Q&A with Andy Franko, iConnect Zone Superintendent School District 49 and League Board Member
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
The League periodically publishes articles from our board members or develops Q&As with them. This month we’re excited to interview Andy Franko who works in District 49 in Colorado Springs. Read on to get to know Andy, his perspective on the board and his work in charter schools.
Tell us about your personal background as an educator, authorizer, and board member.
My education career began in 2000 at a charter school in the Minneapolis Public School District. Since then, I have enjoyed opportunities including teaching art at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, coaching golf and wrestling, serving as a high school athletic director and assistant principal, leading a K-8 public charter school, and now serving as a charter school authorizer. In 2002, my amazing wife and I moved to Colorado. She began and has continued to work for Centura Health in the cancer center at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs. I took a teaching job at Falcon Elementary School, the beginning of a fantastic journey in District 49.
From 2010 to 2015, I took a brief hiatus from working for District 49 while still working in the district as the Head of School at Banning Lewis Ranch Academy, a D49-authorized charter school. It was during this time my passion for choice education grew and I was elected to the Colorado League of Charter School’s Board of Directors.
During that time, my role expanded as my title changed to Regional Vice President. Exposure to Colorado’s charter landscape increased significantly as I served on the CLCS Board and managed the operations of three schools. While I enjoyed my time as a charter school leader immensely, I was blessed with an opportunity to return to District 49 as the iConnect Zone Superintendent in 2015. With the change in jobs, my position on the CLCS board also changed from an elected position to an at-large appointment. Although the seat change was not significant in function, it allowed me the opportunity to continue to serve at the League in a much different capacity and offer an authorizer perspective to our organization. My goal is to serve the League by offering insights gained from authentic experiences as an educator, charter school leader and authorizer.
What is your leadership role at District 49 and involvement with CACSA?
I currently serve as the iConnect Zone Leader in District 49. The iConnect Zone encompasses four district operated schools and seven charter schools. I work closely with three other Zone Superintendents who oversee three geographical zones in the district. Collectively, we report to three Chief Officers who in turn report to the Board of Education.
Each school within the iConnect Zone, charter or district operated, are choice schools. While most of my time is spent working as a charter authorizer, I also oversee the instructional leadership and operations of our alternative education campus, blended multidistrict online program, early college high school, and homeschool program.
Because of the extensive focus on charter school authorizing entailed with my work, I spend considerable time developing relationships with other authorizers in Colorado and beyond. Nearly four years ago, a number of district and state authorizers committed to sharing and enhancing practices. The Colorado Association for Charter School Authorizers was born. Since its inception, I have benefited from the organization’s knowledge, resources, advocacy, and tools. Currently, I serve as the Secretary on the CACSA Board. I am highly involved in the implementation of the tri-state grant awarded to Colorado, Florida, and California.
Tell us about the conditions in which District 49 is operating and striving to serve a growing population.
District 49 is fast growing in terms of new students entering the district. In an area of Colorado where a number of districts are experiencing flat or declining enrollment, District 49 is expanding rapidly. It is not unusual for our student enrollment to grow over 2% in a year. Because of the fast growth, District 49 leverages the opportunity to partner with autonomous schools who can bring unique educational models to our community as well as facility options that we would otherwise not have available. Keeping up with the growth is not feasible without the exploration and implementation of innovative strategies.
How and where do charter schools fit within District 49’s vision and priorities?
Our board and leadership are committed to serving students well in a variety of school settings. Charter schools are a widely accepted option for students with over 40% of our students choosing charter. As a strategic priority, District 49 is committed to providing a portfolio of school options. Charter schools fit perfectly within the priority as each one offers something unique. Families are becoming more and more accustomed to exploring school options, often finding that charter schools are a good fit for their children’s needs. That said, many of our families experience school choice in their district operated public schools as our Zone structure equips school leaders with a level of autonomy that fosters innovation. As our mission states, District 49 is committed to being “The Best Choice to Learn, Work, and Lead”. This mission extends to all stakeholders who engage with or in our learning community.
How would you compare and contrast District 49’s view of charters with other districts statewide?
Some would characterize District 49 as “charter friendly” environment. That perception could be gained by those considering the number of new or expanded charters we have authorized in the past five years. As our number of charter offerings increases from five to eleven, I would argue that we are a choice-friendly district. In addition to opening new charters, we have added a district-operated early college high school and a significant expansion to our homeschool program. The “Best Choice” means that we must hold a high standard for quality education. There is a relentless focus in District 49 on developing systems of autonomy, accountability, and support to ensure our schools are successfully educating students. I like to think we compare well to other high-functioning district authorizers as well as the Charter School Institute in this regard.
Albeit small, the iConnect Zone team is extremely motivated to provide support through professional learning, coaching and mentoring, new teacher development, special education services, and charter board training. We honor autonomy and encourage our charter leaders to utilize the district as a resource when needed and appropriate.
Why do you serve on the League’s board of directors? What is the League doing that excites you?
My reasons for serving on the League’s board have shifted over the years. When I first ran for election, my motivation was mostly selfish. I wanted to learn as much as I could from the brightest minds in charter schools. In addition to attending numerous trainings and forums sponsored by the League, I figured serving on the board would put me in a position to glean incredible wisdom from a range of professionals. My assumptions were not wrong. In fact, I underestimated the knowledge I would gain from my experiences through observing practices of thoughtful debate, strategic development, political maneuvering, and organizational governance.
In the early years, I did A LOT of listening. Now, while certainly not an expert, I have much more to contribute as I serve as an officer and chair of the stakeholder committee. I am most excited about the direction the board has agreed to take to ensure Colorado remains in the forefront of the charter and choice education movement. As a state, we have such a great opportunity to provide quality education because of the landscape that has been created.
Nationally, there is fierce political debate around charter schools right now. What can Coloradans learn from that debate?
As with any issue, when the focus of what really matters is lost, the noise becomes deafening. Much of the battle being waged against charter and choice education has to do with the system, politics, and funding of education and little to do with what is best for children. I am fortunate to spend a lot of time in schools. I talk with students. I talk to teachers, school leaders and parents. Our kids’ needs extend far beyond a viable standards-aligned curriculum and measurable assessment outcomes. Students need positive adult role models who are well prepared, resourced, and supported to provide quality instruction each and every day.
Educating kids is HARD work! Increased salaries and unionized structures are not going to change that fact. Our work in Colorado must focus on meeting the needs of both our children and our educators. We must include parents in the conversation and create the space for parents to make informed decisions about what is best for their children’s educational needs. We should learn from the political debate around charter schools, and use what we learn to focus less on the noise and more on what is important: great educational choices for kids.
What else would you like to convey to our audience of charter school practitioners, advocates and supporters?
I look back on my last ten years in education and value one thing more than any other – getting involved. The landscape of education is unsettled. Be aware of what is taking place, learn from the experts, embrace your opportunities, and give back where you can. Charter and choice education is right for kids. To protect and grow choice opportunities and the quality of those opportunities, it will take the effort of many. Get Involved.