What Does It Take to be a Charter School Leader?

Maria Marsella Leahy
Doctoral Student
Educational Leadership College of Education
University of North Carolina Charlotte

As a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and having served as a school leader myself, I am interested in public charter school leadership. I have read research and interviewed and observed public charter school leaders during the past several years. There are a number of characteristics and skills that these leaders need from instructional leadership to managerial leadership skills. Public charter school leaders may be described as having the ability to “see the big picture” and needing “superintendent-type” leadership skills. They may be described as transformational leaders. The autonomy given to public charter schools brings with it the need for leaders to possess a variety of skills and characteristics. From my experiences, there are several commonalities among many of the public charter school leaders I have met. They are innovative with visions which they can effectively communicate to constituents. They are resilient and humble. All put children first.

I recently read an article by Stone-Johnson about attributes of leaders who were able to responsibly lead public charter schools by building relationships between all stakeholders (2014). The researchers described these leaders as visionaries, stewards, servants, and citizens.

Visionary: Each leader that I have encountered embarked on his/her journey with a vision. Each, whether leading in a new school or an established charter school, shared a vision for the future of the school community. The leaders’ visions were based on the future success of the children. Though each approach was different the focus on children is always at the center.

Steward: I have interviewed and observed public charter school leaders who are often seen as role models who have values that benefit the schools’ constituents. With mixed messages about charter schools from media and high-stakes accountability for charter schools, the leaders hold themselves to high standards.

Servant: Stories of leaders of public charter school spending numerous hours carrying out a variety of “jobs” are easy to find. Leaders pour through federal and state regulations, work tirelessly with Boards of Directors, search for facilities, write school policy, evaluate teachers, manage student behavior plans, and go on Saturday afternoon “school clean-up” projects. Leaders of public charter schools seem to need varied talents.

Citizen: Conversations with public charter school leaders often include their resolve to make a positive change in society, often regarding helping marginalized populations. Schools with visions to teach healthy living, schools focused on preparing at-risk populations for college, schools with innovative approaches to address everyday societal issues are led by leaders who have a vision for a better future.

What does it take to be a public charter school leader? There is room for research in this area, but my experiences have given me the opportunity to meet some extraordinary individuals with visions that put children first. They are leaders who through humble service are working to build a better future.

Note: This is an opinion piece based on the writer’s experience working with and interviewing public charter school leaders in North Carolina and other areas of the United States.

Stone-Johnson, C. (2014). Responsible leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(4), 645-674.