Study Maps Rocky Course For Charter Education

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An extensive five-year study of charter schools just released by the Goldwater Institute's Center for Market-Based Education gives Arizona's charters high marks for innovation, but also reveals some developing problems that threaten their long-term success.

The privately-funded study is based on interviews and case studies and includes 40 charter school organizations in the state with a total of 84 schools. The Goldwater Institute is a Phoenix-based research organization that is generally pro-charter schools, and the study emphasizes a number of charter school strengths.

Among those positives are an ability to respond rapidly to marketplace changes and to serve "disenfranchised and diverse students." The schools in the study also were praised for offering parents choices through a wide variety of curriculums, and for leading reform efforts in areas like recruitment, facility construction and marketing and advertising.

But the study also finds fault with charters in a number of areas, including their failure to retain teachers, to ensure that all students get quality teaching, and to standardize curriculum. Charters were also cited for having a high student turnover rate, as high as 100 percent in some schools.

The Rim country has three charter schools The Shelby School, a K-8 institution in Tonto Village that was private until it received a charter June 22; Life School College Prep, a fifth- through eighth-grade school that opened its doors in August; and the Payson Center for Success for students ages 16 to 21, which opened in 1996 and is sponsored by the Payson Unified School District.

The circumstances surrounding the recent resignation of a teacher at the Life School highlights some of the concerns raised by the Goldwater study, and emphasizes the need for parents to carefully investigate both the purpose and performance of charter schools before enrolling children.

Life School's pilot program

The Life School incident involved parents withdrawing 12 students more than 25 percent of the school's enrollment because they were unhappy with the subject matter and reading materials the teacher used, which included the works of William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe.

Life School College Prep is a Valley-based chain of eight charter schools. While the CMBE study included some Life School sites, the Payson school was not included because it had not been in operation long enough.

Jim Alverson, executive director of Life Schools, said small towns are not its forte, and that he would prefer not to be in communities like Payson. Life School's other schools are in the Valley, Show Low, St. Johns and Pima.

Regarding Life School's future in Payson, Alverson said, "We'll have to see if a niche develops. It is very much a pilot kind of program up there right now."

The charter school concept was developed to provide an alternative to public schools. According to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington D.C.-based research organization, charter schools are a diverse group of independent public schools that are allowed "to operate freed from the traditional bureaucratic and regulatory red tape that hog-ties public schools."

The charter school movement began in the early 1990s, with Arizona passing the strongest of the nation's charter laws in 1994. As of January, there were 352 charter schools operating in Arizona, more than in any other state.

Since charter schools are, in essence, small public schools, they are funded by the state according to enrollment. In Arizona, charter schools receive about 80 percent of the amount public schools receive, currently about $3,400 per student.

Class rivalry?

When a charter school like the Life School opens, the students it draws away from public schools represent lost revenue to the district. For that reason, many observers think there is a rivalry between the two.

According to Bill Lawson, curriculum director for PUSD, that is not true.

"We are not opposed to charter schools at all," Lawson said. "In fact, we have one of our own, the Payson Center for Success."

Lawson acknowledges, however, that parents who put their children in charter schools sometimes have a problem with the public school system.

"For the most part, people have a good feeling about our schools, and I think that's because we try very hard to be accountable," he said. "But if there were not some dissatisfaction, we would not have charter schools.

"Some parents have their own ideas of what they want, and sometimes that goes beyond reason for the public schools to offer. A charter school offers them more flexibility and more influence."

But Monica Nitszche, director of PCS, said there's an important difference between her school and some of the other charters.

"We started our school to fill a need, to offer choices to a group of kids that were either bored or struggling with the traditional school setting. When someone starts a charter to make money, that sends up a red flag."

The charter schools' focus

Roy Sandoval, Payson Elementary School principal, was curriculum director for PUSD when Payson Center for Success was conceived. He said he thinks a charter school sponsored by a school district offers the best of both worlds.

"Anytime you can add to the system by giving parents and students a choice, it's an optimal situation," Sandoval said.

PCS's focus is on career exploration, and all charter schools are supposed to delineate their area of specialization or expertise.

For The Shelby School, the focus is on excellence, according to Assistant Director Nicole Kamp. "We do our best to bring out the best in our students," she said.

While there is even a charter school in the Valley that specializes is equine science, Kamp said there's a limit to what a charter school can specialize in. Religion is one area that is forbidden.

"Charter schools cannot be religion-based," Kamp said. "They are not legally allowed to do that."

Teresa Purtee, principal/administrator of the Payson Community Christian School, a 10-year-old K-8 private school that charges tuition, said she thinks the misunderstanding is due, in part, to the fact that many charter schools are located in churches.

"But," she said, "the laws are pretty rigid as far as not allowing Christian symbols or the Bible in public classrooms."

The Goldwater study also was critical of charter school founders, revealing that many make operational decisions unilaterally, are slow to institutionalize those decisions and frequently suffer from "charter founder burn-out."

But, Sandoval said, charter schools need fiercely dedicated staff members to succeed.

"The heart and soul of any school is the director," he said, "and that's why PCS has been so successful. Monica Nitszche's leadership abilities make that school."

Could what happened at Life School happen in a public school setting?

Probably not, Lawson said.

"Back when I was principal at Rim Country Middle School, we had a similar situation," he said. "A new teacher showed slides of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and I got four or five complaints from parents about the nudity.

"We all sat down and talked and it came out fine. It's one of the cases where layers of bureaucracy are good in protecting the individual rights of teachers," he added.

Sandoval said it couldn't happen in his school either.

"Equally important to a teacher's competency is his ability to fit into the educational community and the community at large," Sandoval said. "It's not a matter of a teacher being good or bad; it's the fit that makes the difference."

The rural difference

Sue Myers, principal of Frontier Elementary School, doesn't think such a situation could evolve in her school, but she agrees with Alverson that rural areas can pose special problems. "A teacher can get railroaded easier in a rural area," she said.

That's probably why Alverson has misgivings about small towns, Sandoval said. "In an urban setting, there is a lot bigger pool to draw from," he said. "Charter schools really do have a harder time finding a niche in rural areas."

Rim country parents considering sending their children to a charter school need to do their homework.

"First of all, parents need to understand that charter schools are public schools and they have to meet the same standards as any other public school," Kamp said.

They also need to realize that charter school teachers don't have to meet the same certification requirements that public school teachers do, according to Myers.

Nitszche emphasizes that parents need to find out who the school's teachers are. "Parents need to take a close look up front."

The Arizona Department of Education Web site is one source of information, Kamp said.

"There they will find report cards on all schools, including the charters," she said.

Other Web sites that contain valuable information include the Goldwater site (www.cmbe.org), which includes parent satisfaction ratings, an on-line charter school newsletter, and the complete text of the Goldwater study, and Greatschools.net, which includes information about a school's test scores, report cards from the state, and the experience level of teachers.

Meanwhile, parents looking for a Christian education, may soon have another option.

The Tonto Apache Tribe is in the process of establishing a K-12 school that will probably be private. According to Roger Martin, pastor of the Full Gospel Family Church and a moving force behind the new school, its primary impetus is the fact that some tribal children do not do well in traditional schools.

According to Martin, current plans call for adoption of a Christian-based, individually-paced curriculum known as PACE. In addition to providing an option for tribal children, "we want to get Christ back into the classroom," Martin said.

In the final analysis, finding the right educational fit for a child depends on the school's focus and the needs of the child.

"It's a matter of finding the school that works for your child," Kamp said.

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