Creating an elementary charter school: power, negotiations, and an emerging culture of care

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Treviño, Ramona Sullivan

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The purpose of this study is to document and analyze patterns of organizational culture that emerge when a new charter school free of organizational history and bureaucratic restraints is given the autonomy to critically examine and define its own culture. This study presents an analysis of confluent forces that contributed to the development of a unique elementary charter school culture that has realized the benefits of balancing effectiveness and efficiency. The author documents a series of steps that were taken to bring this about, beginning with a description of the local educational environment, the critical players that defined and championed the cause, the political actors that supported the initiative, significant community debate, leading to a carefully crafted procedural process used to establish the first university sponsored charter school in the State. It is an ethno-historical case study inasmuch as it traces component elements that were blended to create a dynamically balanced organizational culture. Using democratic dialogues, constituent participants were given a voice to express their values, concerns, desires and expectations. Roles and responsibilities of teachers, parents, and school staff were defined according to verified “best practices” applied to assessed needs. The organizational “culture” that resulted became balanced in its common devotion to strive for both efficiency and effectiveness while tending to the broader affective needs of each child. This study provides a review of literature regarding organizational culture, as well as charter schools. In addition, it draws from the expertise of participants and makes recommendations for universal school practices and school leadership. Cultural findings include a balance of efficient systems and caring practice, the presence of a continuous climate of community inquiry; a common partnership between parents, teachers, and the university; forums for democratic dialogue; and the promotion and support of equity by recognizing the unique needs of children and support of the “whole child”. This study also identifies articulated shared basic assumptions and categories of culture that impact hiring and are passed on to new members, as well as the creation and use of stories, rituals, and ceremonies to reinforce core cultural values, recognize successes, maintain a rich sense of history and purpose, and demonstrate pride and joyous engagement. A key finding of the study is the presence of respect and caring and their influence in building a high sense of self-esteem for school participants.