July 14, 2016 | By Casey Truelove |
The Ohio Council of Community Schools (OCCS) is one of the first and largest sponsors of charter schools in the Buckeye State. The OCCS has 48 schools and approximately 26,000 students, all hailing from “the river to the lake,” an Ohio reference to the Ohio River in the south to Lake Erie in the north.
OCCS uses its 15 years of experience in authorizing to offer its schools robust technical assistance in the areas of finance, special education, academics, and more. They collaborate with schools, management partners, and other education advocates to ensure all students have access to high-quality education options.
As the premier charter school authorizer in Ohio, OCCS offers blended learning schools, electronic schools, traditional brick and mortar schools, bilingual academies, prep and fitness academies, and dropout academies, all in an effort to try to change the face of public education.
Lenny Schafer, the Executive Director at OCCS, said “we are unique because of capacity. If we sponsor a school, we have a regional representative located within a 25-mile radius. And I hire educators with experience in charter schools. Our representatives know their region, visit schools, and attend board meetings. If they walk into a school and see a problem, they can get into the trenches and get to work and help.” Another important fact about OCCS is that they are the designee of the University of Toledo (UT), which makes them unique. They are the only sponsor in Ohio that is a University designee. They are also the only sponsor in Ohio that makes authorizing charter schools their only business.
“We don’t make a dime off of any services,” Schafer said. “We don’t sell services, we just sponsor schools and no one else in Ohio can say that.”
And Schafer is a proponent of Epicenter. “Previously, we would run around the state trying to collect the necessary paperwork from each school,” Schafer said. “We would end up with shoeboxes full of paperwork. We needed to cut down on our time and our principals’ time dealing with paperwork, and that’s where Epicenter came in. Our schools love Epicenter because they don’t need to spend time running around and gathering documents, it’s all there and available online, which saves us time to spend on the kids.”
One of the Epicenter features that OCCS uses is Board Center. “We use Epicenter for tracking and governing our boards,” Schafer said. “This year we are going through our sponsor review, which is the most important thing that a sponsor will go through in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Education uses Epicenter for their sponsor evaluation, which was great because it gave us a leg up by cutting down on a lot of time and effort for us.”
OCCS gives each of their charter schools under the OCCS access to Epicenter. They ask that the school have someone on staff use Epicenter and OCCS trains them.
“Epicenter makes life easier because we can see what we need to collect for the entire year,” Schafer said. “And we can highlight key timelines in advance. Also, if they get a public document request, all of that information is at their fingertips. This allows us to do trainings and sit in classrooms and spend more time on parents and kids and allows each school to spend time on their students instead of on paperwork.”
And OCCS is making a positive impact on education in Ohio. This year, two OCCS schools—Arts and College Preparatory Academy and Columbus Preparatory Academy—were named Ohio Schools of Promise and Schools of Honor. Each year the Ohio Department of Education recognizes outstanding schools that maintain high academic achievement among their students, despite many coming from economically disadvantaged circumstances that can make learning difficult. This year, just 29 schools received these awards.
“We’re proud of our schools and love the support that Epicenter gives us,” Schafer said. “Epicenter makes it easier to educate kids, and at the end of the day that’s what matters most.”