Frustrated with traditional education? Looking to create something different based on your ideals of what education should be? If visions of charter schools have been dancing through your head, wake up and smell the coffee. You'll need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty – it’s a big job, not for the faint of heart.

So big, in fact, that most people who catch a glimpse of what it takes to start a charter school, chicken out almost immediately, after seeing what’s involved.  According to Julie S. Doar-Sinkfield, Executive Director of The William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (WEDJS) in Washington, DC, the process can take as long as two years—from the decision to start the school, through the approval process, to actually opening the doors. “But,” says Doar-Sinkfield, “It is truly rewarding.” She should know, she’s been through it and lived to tell the tale. Despite the hard work, if given the choice to do it all again, Doar-Sinkfield says she would.  Here are her tips on how to get started:

  • Find Like-Minded Individuals. Start with a small core team of founders who share a common goal for the charter school. Then recruit 10-12 more people to help get things moving.
  • Put Pen to Paper. You can’t become a charter school without filling out the proper paperwork. Applications can be as long as 150 pages, but it’s not always so overwhelming. Once you’ve written the application, you’ll need to submit it to the charter authorizer (which can be the board of education or the school district depending on locale), for approval. There is usually a revision period, where you’ll have to resubmit the application with changes, after you’ve taken official feedback into account. The whole process can take up to a year. You’ll need to bankroll these early efforts. While charter schools are supported with public money, that money isn’t available until the school is made official. The founders will be funding the process for a little while (paperwork, travel, meeting time, parking, etc.) until the school is approved.
  • Involve Your Neighbors. During the application process, secure buy-in from the community. This involves finding politicians, educators, parents, students, clergy, and others who will be willing to speak on the prospective school’s behalf. Form a diverse board that not only includes individuals with an education-based background, but those with business-savvy and good financial or operations experience, so the authorizer sees that the business aspects of the charter will be handled effectively.
  • Fill (and Find!) the Seats. Once you have approval from the charter authorizer, begin recruiting teachers, students, and staff. Purchase school supplies and equipment. Doar-Sinkfield says, “We used Craigslist and Freecycle for people and supplies. We interviewed candidates out of our homes, met in libraries all over the state, and rented storage space because we had no building yet.” She even stored a donated Baby Grand piano in her home for 8 months.
  • Scout for Locations. Once everything else is in place, it’s time to find real estate. Many charters set up shop in empty school buildings.  Others choose former office space or empty warehouses. Some charter authorizers require you have your space before they give approval, but most just need you to demonstrate you are invested in the real estate process.

Assuming you’ve made it this far, all that remains is to open the doors! Says Doar-Sinkfield, “It’s a huge undertaking and it doesn’t get any easier. There are new challenges every day. Things are always changing.”   

But if you believe you want to make a difference and promote your educational ideals, a charter school is a great way to do that. The founders of WEDJS still believe in their original mission: to produce the next generation of global leaders. That’s pretty important. And if they can make that happen, then the long hard road to get there will have been well worth it.