Star Tribune

When the charter school movement started in Minnesota nearly 20 years ago, one of the founding principles called for the programs to be used as educational laboratories.

Give charters the freedom to innovate, supporters argued, then share successful strategies with traditional public schools.

Though that sharing was part of the original sales pitch, it didn't happen much in the early years.

As charters became more popular, many districts didn't cooperate with schools that were, in their view, stealing their students and some of their public dollars. And some of the successful charters weren't too keen on sharing their successes because of competition with other charters for new contracts.

Fortunately, that attitude is changing.

Both locally and across the country, district and charter leaders are wisely setting aside their differences and teaming up to put their best ideas to work to improve student learning.

Certainly, both types of programs have been nudged in that direction by the combination of budget pressures and increased interest in cooperative efforts from government, private and nonprofit donors.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $3 million grant over five years to a collaborative effort that includes the St. Paul public schools, several charters and the local business community.

As part of the effort, organizations including Target, Travelers, the Minnesota Business Partnership, the University of Minnesota and the Center for School Change (CSC) at Macalester College in St. Paul will help with teacher and administrator training.

In Minneapolis, public schools recently were awarded a $100,000 planning grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for charter/district cooperation. The initial project will involve sponsoring training programs that are open to teachers from both systems.

Minneapolis was among nine cities chosen for the planning funds that were deemed ready to get past the friction and operate in a more collaborative environment.

Varying partnership arrangements have been reached in each city. However, most of the agreements will include things such as teacher and principal sharing and training, and opening charter programs to students with special needs, including English-language learners.

The grants will give charter programs more access to school district buildings. And the Gates grants will help the selected cities share best practices across the country.

Even before the most recent announcements, local foundations and other groups have been building similar cooperative bridges. For the past three years, the CSC has offered workshops and has brought in successful educators from across the nation to help district and charter educators learn from one another.

Those information exchanges yield results.

For example, a method used by the New Visions charter program in Minneapolis to help special-needs students calm themselves and be more attentive in school has been adopted by some district programs.

And project-based learning approaches developed at New Country charter in Henderson, Minn., have been successfully replicated in schools locally and nationally.

Charters, alternative schools and traditional district schools must meet the needs of the majority of American schoolchildren.

Despite their differences and inherent competition for students, it's in the best interest of all children for educators to identify and deploy the most effective instructional methods, whether they come from district schools or charters.