The Charter School Movement
In 1991, the charter school movement started in Minnesota. The central ideas of the charter school movement are that:
- Charter schools are public, nonsectarian, and open to all kinds of students. Charters can be new schools or schools converted from existing schools.
- More than one organization can authorize or sponsor a charter school (e.g., local school boards, the state, universities, cities, and other publicly responsible entities).
- Charters are freed from most state rules about how to run schools (other than building safety, nondiscrimination, and statewide testing programs).
- Charters are free of local labor-management agreements.
- In exchange for the waiver of rules, charters are expected to improve student achievement (Nathan, 1997).
Between 1992 and 2005, the number of states permitting charters grew from one (Minnesota) to forty, plus the District of Columbia. The number of charters increased to more than 3,400. Charter laws vary from strong to weak, with the stronger laws permitting multiple sponsors, having clear accountability measures, and permitting freedom for charters to operate outside state and local labor-management requirements. Charters include new schools and existing schools that have converted to charter status (Center for Education Reform, 2001).
One group of educators drew inspiration for a charter from their experiences in Japan. They created a small charter school for several hundred middle school students that uses some of the best ideas of Asian and American education. The Academy for the Pacific Rim (APR), located in Boston, is housed with several other organizations in a large building that was formerly a carriage factory.
Students and faculty start each day with an assembly, during which at least one student receives a gambatte award. This Japanese term translates roughly as "persist" or "keep going." Each student at the Academy, which has no admissions tests and serves a variety of low-income students, must take some form of martial art and study an Asian language. Classes start with students standing and bowing to their teacher. The teacher also stands and bows to the students. Another Asian touch is a longer school day and longer year. Each teacher has a computer with a phone on his or her desk.
APR also uses some of the best active-learning ideas of the United States. For example, when students learn about the Constitution, they participate in a mock Constitutional Convention, portraying a person who attended the convention and dressing roughly the way that person did.
Results are impressive. Although the school enrolls a high percentage of students from low-income families, its attendance and test results are among the very best of public schools in Boston, exceeded only by public schools that have admissions tests (S. Blasdale, personal communication, November 2, 2000).
Charters are not being created just in urban areas. In fact, the charter movement has been employed by a variety of rural small school advocates. One of the nation's most intriguing secondary schools is a charter in the tiny Minnesota community of Henderson, called the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS). This secondary charter school enrolls about 125 students, grades 7-12. It is run as a co-op, with the faculty owning the school, setting their own salaries and working conditions (D. Thomas, personal communication, September 10, 2000).
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