Charter Schools Offer Alternative To Traditional Education

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In addition to public schools, the Rim country's educational offerings include a small group of charter and private schools.

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."

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Recent graduates of the Payson Center for Success, one of the few charter schools in Arizona operated by a school district, include (left to right) Mike Shreeve, Cassandra Ball, Megan Reed, Rose Henderson, Erin Neal, Brandon Conti and Josh Lammers. The dragon is the charter school's mascot.

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 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.

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

The Goldwater Institute is a Phoenix-based research organization that is generally pro-charter schools, and the study does emphasize a number of strengths.

Among those positives are the ability of charter schools to respond rapidly to marketplace changes and to serve "disenfranchised and diverse students." The schools in the study were also 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 currently has three charter schools, The Shelby School, a K-8 institution in Tonto Village that was private until receiving a charter in June, 2000; Clearview Star Valley Middle School, a 5-8 grade school that opened its doors last year; and the Payson Center for Success for students age 16-21 which opened in 1996 and is sponsored by the Payson Unified School District.

The Shelby School

The Shelby School, located off Highway 260 in Tonto Village, currently has 71 students and room for 100.

Despite a 35 percent increase in students since it became a charter school, Shelby still maintains a student-teacher ratio of 10:1.

The school has spent the past year renovating and adding to its facilities, including a new four-classroom building, all new landscaping, new play structures, and new decking and porches.

Property also has been purchased to build a new cafeteria.

After participating in several national championships, the Shelby chess team is now rebuilding, and chess has been integrated into the general curriculum.

Several students have moved into advanced work in music and dance, and others are taking college courses as early as their sophomore year. Still others have moved on to pursue college athletic scholarships.

Despite the school's growth and success, its philosophy will not change, according to Director Steve Rensch:

"We have no desire to produce academically gifted students who are emotionally at odds with their lives. We seek to develop well-balanced, expressive and compassionate young people who have a strong sense of purpose in their lives. There is a strong sense of community at the school which is created through communication between parents, teachers and students."

The Shelby School is currently accepting students and welcomes visitors.

Clearview Star Valley Middle School

Clearview is billed as a "small, safe and serious school."

Managed by ABS, a subsidiary of Matrix Bancorp, the school enrolls only 30 students and offers an education package that incorporates the AGS curriculum.

"Truly child-centered education can only occur in a small, safe environment," Clearview Principal-Teacher Russell Koch said. "As soon as you get more than a few children in a school, you cease to be child-centered and are forced to move into crowd control."

Payson Center for Success

The Payson Center for Success is unique as a charter school because it is one of the few chartered by a local school district and operated as a district school.

Since first opening its doors to students 16-21 in 1996, PCS has lived up to its promise of providing a coordinated program of core academic instruction and experiential learning to insure improvement in student achievement.

Founded for students who, for whatever reason, need an educational setting which is non-traditional, the school embraces the philosophy that all children can learn given an appropriate and secure environment that emphasizes personal self-worth, promotes creativity and initiative, and meets the individual needs of each student's learning style.

With a consistent enrollment of around 54 students, the school's small size is an asset in attaining these goals.

The charter requirements that set PCS apart from traditional schools include:

  • The use of a computerized learning lab for curriculum delivery.
  • An open entry/open exit format that allows students to enroll at any time within the school year without danger of being behind in a specific class.
  • Flexible scheduling options that include a mandatory 20-hour school week earned in five-hour morning or afternoon blocks of time over a 4-day week.
  • An all-school focus on career exploration and the attainment of technology skills and work ethics.
  • Collaboration with the community to implement the City-As-Schools program where students actually learn in the community through the use of mentors and internships.

"A lot of people think we're an alternative school, and we're not," Principal Monica Nitzsche said. "These kids are here for a lot of reasons, but they never got kicked out of high school and they're not here because they got in trouble."

Those interested in joining the program must complete an application, participate in an interview and sign a contract in which all expectations are clearly outlined. Parents are required to participate in enrollment proceedings and co-sign all documents indicating agreement to be involved in their child's educational experience.

PCS also maintains strong partnerships with community entities in an effort to increase opportunities for students to be more actively involved in community-based experiential learning. Local businesses such as Amon Construction, Payson Athletic Club, Payson Regional Medical Center and High Country Dentistry are currently involved with PCS students, and the school has had an ongoing partnership with the Rim Country Optimists Club.

PCS is located at 501 S. McLane Road.

Payson Head Start

A federally funded preschool and family referral program, Payson Head Start provides services for lower income families and children with disabilities.

According to Lynne Winans, site manager, the agency's mission is to provide accessible, comprehensive early childhood programs which support children from birth to eight years of age. Services, currently being provided to 17 families, include a developmentally appropriate preschool program, complete health screening, specialized services for children with disabilities, opportunities for families to volunteer and assist with menu and lesson planning, and monthly parent meetings with workshops and training.

The program is currently at its capacity and has a short waiting list.

The students who qualify spend four hours a day at Head Start.

"We feed them nutritious meals - both breakfast and lunch, we provide health screenings and developmental screenings, and we have a wonderful curriculum," Winans said.

"We do what's called a creative curriculum," said Diane Pierce, the program's single teacher. "It's thematic-based, and incorporates all your pre-learning skills in math, science, social studies, reading, writing and listening."

Individuals or organizations interested in helping and parents who think their children might qualify for the program should call the Payson Head Start office at 474-2738.

"We are always looking for families that might be in need," Winans said. "We do a lot of recruitment and try to reach out to those families. We're here to provide them the resources they need."

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