September 12, 2017 | By Christina Musinski |
This feature will focus on educators who are using Epicenter and are making a difference in their communities.
Located in the North Star State, Novation Education Opportunities (NEO) is a leading authorizer of innovative, diverse, and effective charter schools throughout Minnesota.
While the Mall of America, hockey, and snow might be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Minnesota, it is also one of the founding states of the charter school movement. Early on Minnesotans realized the transformational power of charter schools, and they looked to charters to improve and strengthen education throughout Minnesota.
In 2009 NEO formed as a nonprofit corporation and began authorizing schools in 2010. NEO currently authorizes 23 charter schools.
NEO was approved by the Minnesota Department of Education as a single-purpose authorizer and, therefore, is not part of a larger organization or part of another non-profit. Its mission is “to authorize and oversee charter schools through consistent, ongoing and robust evaluation to achieve significant and measurable student growth.”
Prior to 2010, there were more than 50 authorizers in Minnesota; now there are 14. In 2009, the laws governing charters changed in Minnesota; more requirements were placed on authorizers, making it difficult for some to continue. Therefore, many authorizers chose not to continue and NEO received a number of schools through transfers, in addition to starting 10 new schools since that time.
“One thing that makes us unique is that, in our focus on academic performance, we also facilitate sharing, which was a main impetus for charter schools in Minnesota,” said Wendy Swanson Choi, NEO’s Executive Director. “The idea was that charter schools would find more effective and efficient ways to meet student needs and share that information, so everyone could learn through sharing effective practices.”
NEO has also been using Epicenter for over four years and has found that Epicenter helps it fulfill its mission.
“Epicenter has given us the ability to collect information, organize it, secure it, and review it,” Swanson Choi said. “Thanks to Epicenter, we have been able to reduce time in collecting documents and free up our time to provide meaningful and useful feedback to schools and facilitate sharing to reach more students with a higher quality education.”
One of the exciting things about NEO is that it has 10 new schools, eight of which are already in operation. These schools had strong first years in academic and financial performance. NEO was able to provide meaningful and useful feedback and facilitate the sharing of effective practices with these schools to support their work in meeting student needs.
NEO’s new schools will face the upcoming school year with the same positive outlook as their more established counterparts with strong enrollment and with strong academic growth, proficiency, or both—thanks in part to the effective practices that schools have shared with them.
“I can’t imagine overseeing 23 schools in a meaningful and useful way without Epicenter,” Swanson Choi said. “We have a list of 20-30 documents we must collect and review from each school throughout the year. Twenty documents from 23 schools is a lot of paperwork! If it weren’t for Epicenter we would be spending our time on the phone with the schools trying to figure out who submitted what and when, leaving little time for feedback or sharing.”
“One of the useful services with Epicenter is that schools get a heads-up on what is due to the state and can then check a box to certify that they submitted a document on time. That way, they don’t need to duplicate services by sending documents to NEO and to the state; yet we know the school has met the requirement.”
Not only does NEO serve schools statewide, they serve a very diverse portfolio of schools that serve a very diverse student population, which is also part of their mission. One of the reasons that they have achieved this is because they reach out to many community leaders and encourage them to think about starting schools to meet student needs. And they have had a positive response. For example, they authorize one of the only Korean language immersion language programs in the state. They also authorize one of the only high school Montessori programs in Minnesota. They authorize Avalon Charter School that is completely flat-managed, which means the teachers, and to an extent the students, are responsible for the management and decision making. In addition, NEO authorizes Lionsgate Academy, a school with a high-quality program for meeting the needs of all students, including students on the Autism Spectrum, and high schools that focus on a successful school to college and career transition. This diversity strengthens the knowledge and skill base of the portfolio of schools. Whatever a school team needs, there is likely a NEO-authorized school that can help by sharing strategies.
As the Executive Director, Wendy Swanson Choi first got involved in charters by being an ESL teacher and starting the ESL Department in the South St. Paul school district. She then became an education consultant, which she successfully turned into a full-time career for many years. That gave her the opportunity to wear many hats in both traditional district schools and charter schools, and meet school leaders statewide.
Her focus was on collecting data, analyzing it, and identifying strengths and needs to develop strategies and monitor the effectiveness of implementing the strategies.
She also served as an interim director and board member at Nova Classical Academy while her son was a student there, overseeing the financial turnaround and expansion to a high school. She served on the founding team and board of a new charter school, Venture Academy. And she worked at Minneapolis Public Schools, serving as their School Improvement Specialist to improve student performance. From there, she took her vast experience in education and went to NEO.
But Swanson Choi’s experience goes beyond Minnesota; she had her start in education teaching English in Korea.
When she is not working hard to help Minnesotan students, Swanson Choi likes to go to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, which straddles the United States-Canada border and is located just west of Lake Superior.
“And to balance the work, I really like being out in the environment, especially canoeing and hiking,” said Swanson Choi. “I also like being with my family—my husband and three sons, my three sisters and brother, and my parents who live two doors down. And I’m fortunate because I love my job and it is my passion!”