The Charter School Movement (page 4)
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).
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given MNCS $4 million to help replicate the school. Each school year starts with a family/student/advisor conference. The conferences help students develop a plan for how they will make progress toward graduation, which is based entirely on demonstration of skill and knowledge. MNCS uses multiple measures to assess student progress. They show improvements in achievement, as well as strong attendance and a high graduation rate. There are no grades or bells at MNCS. Each student has a work station with a computer and the freedom to decorate the station with pictures of friends and family.
Students work individually or in small groups on projects that help them achieve the required mastery. Faculty see themselves as facilitators, advisors, and coaches, moving from student to student throughout the day. Every six weeks the school has a presentation night, during which students share information they've learned. It's like a big science fair, but on various subjects. Each student is expected to make at least three presentations per year.
The presentations often include computer graphics and PowerPoint. Students have become so sophisticated that some of them have been hired by businesses to create websites. But learning at MNCs is not confined to what's available by computer. Students are constantly out in the community, doing research and performing service projects. One project that attracted national attention involved students discovering frogs that did not have four legs. This led to a presentation at the Minnesota legislature, which allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn what produced the frog deformities.
Two recently created examples show what else can be done with shared facilities. In Phoenix, a group of educators approached South Mountain Community College to see if they would house a small charter high school focusing on agriculture and equine science. The college was delighted to do so. The high school has several classrooms of its own and shares the excellent resources of the college—classrooms, library, extensive computer labs, lounges and physical fitness facilities, along with college faculty. The college uses the high school classrooms late in the afternoon and during the evening. Administrators in both the high school and college are very pleased with their collaborative arrangements. Also, academic achievement of the students has been strong. Most students take some college courses while in high school. Some have received their high school degree and an associate arts degree from the college in the same week (D. Krug, personal communication, October 8, 2000).
An Arizona charter school was created on the campus of the South Mesa Boys and Girls Club. The Mesa Arts Academy serves elementary students in one of the lowest-income areas of Mesa, an area also known for several violent gangs. The collaboration between school faculty and the Boys and Girls Club has helped youngsters and their families. State statistics show that some of the greatest growth in academic achievement of any Arizona public school is taking place at this school (5. Douglas, personal communication, October 9, 2000).
Some research suggests the charter movement is helping stimulate improvement in the existing system, precisely because funds follow students. One study of several districts around the nation noted that:
District personnel on at least five occasions in this study acknowledged, sometimes begrudgingly, that charters had served to jump start their efforts at reform. While they initially opposed charters and the chartering had been accomplished outside their authority, they felt that the district schools ultimately had benefited from the dynamics introduced by the charter school. (Rofes, 1999)
Charter schools can be criticized because they do not always follow the same format as public schools and this varies from state to state. Charter schools are coming under increased scrutiny because they do take dollars from the public schools. Some charter schools have not handled finances very well. Clearly charters, like other public schools, must work on developing better ways of assessing student achievement. Nevertheless, the charter movement is spreading throughout the nation.
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