On June 21, 2022, Robin Chait, Director of WestEd’s Charters & School Choice, moderated a panel focused on assessing community needs at the National Charter Schools Conference (NCSC22) for charter school leaders and charter authorizers.
The panel was motivated by WestEd’s new brief Assessing Community Needs: Strategies for Charter Schools and Authorizers, which draws from research and interviews to outline suggested steps for assessing community needs. Each panelist had a different reason for assessing community needs, and they discussed their experiences and the lessons learned in their assessments.
Making the Decision to Conduct Community Assessments
Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority (SPCSA), began assessing community needs because of a state statute that required it. Ms. Feiden and the SPCSA embraced this work to change their authorizing practices and to ensure that new charter schools opened in communities that needed them and that met the needs of students, families, and communities.
John Carlos Green, community engagement manager for the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) explained how the DC PCSB launched a community needs assessment process as a result of stagnant student enrollment in both traditional and charter public schools across Washington, DC. DC PCSB had an interest in understanding how families were making decisions about schools and what schooling options they were looking for.
Jacque Patterson, chief community engagement officer of KIPP DC, engaged in a needs assessment process to inform the opening of a new KIPP high school in the DC area. The community in which KIPP was looking to open a charter school had originally been opposed to opening a new high school despite the need for an additional quality high school in the area.
Partnering with the Communities We Serve
A common theme expressed by the panelists was that they used intentional strategies to make sure that they heard from traditionally underrepresented voices in their communities. Jacque Patterson and his staff from KIPP DC engaged in political mapping and went door to door to have individual conversations with community members and to identify people who were knowledgeable about the community and influential within it.
Staff from DC PCSB leveraged community partners to reach and communicate with specific populations. These partners included Black Lives Matter, a Latina mothers’ group, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (locally elected representatives), and Ward Education Councils (organizations consisting of students, parents, and community members who discuss education issues that affect schools in the ward).
And, as the statewide authorizer, Rebecca Feiden and staff from the SPCSA also leveraged partnerships to identify needs in specific communities. After reviewing statewide data, SPCSA worked with municipal partners to better understand the needs in areas with low academic performance and other challenges.
All three organizations implemented a strategy of convening an advisory or working group to ensure that community voices inform their policies and activities. DC PCSB has a parent/alumni research council that consists of DC charter school parents and alumni of DC charter schools who provide input on new policies.
SPCSA has a community working group that consists of statewide and regional organizations that provide insight about the needs of specific student groups or geographic regions.
KIPP DC has an advisory committee that consists of representatives of several local political organizations, several community members, a representative from the Department of Parks and Recreation, and a representative from the public housing development near the school. The committee advises on topics such as out-of-school-time programming, student safety, needed services, and the selection of a mental health provider for the school.
Experiencing the Benefits
As a result of implementing these needs assessment strategies, the three organizations were better able to meet the needs of the communities they serve. KIPP DC was able to get approval for its high school from the DC Public Charter School Board, and it offered programming that students and families said they wanted, such as entrepreneurship programming.
Since the SPCSA has implemented its community needs assessment, almost every new school that has opened in the state has opened as a Title I school in a high-poverty community.
DC PCSB staff are just beginning the process of assessing community needs, but ultimately they hope that these efforts will help the agency authorize new schools that create “a community and are a fabric of the community for years to come.”
For all three organizations, the process of assessing community needs is ongoing. The organizations have seen positive results based on the work they have done so far, but they also recognize that the needs of communities may change over time. Therefore, they will need to have ongoing processes for engaging with their communities and collecting feedback.
 T. Bowden & J. Green (telephone conversation with Tomeika Bowden, Chief External Affairs Officer, and John Green, Community Engagement Manager, DC Public Charter School Board, April 6, 2022).
Charter & School Choice at WestEd
WestEd works nationwide to improve educational quality and access for all students in traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, and schools of choice. Our transformational, holistic approach to serving our partners results in improved instructional quality for all students.
Robin Chait is a Project Director with WestEd’s Charters & School Choice team. Throughout her career, she has worked in policy, research, and practice to expand educational opportunities for all students.
Kelly Wynveen is a Program Associate with WestEd’s Charters & School Choice team. She provides technical assistance and develops resources on topics related to charters and choice, and in particular supporting authorizing practices