September 30, 2020

FAQs for Future Applicants to the Federal Charter School Program Grant

By Bellwether

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As applicants anxiously await the results of the FY2020 Charter School Program (CSP) State Entities grant competition, we want to offer some tips for prospective future applicants. As my Bellwether colleagues recently wrote, the CSP is a discretionary grant that provides federal resources to create, replicate, and support high-quality public charter schools. Developing a strong CSP application takes significant time and forethought. Although future funding of the CSP hangs in the balance, charter networks thinking about applying should plan far in advance to develop a strong application. 
Bellwether has partnered with a number of charter management organizations to develop winning federal education grant proposals, including CSP Replication and Expansion grants. The Frequently Asked Questions below explain what differentiates a successful application and provide advice on developing a winning proposal. 

Logistics of applying 

When should I start thinking about applying for a CSP grant? 
Six-to-eight-week turnarounds are fairly common: in 2019, the notice inviting applications appeared on November 26, 2019 and the deadline for transmittal of applications was January 10, 2020. Because the turnaround is pretty quick, occurs at a time of year when many staff may be planning time off, and the applications themselves are often over sixty pages long, preparing in advance is very helpful. 
As you think about applying, consider your network’s readiness to grow and increase impact. Indicators of readiness to grow can cross multiple dimensions, such as quality of programming, strength of student outcomes, clarity of instructional and cultural visions, student and staff retention and satisfaction, and financial health and sustainability. Bellwether offers a “Readiness to Grow” diagnostic tool that can help organizations assess their strengths and areas for focus before or during a growth process (see case study that used this tool here). 
What is the necessary level of engagement for CMO staff and what should we expect to be able to delegate? 
Many applicants hire a grant writer, which can save valuable time and strengthen the overall flow of the application. Even with a grant writer, however, you’ll need to be engaged throughout the process. CMO staff provide data and input on the performance metrics and targets and review the logic model and evaluation framework to ensure that it accurately reflects the network’s model. 
In the process of writing the grant application, organization staff will need to clarify the vision of a major strategic initiative and outline all the critical operating details to ensure successful implementation.
What are some steps we can take to navigate the logistical challenges of coordinating the development of the grant application?
Designate a point person to pull the pieces of the grant together. Bellwether’s strategic advising team has provided end-to-end grant development, including project management and budgeting, to ensure that tight timelines are met. Grant writers can also serve in this role. Clarifying norms around when a response can be expected is essential given the limited turnaround time. Develop a calendar indicating team members’ availability during the grant-writing period. Create a project management plan with timelines for when specific components are due. Because you may have different people writing different sections, you’ll need to leave time to do a final read-through of the entire plan to ensure consistency.  
How can I prepare in advance before the notice inviting applications appears?
While the specific priorities may vary from year to year, there are several standard components to the CSP grant applications. As we’ve noted previously, it is helpful to have clarity on these things before the application opens.  
First, since a major purpose of the CSP is to replicate and expand high-quality charter schools that serve educationally disadvantaged students, you can compile data that showcase how your network meets the requirements. This might include student performance on statewide assessments, student attendance and retention rates, student academic growth, high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and college persistence rates. External partners can provide additional research support and data analysis to strengthen your narrative. 
Outline how the expanded network will continue to serve economically disadvantaged students. This was an absolute priority for the 2020 competition and is likely to continue to be a priority. 
Prepare the following information, which has been requested in past applications. External partners, such an evaluator, can help with developing and refining these elements:

  • Clearly specified and measurable goals, objectives, and outcomes
  • Objective performance measures related to the intended outcomes
  • A logic model that shows how the proposed project results in intended outcomes 
  • A design for implementing the proposed project that includes details such as how many schools will be expanded and/or replicated and how new or expanded sites will be staffed
  • A design for evaluating the proposed project, that includes gathering information to guide possible replication of project activities or strategies, as well as information about the effectiveness of the approach or strategies employed by the project

Key components of the application

What does a logic model look like?
A conceptual framework provides a detailed description of how your program activities lead to immediate outputs, and how immediate outputs will lead to the outcomes and ultimate goals.
A detailed logic model lists resources, activities, outputs, and outcomes, and may also include a description of problem statement, goal, assumptions, and rationale. 
Be very thoughtful about developing the logic model and key objectives for the plan. The entire plan builds on these elements.
What is an evaluation? 

Evaluation is the systematic process to determine merit, worth, value, or significance (Scriven, 1991; definition adopted by the American Evaluation Association, 2014). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 has been described as the birth of contemporary program evaluation, as it included requirements for evaluation. Evaluators use a variety of data to form judgments about program quality, including whether the program is effective in producing the intended outcomes. 
An inclusive, equitable evaluation process takes into account the perspectives of students, teachers, and other members of the community impacted by the charter school network. Bellwether offers strategies for an inclusive evaluation in this short resource.  
Which performance measures are considered objective?
According to the Notice Inviting Applications, applicants must propose project-specific performance measures, “including aligned leading indicators or other interim milestones that provide valid and reliable information about the applicant’s progress in preparing students for enrollment in postsecondary education institutions.”
Okay, but what’s a valid and reliable leading indicator or interim milestone? Recent research suggests high school grade point average is a strong predictor of college graduation. Low rate of absences, no more than one failure in ninth-grade subjects, completing a math course sequence that includes precalculus or calculus, and AP or IB exam scores are also related to postsecondary success.
To understand more about types of Charter School Program evaluation data, check out our simple one-pager.
How can we gather qualitative data, and what questions can be answered with qualitative data? 
Qualitative data is essential to go beyond “what” and “how much” questions to understand why and how the expansion and replication is working, as well as what you can do to improve the model (and ultimately, student outcomes). We have used interviews, focus groups, and observations in our evaluations to develop a more comprehensive lens on CMOs’ successes at implementing a high-quality program while replicating and expanding their networks. 
What does it mean to have clearly specified and measurable goals?
While the general goal of the CSP is to successfully replicate (and/or expand) high-quality charter schools, specific and measurable goals are grounded in data. For example, goals about expansion can be captured in data such as the number of additional seats made available each year and the percent of students served who are economically disadvantaged. For the goal of recruiting and retaining high-quality staff, we might collect data on the percent of staff who remain in the school from one year to the next. Goals related to student outcomes are captured in data on academic achievement indicators, such as standardized test scores and the proportion of students enrolled in AP courses. For each goal, identify the data source, such as administrative data, surveys, or observation rubrics. Establish concrete targets and measure progress toward the attainment of each goal.
How can we use the information gathered during our evaluation beyond the application? 
There are many ways to use the information gathered during the evaluation, including to support continuous improvement as the network expands, as well as to identify lessons learned and disseminate findings to inform the broader field. You may decide to target resources toward specific school sites, or to content or grade areas within sites, to address concerns raised in the course of the evaluation. Alternatively, the evaluation may point to a need to address some component of the network’s approach. For example, professional development may have been provided too late in the school year to have the intended impact, for example, or novice teachers may have received insufficient instructional coaching. Information gleaned from school staff, community partners, and other stakeholders serve as a feedback loop to aid continuous improvement efforts. 
If you have further questions or need support, contact us via email.

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