Leading with the Heart, Mind, and Hand: Dr. Ting Sun Reflects on 30 Years of CA Charters

Founded over 30 years ago, Natomas Charter School (NCS) was one of the first charter schools authorized in California – and is now one of the longest running charter schools still in operations today.

Its longevity is due to many factors: strong community support and involvement, a positive campus culture, and innovative instructional models now serving students at 5 different academies.

But maybe the most important factor of all? Visionary leadership.

Perceiving an opportunity to innovate, NCS co-founders Mr. Charlie Leo and Dr. Ting L. Sun (as young teachers) took a chance on the early charter schools concept. As both NCS and the California charter schools sector matured, the promise of charters grew somewhat more difficult to realize, owing in part to burdensome regulations and inequitable funding (relative to that received by traditional public schools).

But it was through the visionary leadership of Mr. Leo and Dr. Sun that Natomas Charter School was able to not only evolve with regulations and instructional standards, but also stay true to the charter movement's founding principles and to continually innovate for over 30 years.

CSDC recently caught up with Dr. Sun, who reflected back on 30 years of school leadership and charter schools in California.

Dr. Sun is a veteran charter school leader who has served as a mentor to the participants of CSDC’s Leadership Intensive, which takes place this year on June 24-27, 2024, just outside Sacramento, CA. Registration closes May 16.

Having co-founded one of the first charter schools in California, you’re a true trailblazer in the sector. What excited you most about the charter concept—then and now?

What excites me, both then and now, is the promise of innovation and the “license to dream.” Prior to chartering as an educational concept, opening a new school was only within the purview of traditional school districts. The idea that anyone — a teacher, a parent, a community organization — could create a school based on an inspiring vision and innovative educational strategies was unheard of.

What does Natomas Charter School do especially well? What should we celebrate?

Natomas Charter has stuck with its original vision of serving a diverse population of students through different types of programs and instructional delivery methods. You can see that we have five academies under one single charter that spans TK-12 grades as well as site- and non-site-based programs. We have an academy designed specifically for middle school students and one focused on the performing and fine arts. There is a hybrid homeschool academy as well as an early college hybrid academy. And there is a site-based elementary academy. Throughout, NCS has stayed true to the overarching vision for the past 30 years, yet the school and staff have also evolved based on current educational standards and legal compliance requirements.

From your experiences attending and presenting at Leadership Intensive, what is the event like? What should attendees expect?

The event is, well, intense! You are completely submerged into the past, present, and future of charter educational, operational, and legal trends. At the same time, you meet like-minded colleagues so that you can form long-term relationships and shared experiences. The charter movement is more scattered than it used to be. Attending Leadership Intensive really gives you a sense of your place (especially as a new leader of a school) in the charter movement.

Dr. Ting Sun presents at CSDC's Leadership Intensive. Registration for this year's program closes May 16.

Why is it important to connect with other charter school leaders?

Every charter school is unique and different from others; but that independence can also be isolating. Programs like Leadership Intensive can really help with connecting leaders. The charter landscape is too complex to navigate on your own and leaders can become very overwhelmed with how much they must know and do. Charter school leaders today must also go a level up and find ways to share resources, build infrastructure, and think innovatively together.

What leadership concepts are absolutely critical for new charter school leaders to understand before beginning their roles this fall?

New charter school leaders need to understand 1) the genesis and purpose of chartering as an educational concept, 2) what still makes charters unique in today’s context, and 3) what their role is in furthering the concept of innovation and choice in public education.

What’s unique about the professional learning/development opportunities CSDC offers (including Leadership Intensive)?

CSDC is the only organization in California that offers the diversity of learning opportunities for charter-specific issues. The staff at CSDC not only have strong technical and historical knowledge, but they are able to relay the information that is most pertinent to a charter operator

In reflecting upon a long and successful tenure at Natomas Charter School, what words of wisdom would you offer to charter school leaders just getting started?

I often think of leadership in terms of the “heart” (what you feel), “the mind” (how you think), and the “hand” (what you do). To make the job sustainable, you must have a balance of all three. Charter school leaders are so busy sometimes “doing” and responding to a barrage of demands that you may not be taking the time to fill the “heart” with what is good about your school and what you are doing. You also have to sometimes step away from the emotional demands and use your mind by thinking and reflecting about your school vision and direction. If you are feeling frustrated, stymied, or overly stressed, chances are one of these areas is throwing you off balance.

2024 Leadership Intensive

June 24-27, 2024
Sacramento, CA

Registration Deadline
May 16, 2024


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