Parents, District Explore Launching Science School

District teams up with parents to test interest in starting a charter school focused on math, science and technology


A bold plan to snag big grants to launch a science and math charter school in Payson hangs on the response of parents to a survey trying to gauge their interest.

The group wants to measure that interest with a 24-question survey available online or at the Payson Unified School District office in the old Julia Randall Elementary School building at the end of Main Street.

“The idea is that we would have an alliance with the school district,” said Laurel Wala, one of the lead organizers.

The group wants to start a small, charter magnet school at the middle school or high school level that will cater to students aiming for a career in fields like engineering, biology, genetics, medicine, mathematics and other technical fields.

“Ideally, we’re trying to offer a variety of pathways for success,” said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien, who is backing the push for a science charter school. “We want people to say, ‘I want to move to Payson because they have this program.’”

O’Brien said the district believes that a science-oriented charter school could compete for state and federal grants, including funding as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program. Major corporations and the federal government are offering grants under the national STEM program in an attempt to catalyze an improvement in science education nationally.

Recent surveys have documented the woeful state of math and science education nationally, with most students not barely operating at a “basic” level of knowledge. Those surveys put Arizona students consistently at the bottom of the pile nationally.

O’Brien said that if enough parents signal an interest, the district and the parents group will develop a proposal. Such a district-run charter school might avoid leaving a void that a private charter school might fill, siphoning students away from a district with already dwindling enrollment.

“With Arizona State University potentially coming here” to build a four-year campus with thousands of students and hundreds of staff, said O’Brien.

“I’d rather have the district involved in the (charter school) process than have someone from the outside come in and take our kids away.”

Wala said the group has already formed a board that includes three parents and three district teachers and administrators. The group is also counting on the support of the roughly 50 members of the Payson Area Association for the Gifted and Talented, a parent group that raises money to support the district’s enrichment programs for top students.

“Right now, we’re just exploring the idea of a science charter school to find out what interest exists in the community and at what age levels. Given the financial hardships of the district, this could make us eligible for grant money that would give us opportunities we would not otherwise have. But we’d have to get enough students interested to make the thing work.”

The group might end up pushing for a stand-alone charter school for high school-aged students. On the other hand, the group might instead form a “school within a school,” so students could take advantage of the extra programs at the high school.

Such charter schools can get state assistance, although generally at a lower level than regular public schools. However, a charter school remains free from most of the restrictions on public school teacher credentialing, curriculum and programs that can often hobble public schools trying to devise innovative programs.

For instance, federal and state efforts to raise standards have resulted in much tougher restrictions on the credentials teachers need to teach a particular subject. As a result, a scientist or an engineer with a distinguished background can’t generally teach in a regular public school unless he goes back to school for a teaching credential.

“But at a charter school, if we had an engineering professor at ASU who wanted to teach a class — we could make that happen,” said O’Brien.

The charter school could benefit from a national effort to improve science and technology instruction.

The United States has long relied on its overwhelming lead in science and technology to produce most of the world’s patents, win a lion’s share of the Nobel prizes and generally invent and adopt technology more quickly than other nations.

However, in recent decades the U.S. lead has narrowed sharply and students in many other nations score much better on science and math tests.

One international study found U.S. students ranked 29th out of 57 nations when it comes to literacy in science and math. The U.S. ranked well behind China, Canada and Croatia, but just ahead of Russia, Turkey and Mexico.

This month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the results of a 2009 survey of science education based on the testing of 156,000 fourth-graders, 151,000 eighth-graders and 11,000 high school seniors. The tests covered knowledge of physical sciences, life sciences and both earth and space sciences.

The study demonstrated by grade 12 only one in five students were proficient in the sciences. That compared to one in three students tested at the fourth-grade level.

By the end of high school, only 1 percent performed at the advanced level, 21 percent at the “proficient” and 60 percent could do no more than “basic” work. That means nearly 20 percent couldn’t even perform at a basic level.

Generally, students in the Southwest, California and Deep South fared much worse on knowledge of the sciences than students in the northern half of the country.

Unfortunately, students in Arizona scored 48th or 49th among the states in almost every area of science at almost every grade level.


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