picture-12Seated before an audience of people hoping to become charter school founders, Dirk Tillotson delivered a piece of advice: “You’ve got to be crazy to do this.”

It was early spring, and Tillotson, who founded a program to help mom-and-pop charter schools open, was offering this line as both a warning and a challenge. His audience didn’t hail from the KIPPs or Harlem Success Academies of the charter world and they didn’t have millionaires in their corners, which is why they’d come to him.

Charter schools were created as a way to test out new educational ideas, but the barriers to opening an experimental school are formidable. Some schools open as franchises of charter school networks, which often help principals through the application process by providing support and greasing political wheels as needed. Others find wealthy supporters who can pay for education consultants.

And yet a third class of charters exists: known as mom-and-pops or community charter schools, they’re typically opened by teachers or parents with few connections and big ambition.

Dream schools

In 2008, Tillotson started a new school incubator program at the New York Charter Schools Association to give these startups the kind of boutique services that often go to school leaders with more money and connections.

For a fee, which he sometimes goes years without collecting, Tillotson’s incubator offers hand-holding: it finds board members and funding, reads principals’ 10,000 page applications, and applies political pressure when it’s needed to get the schools approved. Two of his schools are open and two more are opening in the fall while four recently submitted applications to open in 2012.

“I like the mom and pops, I like the dream schools,” he said. “I like the people who are trying to do something different and really hard.”

John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, the first incubator school to open, had its charter application turned down three times in succession before the Regents voted to authorize it. Lavelle is Staten Island’s first charter school and it primarily serves children with mental and emotional problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. New York City’s charter school office and Chancellor Joel Klein liked the school, Tillotson said, but the state had doubts.

According to Tillotson, when Lavelle wanted to give admissions preference to special education students, a top special education administrator at the State Education Department told him that if the school had a majority of high-needs students, the children wouldn’t have role models. It took a call from the widow of former state legislator and school namesake John Lavelle to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to get the state on board.

Surviving the planning phase

Most of the incubator schools haven’t required this level of political elbowing, just hard labor.

Many of the school leaders in the program work on their charter applications for typically more than a year for very little or no money. Gina Sardi, who is applying to open New York’s first public Montessori school with the incubator program’s help, is living on unemployment while working 14-hour days on her school’s application.

“If I don’t get a startup grant, then I guess I’m cashing in my retirement fund,” Sardi said. “Way back when I started with this, Dirk said, look, if you’re not so committed to this that you can’t say if I don’t get this I’m going to die, don’t do it.”

“That planning phase is where people just die because you have no money and you can’t really work a job because you’re writing your application,” Tillotson said. “Unless you’re Carl Icahn or Eva [Moskowitz], it’s really hard to get through that phase.”

What makes life harder for an incubator school isn’t just money; it’s also the nature of the charter authorizers. Although SUNY’s Charter Institute is often considered a more vigilant authorizer, most of the schools it opens — 52 out of 80 — are not independent.

“It is an extremely arduous task to write a high-quality application, and, to do so from scratch without previous experience and success in doing so is even tougher,” said SUNY Charter Institute head Jonas Chartock, who noted that some network schools began as mom-and-pops. “That said, we always welcome and thoroughly consider new, innovative models,” he said.

Patricia Soussloff, who is applying to open the Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem — a school that would focus on students with autism — said she had hoped to have SUNY as her authorizer, but changed her plans when she decided that most of the schools making SUNY’s cut were more conventional.

“They’re being too conservative,” she said. Instead Soussloff submitted her application to the city, which she and Tillotson believe is open to more experimental schools. At the time the city presented a greater risk as it had fewer charters to offer.

Along with pushing school leaders to improve their applications, Tillotson tries to make political animals of them. He tells principal-hopefuls to go to community board and community education council meetings to get support for their schools in the neighborhoods where they want to open, knowing they are likely to meet with skepticism. He’s had results: in the case of Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School, which will open next fall, two education councils lobbied to have the school in their district, he said.

“Here it’s been the DOE just ramming schools down your throat and then they made the schools weak because they just never had to care about community,” he said. “It’s a supply side reform, it’s focused on school leaders, not on parents. We’re going to get killed over time if we stay this way.”