Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Giving Parents And Kids A Choice: Rise Of The Charters

Charter schools are now going mainstream:
A decade ago, charter schools existed largely on the fringes. Many were start-ups operating out of rented church basements -- alternatives to failing urban schools that struggled to teach the basics.

Now more than 200,000 California students are enrolled in 574 charters -- independently operated public schools that have wide latitude in what they teach and how they teach it.

While charters are still most popular in big cities and among low-achieving students, they're starting to take root in bedroom communities and affluent suburbs, creating stiff competition for regular public schools and drawing students from highly regarded private schools as well.

``We shop around to find the right mechanic for our car, but a lot of time we don't take the same approach when it comes to choosing schools,'' said Wanny Hersey, a skilled pianist and principal of Bullis Charter School in Los Altos. ``Once parents realize that school choice is out there and that one size doesn't fit all, they can evaluate different programs.''

Bullis was founded three years ago by parents outraged after their neighborhood elementary school was closed during a budget crunch.

The K-6 school lacks a permanent campus; it's housed in a dozen portable trailers on the parking lot behind Egan Middle School. But families are flocking to the young school's small classes, rich drama and instrumental music programs and individual learning plans for each student.

One measure of parent interest: 180 students applied for 40 kindergarten slots available this fall. Sustainable cooking, public speaking and conflict management are among the electives. Numerous projects, including an environmental education partnership with Hidden Villa, a 1,600-acre wilderness preserve in Los Altos Hills, are in the works.

For Steve Johnson, moving his daughter Sophia, 12, from a private school to Bullis last year was like moving from a house to something that really feels like home. Sophia graduated from sixth grade last week.

``She has learned faster and better here,'' he said. ``It's challenging, but she's rising to the occasion. I wish they would expand.''
Read the whole thing.

I like the concept behind charter schools.

I like them (mostly) because I believe that they offer parents a real choice of several differing types of school atmospheres and curriculum delivery within a public school setting. From military academies to highly controverisal "agenda driven" programs, charter schools come in all sizes and flavors.

It's all about public school choice, really.

Down here in California's "Imperial" Valley, parents don't have the option of sending their children to a charter school, even though several groups of parents have attempted to get a charter school off the ground.

The problem is our local school boards (which are often mere "rubber stamps" for well-entrenched superintendents) and the stereotypical "small-town" fear of anything new and innovative.

Of the 17 independent school districts in "Imperial" County, not one governing board has ever authorized the start-up of this increasingly popular model of school governance and curriculum delivery. They have consistently "shot-down" all attempts to start-up any type of charter school.

Before a charter school may receive public funds and commence operations, it must receive the blessing of the local school board. And here in the Valley, our 17 school boards are very jealous of their "turf." Charter schools operate outside the control of the local school board/superintendent.

It is unlikely that any of our local school boards will authorize any charter school in the foreseeable future.

As "Imperial" County has the highest unemployment and lowest per-capita income of any county in California, a large percentage of our students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

As one might expect, our county-wide test scores aren't that good, with a majority of the county's public schools being labeled as "underperforming."

And yet our local EduPolicy-makers refuse to think in New Directions.

Which hurts our kids.
Contributions for this week's edition of The Carnival Of Education are due tonight. Get submission info here; see our latest education-related entries over there.