How to start your own charter school: one family’s recipe for startup success

As a child, Wynee Sade remembers kicking and screaming all the way to Mandarin language school on Saturdays, demanding of her mother, “Why do I have to go? My other friends from school don’t have to go!”

But once she became an adult and had a daughter of her own, she decided it was important to maintain the connection to her family’s Chinese cultural roots. So Sade and her husband began searching for a school near their Bay area home with Mandarin incorporated into its curriculum.

“We were looking at local public and private schools here in Oakland, which are terrific, but no language until much later on and no Chinese even at that later stage,” said Sade, “It just wasn’t an option.”

Sade soon discovered other parents were experiencing similar difficulties.

“There were a couple of families in the same boat and so we said ‘Well, what if we were to start our own school, what would that take? What would be involved?’ because there really is a need for it out here and we don’t see the school that’s right for our children,” said Sade, “and that’s how the idea first started.”

She and her husband along with four other families decided to establish their own dual-language Mandarin immersion school. Meeting at each other’s homes with just a blank sheet of paper, they began the long and arduous process of establishing what would one day be the Yu Ming Charter School.

It took two years, but in 2011, Yu Ming Charter School opened its doors with its inaugural 100 students. Below is a condensed conversation in which Sade describes the step-by-step process of making their dream school a reality.

Stage 1 — Writing the Charter Petition

Q: Take us through the process step-by-step.

WYNEE SADE: We had to write a charter petition and the petition is much like a business plan. If you were to start a business, you have a very thorough plan. Our petition was over several hundred pages. That took a lot of research, visiting and talking to other immersion schools across the country, both public and private.

The petition has everything from the vision and mission of the school to the curriculum design, the hiring practices with the vision that we want to have, the discipline approach that we’ll have in the school, the structure with parents and communications. I mean it’s everything nuts to bolts in this charter.

It took us a good six months to get it locked down, where we really felt like it was good and tight.

Q: What did you learn from other schools?

WYNEE SADE: We talked to administrators, principals and teachers about the curriculum design — how they did it, what are the “watch-outs,” what to consider. They gave us advice and counsel on different aspects.

Stage 2 — Approval

Q: After writing the charter petition, what was the next stage in establishing Yu Ming?

WYNEE SADE: Getting approval. Charter petitions are often reviewed and approved or denied at the District level Board of Education. In our case, we submitted and presented to the Alameda County Board of Education, which at the time, had only approved a few charter schools.

Many folks who start charter schools go to the city level district to get approval for their charters. So we had the option to go to Oakland, but we elected to go to the county level, to the Alameda County Office of Education because we saw the merit of providing an innovative Mandarin curriculum that other districts in the county could ultimately tap into down the road.

Q: What next?

WYNEE SADE: Then there’s a hearing where we went to the board of education and presented a summary of our petition and answered and addressed questions of the seven members of the board. We had a couple of minutes to share, a couple of folks had the chance to present and speak five to seven minutes about our school. At this point, the board had already reviewed the charter and had already heard the recommendation from their team.

Q: What kinds of questions did the board of education ask during the hearing?

WYNEE SADE: They asked about the teaching philosophy. They asked about how we would would attract teachers, how we would attract a diverse pool of students to reflect the diversity of Alameda County, which was a priority for the board, and it is for our school as well. They asked about financials, and so those are the main categories of questions. Another one was enrollment, “How are you going to get the kids? How are you going to get the word out and get awareness of the school and the program?”

Q: So you get past the school board, who else has to approve the plan?

WYNEE SADE: There’s a public forum where the public gets up and speaks for 30 seconds about whether they were for or against it. Just any public comments. There weren’t any questions or opposition from the audience. We had a ton of public comments from parents and individuals in the community who weren’t even parents of future students, who spoke on behalf of Yu Ming and impressed upon the Board why they felt so strongly about the school and the merits of having such a school in the County.

In addition to all of the parents and community support, we were so fortunate to have Dr. David Pearson also speak in support of Yu Ming. He’s a faculty member in the language and literacy program at the University of California at Berkeley, and he served as dean from 2001 to 2010 for that department. To have someone as distinguished as him speak on our behalf, certainly it helped, yes.

Q: So after all of those meetings, does the charter have approval?

