be fundamentally different – an Extreme Makeover approach. Educators partner with colleagues to create a Teacher Professional Practice with real control over decisions that affect learning, including staffing, budget and the educational program. Personalized learning takes place in multiage advisories. Students actively participate in a democratic learning community. Teacher-advisors work with students to develop rigorous standards-based projects driven by student interest and personal learning plans.

For more information, visit, or contact:

Kathleen O’Sullivan, National Director, EdVisions Schools Project  

West Coast Office: 75 South Grand Ave., Pasadena, CA 91105

Ph: 626.744.7755    Cell: 323.697.1166    HYPERLINK ""