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Mendo Lake Family Life

5 Characteristics of Effective Charter Schools

By Tom Miller

My journey into public charter schools and learning about the characteristics of effective schools began in 2008 when I was an Exceptional Children’s teacher. I later became the director of a rural charter middle school. It was during this time, while writing my dissertation on charter schools, that my “leadership lid” was lifted as I spent time in five high-performing K–8 public charter schools. As a result of this experience and my 2011 research, I discovered these five characteristics of effective charter schools.

Clear School Mission Effective public charter schools understand and live their mission daily. From the governing board to the families, they are intentional with communicating the mission at every opportunity. The mission lives through succession planning, stable school leadership, effective teachers, and highly engaged parents.

Student-Focused Instructional Planning Effective charter schools teach students where they are, not where they should be based on their age or grade-level. This occurs by having clear prevention and intervention systems that assess students’ strengths, learning styles, and interests. Additionally, those same systems are applied to help students build the necessary strategies and skills to be more successful in the classroom. By having such a clear education plan in place, teachers can master their craft and implement these plans with fidelity. Effective schools do not waiver from their clearly defined education plan; they tweak it based on the results, closing the achievement gap for all.

Multiple Levels of Parent Engagement Being schools of choice, public charter schools count on building strong relationships with their parents and community. Effective charter schools engage their parents and community as partners in the school’s programs and success. These relationships grow through intentionality, purpose, and transparency. From working side-by-side while building the school to teaching classes, the formula is simple: be clear and deliver on promises.

“Real Time” Site-Based Decisions Effective charter schools have built operating systems that continually inform leadership about what is working and what is not. These leaders trust their “on the ground” staff to make decisions based on what is best for students and the organization. These systems create speed, flexibility, and the potential to gain competitive advantage by responding to an event soon after it occurs. These “real-time” decisions bring value to the organization and improve customer relations.

Strategic Personnel Decisions Effective charter schools develop strong processes to recruit, hire, and retain dedicated, mission- and value-oriented members. Through autonomy, they can provide their current staff expanded professional opportunities without an inflexible process that school districts may incur. As a result, school leaders intentionally build leadership capacity in the teachers and staff who are carrying the school through the development of innovative school-improvement initiatives. 

Tom Miller, PhD, is an education coach, trainer, and consultant who assists public charter schools leaders across the country. Find out more about his new book, The The Ten Indicators of High-Performing Charter Schools at and