WYNEE SADE: Not just yet. The board reviews the petition further and then there was another hearing where we all went in again, parents were in the audience and there was a vote. We had a unanimous vote, seven to zero, in favor of our school being approved. So we all went to celebrate after that.

Students at Yu Ming Charter School listen intently as they learn traditional school subjects in both English and Mandarin. Photo by Yu Ming Charter School.

Students at Yu Ming Charter School learn traditional school subjects in both English and Mandarin. Photo by Yu Ming Charter School

Stage 3 – Implementation

Q: What comes after getting the “green light?”

WYNEE SADE: Once we got approved, which is a huge milestone and a huge, amazing accomplishment, we all celebrated and then said, “OK. Now we’ve really got to build a school. Holy cow.” And that was the shift into the next chapter, the next stage of, “Now the real work begins.”

Q: How did you raise the money?

WYNEE SADE: We had to find seed capital to secure a facility, hire teachers, buy books and supplies. We got $325,000 for our original startup federal grant, to really help us with the additional operating capital. There’s specific guidelines for what the grant monies could be used for and they have quarterly requirements and submissions to make sure that you’re following the plan that you had submitted and proposed.

Unfortunately the state funding from California is not sufficient to provide exactly what we want to do with our school. We were fortunate to have the federal startup grant for the first two years of starting our school, but once that dropped off, in order to provide the curriculum and the mission and vision that we have for the school, we had to bridge the deficit much like many schools, public and private, with fundraising and fund development.

So reaching out and having parents write grants to different corporations and different grants that were out there. We also hosted a lot of different fund developments and galas to bridge the gap so that we can have art in the classrooms, so that we can have physical education, art and higher teaching assistance.

Q: What about recruiting students and teachers?

WYNEE SADE: Doing outreach in the community to educate prospective parents on this new school that’s about to open in the fall was hard. I mean, how do you share your vision with folks that haven’t seen a facility or have any track record to share? They know about a school based on someone, a parent talking, a founder getting up in a library talking about this vision and what we want to provide, but you know, we were selling a vision and a promise and a belief that we could create a better school for our kids. And we succeeded. We had more than 100 on the waitlist that first year; we even opened with two grades: kindergarten and first grade.

So with enrollment, it was about getting a team, an army of parents who would literally go out, put fliers out to all the preschools in the entire county, to host and speak at libraries and community centers to learn more about this new Mandarin immersion school and to share the vision and to spread the word. Very grassroots, very word-of-mouth because we didn’t have the funding to do elaborate marketing campaigns.

Q: To what extent does “who you know” affect whether you can start a school or not?

WYNEE SADE: We were fortunate to get picked up by different news stations out here and that helped spread the word. We put articles and ads out in the Chinese newspaper and other community outlets, but yes, I think certain relationships and knowing some folks in the community helped us. We partnered and hired a third party consulting firm of sorts, an outsourcer called EdTec, and they helped us with the back-office activities among many other critical pieces.

Q: How do you recruit faculty and staff?

WYNEE SADE: It’s somewhat self-selecting. There are teachers who want to be a part of it, where you’re helping to build and create and we’ve been fortunate to find that kind of a staff. But in the early stages, it was a little bit tricky because we’re a new school, we’ve got no track record and it takes a leap of faith for even the teachers to come over. But in the early stages we had a parent-run hiring committee — some were Chinese speaking, some were not — to help put ads in different websites that teachers are known to go to. And we have a thorough interview cycle; we have teachers come do mock teaching with kids in the classroom to assess.

Q: Did you have to create a school board?

WYNEE SADE: There is a board to govern our school’s operations and activities. It’s a non-paid board. It’s comprised of different individuals with varying experiences and skills to contribute to the schools’ governance. We started our board membership with parent founders and over time have recruited other individuals with deeper education, real estate, finance and other skills to take on the important role of governing the school. Originally, I served as Treasurer of the Board and my friend and colleague serves as Chairman of the Board. We have two parent-elected board seats, with voting rights, to allow the Board to have the parent community perspective represented.

Q: How did you go about finding the right facility?

