Addressing Charter School Expansion Challenges: An Operational Perspective

By Elle Carne

Designing and growing a charter school introduces a set of challenges to work through, and generally academic and programmatic requirements take priority over operational function. But operational functionality is incredibly important; it creates a safe, purposeful, and effective space for learning.

During the initial growth stages, charter school academic professionals can find themselves making decisions concerning school operations—an area often beyond their expertise. Typically it is only once charter schools transition from a small school in a retrofitted space to a large school in a long-term space that they begin to hire specialized operations staff, however by then challenges have arisen. For example, costs have escalated in the construction of the new facility due to late design adjustments, and academic and operations staff have experienced conflict as they are learning to communicate, collaborate, and co-exist.

One solution is to bring in specialized operations staff earlier. When that is not possible, there are still ways to avoid the operational pitfalls associated with expansion. Namely, school leaders and project design teams can think proactively about how to incorporate school operations into conversations on school design and post-occupancy function. It can be difficult to picture exactly how that looks, so consider the following.

When should operations be involved in design conversations? From the beginning! Operational function needs to have a seat at the initial planning table and be included in the overall vision of the charter school’s new space. Including operations early in conversations can help identify areas that may have been overlooked in design. For example, if the charter school has a Pre-K program, how do storage requirements for materials differ across grades? Operations can guide design from the beginning to streamline the ultimate use of the space and help think through creative solutions that balance vision and function.

Involve members of the school’s daily operations team in the design and construction process. School leaders and board members often represent the school in making design and construction decisions. However, they are frequently not the boots on the ground managing the day-to-day operations of the school, which can cause problems once the school opens. Involve the daily staff in the design and solicit their feedback, as their perspective can combine academic vision with practical applications. As the project progresses, hold weekly or bi-weekly meetings with this group to give project updates and get their opinion on design decisions. If the charter school does not have specialized operations staff on board yet, reach out to your local charter school community for support.

Important operations staff to include in these project groups could be operations managers, front desk staff, IT, foodservice, security, and even custodial staff. These staff members often point out items that can be missed by people who are not routinely involved, such as: Our school has several large packages arriving daily—where are they stored until they are delivered to individual recipients? How large do our trash receptacles need to be and how are they pulled by the trash company? The daily operations perspective is invaluable and can save money on last-minute design changes and makeshift solutions down the road.

Now that you have designed a new building, how do you manage the new systems? Invest in building maintenance! New buildings mean newer, sophisticated systems, particularly HVAC and lighting. Set aside time in the construction schedule for training sessions on the new equipment and make it a priority for operations staff to attend, ask questions, and receive the operating manuals. It is important to know limitations of expertise with operations staff.

Also be sure to budget for regular maintenance contracts and professional facility maintenance staff, even when systems are under construction warranty. This budget line item increases during expansion and should not be disregarded. It will keep the equipment running properly, ultimately improving the student and staff experience and lowering long-term repair costs.

With more staff and students in a new space, deliberate operations and academic interaction is crucial to the success of the program. To help bridge the gap between operations and instruction, make sure everyone is flexible and using the same language. Use the charter school’s norms and values to describe operational practices and hold everyone accountable to the same standards. Emphasizing the importance of building systems to academic staff can be challenging, especially during times of growth, so ensure there is support for operations staff from school leadership to carry out the new operational policies and building uses.

How do you manage all the new operational policies and procedures for the new space? Create a comprehensive internal procedures manual. New buildings, systems, policies, students, parents, etc. can be overwhelming, and school operations usually fall lower on the list of priorities. By creating a comprehensive manual, all operational policies and procedures—from building use to supply ordering to allergies—can be found in one location. This allows all staff to quickly reference instructions and frees up time for operational staff to do other tasks. This is especially successful if there is buy-in from other departments, like special education, compliance, etc., to include their information in the manual. Having one location for everything maximizes efficiencies and reduces confusion.

While periods of expansion for charter schools are exciting, they can also be challenging for the school’s operations. Following the strategies described here during design and post-occupancy can mitigate the impact of these challenges and provide a smoother transition.

Author: Elle Carne, PMP, is an Assistant Project Manager at Brailsford & Dunlavey Inc., a program management and development advisory firm. With a passion for youth development and education, Elle formerly worked in operations in Washington, DC, charter schools and has 6+ years of experience in charter school operations management and construction advisory.

Brailsford & Dunlavey is a program management and development advisory firm with comprehensive in-house planning capabilities, dedicated to serving educational institutions, venues, municipalities, public agencies, and non-profit clients from offices throughout the U.S.