How to Start a Charter School: Guidance and Inspiration

What does it take to start a good charter high school in Chicago?

The answer is surprisingly little, if you find the right partners.

Glencoe’s Wendy Serrino and Susan Sholl provide an excellent model to follow. In little more than one year, they created the financial support and collaborative partnerships that led to the opening of Johnson College Prep High School in Englewood last fall.

Their efforts prove that one individual’s $5,000 per year, spent in collaboration with smart partners, can launch a $2.5 million charter school. That’s fantastic philanthropy.

A good idea is born
When Serrino and Sholl heard that Kenilworth and Winnetka groups had started charter schools in Chicago, they decided that Glencoe families could do so too.

Education is a strong bond for this energetic, dark-haired, civically minded duo. They met as co-presidents of the Glencoe Parent Association. (Serrino’s passion for education also led to her current service as president of New Trier Board of Education.) They easily finish each other’s sentences.

The good idea becomes a $5,000 per year commitment

They knew their idea needed a bold start. “We decided to ask big up front,” Serrino explained over coffee recently.

Sholl continued, “We called it being a partner. This meant a commitment of $5,000 per year for 5 years, or $25,000.”

$5,000 becomes $500,000, becomes $2.5 million
“The first five families we asked said yes!” Serrino recalled. They both grinned. It didn’t take long for them to find 15 more.

They used that $500,000 to earn the support of Chicago’s premier civic organization supporting CPS schools—the Renaissance Schools Fund. Renaissance helped them convince Penny Pritzker and a group of leading black business owners to provide an additional $2 million. The school is named after the family of Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, an influential supporter of the project.

The right operating partner and location are found
The Office of New Schools of the Chicago Public Schools system analyzes a large number of proposals to start new charter schools every year and selects only a few. They require a $2.5 million commitment to launch a high school. Their standards are strict. Who actually operates the school is crucial to their decision.

“The Office needs to know that the proposed operator understands how to hire and train teachers, develop curriculum and hire a development person,” Serrino explained.

During evening coffees in members’ homes, the Glencoe partners learned about how a charter school works—how it’s staffed, and how it’s funded. They selected the Noble Schools Network started and run by CPS teacher Mike Milke because they were “blown away by his story, grittiness, authenticity and success,” Serrino said.

“Noble Street is a machine in a positive way—with a formula that does what the kids need,” Sholl continued.  Johnson Prep became the 10th school that Noble operates.

This also allowed the Glencoe group to place their school in an appropriate building in Englewood, an area that the group was eager to help.

$2.5 million and a smart operator selection lead to more support
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation committed serious support. Other Glencoe families donated more—any amount is welcome. Opportunities for Glencoe students to serve Johnson blossomed.

In little more than one year, Serrino and Sholl turned an idea and their personal commitments of $5,000 per year into a high school creating better futures for at least 140 students per grade for the foreseeable future.

Serrino is already talking about launching a second school. It probably won’t be long before Sholl is doing the same.

Make It Better hopes others will too. And we’re happy to help.