WYNEE SADE: It was a good year and a half of hard work before we actually found a facility, an interim facility, that could get us off the ground and then a year ago we moved to a different facility that’s a bit larger as we’ve outgrown our space. Currently, we’re not renting a facility from the district, from Oakland, but we were in discussions with them about possibly working together to find space that we would lease from the Oakland district, but currently we are in another facility. It was once a parochial school and we lease from the church.

Q: What kind of approval do you need to open a school in a building?

WYNEE SADE: If you find a building that is commercial, it has to be converted to education use. Then there’s a lot of different code issues and it requires a lot of financing and funding resources to bring it up to code. So that comes with it. We have looked at other commercial facilities that might have been a factory and they have to be checked through for ventilation and access for doors. For example, children under second grade can’t be placed on a second floor facility. They have to be on the ground floor for fire exit and evacuation reasons. So there are a lot of considerations particular and unique to schools that we have to, and I think all schools do have to consider.

Q: After all is said and done, did you feel like you had to make any concessions in order to establish Yu Ming?

WYNEE SADE: Well certainly there are trade-offs. For instance, in the first year of a charter school or a public school that’s trying to get off the ground, where banks won’t give you loans because you have no history or track record, it was really challenging. To even find a facility is really hard so for the first year, yes there were some trade-offs. For instance we had a school tucked in Oakland Chinatown, and that had benefits because the kids were immersed, right in the middle of the heart of a Chinese community, but there was no playground that was fenced in, so the children had to walk two blocks over to a public park and that has its host of logistical challenges for the teachers and the staff and safety. But you have to make do with what you’re given. We had some classrooms there that didn’t have windows and you know, we just had to start modestly and realize that we are so fortunate to have an amazing community, teachers, staff, and really it’s the staff that makes this all happen, and sure it would have been terrific for these kids to have windows in the classroom but kids are so amazing and they learned as much as they learned regardless.

Q: How do you measure progress?

WYNEE SADE: Within the actual Yu Ming parents community, we have suggestion boxes. There’s very clear processes for how to communicate and share feedback with teachers, with the principal. Our principal holds weekly coffee chats for parents to come and talk about a particular topic — could be about curriculum, could be a whole host of other things, where parents can chime in. There’s also a parent action group, much like a PTA. It’s a forum and a way for parents to gather for volunteerism, to lead different things, to really help the school and also help to become a voice in our community to channel back to the teachers as well.

The county board of education, when we have to go back in a few years to renew our charter, because charters are approved on a five year cycle here, they’ll be looking at several things. They’ll be looking at the curriculum, have we been true to the curriculum and tests scores? Last year, when our kids were in second grade, we had one of the highest, if not, the highest math scores in the whole county for our first year taking the test and these kids are learning math in Chinese, you know, with the teachers teaching it in Chinese. And so the county will look at test scores and progress against that. They will look at the financial health of the school. Is it in a good place? Good foundation? They will be looking at diversity. Are we working towards attracting a diverse community of parents and students? They will also look at enrollment, you know, are we holding up enrollment? They’ll look at attendance. So that’s what it will take and I’m happy to say that everything should be “check, check, check.”

Q: How are things looking for next year?

WYNEE SADE: There are over 220 kids, K through three right now. Next year we have a fourth grade, that’s older kids become the fourth graders, and we have a new class of two kindergarten classes, so we’ll probably hit 260 at that point or more. And every year since our inception we have had a very long wait list because we have more applications than seats.

Q: Do you have advice for others who are thinking about starting their own charter school?

WYNEE SADE: I think that the biggest piece for me is really surrounding yourself with a passionate team of folks who are committed and want to be supportive and helpful. That just goes a long way because then they reach out to their group of supporters. And where you don’t have expertise, know where you have your limitations, go seek out help to compliment your strengths because if we didn’t do that or weren’t open to different ideas, we would never be here. It takes a lot of humility and drive to say “Alright, we know what we want to do, but it really takes a whole team to do it.”

It is possible to create the school and to create the options for your kids. You can do it. It’s not easy, but certainly if you amass and pull together with folks who also want to do it, it can happen. I feel like the U.S. has a long way to go in terms of education and we need to make change. It takes communities and things like we’re doing all across the country to make this happen. I’m hopeful that ten years from now, education in our country can look very different.

Charter school requirements are different by state. Learn more about how to establish a charter school with these resources endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education:

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.