Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday Forum: Alternative Schooling Options (Part One--Charter Schools)

Having taught in the public school system, I am often asked what I think about public schools, will I send my kids to public schools, etc. My answer? The public school system varies greatly depending on geography. Mostly, I still believe in the public school system, though I think public schools stand in need of much reform (and I'm guessing most of you would agree with me on that). We are still debating about what we will choose--what will be best for our children.

Emily and I thought it would be great to open this up for discussion on Bloom. Since you are likely quite familiar with public schooling, we thought we'd interview some moms who have experience with alternative schooling. We realize this can get emotional, and even political (which is a place we typically avoid on Bloom). But we think it is vital that we talk about this. So, just for the record, Bloom doesn't have a specific stance on which type of schooling is best. We think every mother should get the best information she can, and carefully decide which option is best for each of her children.

The following is an interview with my sister, Kathryn, who resides in North Carolina with her husband and five children (who are all smarter than me, possibly excepting the two-year-old). Her children attend charter schools.

Anne: Why did you enroll your children in charter school?

Kathryn: We live in one of the largest school districts in the nation. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has 33 high schools, 33 middle schools, and over 100 elementary schools—all with one superintendent and school board. The northern suburbs (where we live) have grown substantially in the past couple of decades, and CMS schools has failed to build new schools sufficient to accommodate the growth. Instead, a typical elementary school in our area houses 1400 kids in a school built for 600. Besides the overcrowding issue, we had other concerns with the local public schools. We felt there was little control over curriculum decisions at the classroom or even school level. For example, the district chose readers for the entire district. Every first grade teacher in each of the 100 schools was expected to teach the same reader, no matter if the students were non-readers, or fluent readers.

We started out at our local elementary school and found the teachers to be superb. But they were limited by the bureaucracy of the school and district administrations. We had concerns about one of our children’s academic progress, and when I made an appointment to discuss these with the principal, I could tell she didn’t even know who my son was, after two years at her school. After that and other negative experiences, we decided to look elsewhere.

Anne: How did you select a charter school?

Kathryn: There are several in our area, but we limited our search to a reasonable (15 minutes or less) driving distance. We were also limited by the lottery process. Charter schools are very popular here, so you enter a random lottery and if your child is selected, people say that you got a “golden ticket,” since that child and eventually his or her siblings will be able to attend. Our first lottery experience was terrible. We applied to a “Scholars Academy” which was designed for talented and gifted students. We had to have a psychologist administer an IQ test to even qualify. I attended the lottery and watched as my daughter’s name was the very last name drawn from the bucket. It was so depressing.

But soon after that, a small private school even closer to us was granted a charter, which allowed it to expand and open to the public. We applied and my two oldest kids were admitted after a brief time on the waiting list. This particular charter school is a BASIC school, and we were intrigued by the philosophy. Four years later, we got lucky again in another lottery, and we moved our oldest kids to a charter middle/high school. We chose this one for its highly academic-college prep emphasis.

Anne: Can you describe the school(s) (you can just choose one if you want) your children attended? Teacher-student ratio, daily agenda, grading, building set-up, etc.

Kathryn: Teacher-student ratio is probably what sets our schools apart the most. At our elementary charter school, student ratio is 10 students per teacher. Each class of 18-22 students has a full-time teacher and a full-time assistant. This allows for much more small group work and one-on-one attention for each student. At our middle school, there are around 25 students in each class. At our elementary charter school, there are some unique opportunities not found at typical public schools. For example, they learn Spanish and sign language, participate in service learning, and participate in several performances each year. But there are some things missing. We don’t have a cafeteria or a full-scale media center. Our charter middle school was just able to build a beautiful facility after existing 10 years in mobile classrooms. At the middle and high school level, a charter school typically has fewer athletic teams and elective choices. I think this is just a result of the smaller size.

One significant difference at our elementary school is that typical grades are not given. There is a report card which shows progress, and teachers give periodic “assessments” (not tests).

Anne: Was there anything you didn't like about it? Something you would have preferred be done more like public schools?

Kathryn: Of course I would love there to be bus service! I would also like there to be a more diverse student body. This is something both schools work to achieve, but our charter schools are less diverse (as far as race and S-E-S) than the other public schools.

Anne: Did your school seem accessible to all students? (Would it have been difficult for a lower S-E-S family to attend?)

Kathryn: Our charter schools are accessible to anyone in that the lottery doesn’t discriminate. Even people who want to attend can’t if their numbers aren’t chosen! But there are things that make it hard for some people to attend. People who are new to the area don’t have the option, since lotteries take place in February for the following school year. But more importantly, they are limiting because they don’t provide bus service. It’s not easy for working parents to figure out how to get their kids there. It can be done (with carpools or shuttle buses to and from day car providers), but it’s a little more complicated than putting your kids on the bus to the closest school. Our charter schools also don’t offer school lunch, which is also an important aspect of school for some families.

Anne: Do you think 'charter school' is always synonymous with 'better school?'

Kathryn: Not necessarily. There are charter schools in our area that have failed. They can lose their state charter if they fail to demonstrate fiscal soundness and a certain level of standardized test scores. As with any school, parents need to stay informed and be aware of what’s going on in their children’s classrooms.

Anne: Anything else you want to say about charter schooling??

Kathryn: Something that’s very unfortunate is that charter schools do not receive funds for capital expenses from the state government. All public schools receive a dollar amount per student from state funds for their operating expenses. But regular public schools also receive funds for capital expenditures (their buildings, computers, libraries, etc.). Public charter schools don’t receive these funds so they have to get creative with their operating budgets and also rely heavily on fundraising. It’s not an equitable distribution of the tax dollars, and charter schools in NC are trying to change that legislation.

Also, one big difference I have found with charter schools is that, as I mentioned, we had fabulous teachers at the regular public school. But there are teachers there who are not so fabulous. And it seems the district has to keep them until they retire or decide to move on. We all know teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. Every year you hope and pray your child doesn’t get one of those. At the charter schools, they don’t seem to have this problem. Somehow, they seem to attract a little higher caliber of teacher. And more importantly, they are able to “exit” teachers who aren’t the best. Every year there have been teachers whose contracts haven’t been renewed. So I guess charter schools provide less job security for teachers, but the result is a more qualified teaching staff.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have experience with or questions about charter schooling?

(Part two of this forum--a discussion on home schooling--will take place in a couple of weeks.)


sharon said...

We home school and I am looking forward to the forum on that. Because of my husband's job we don't have a choice what schools we live near. We are using the classical method as outlined in The Well Trained Mind and also follow Charlotte Mason's principles. We are loving it so far and it is a good fit for my kids. Here is a post about us learning about the history of Passover during our school time...

Anonymous said...

After 2 years at the local public elementary, we were finally picked in the lottery for the Charter school our kids now attend. WE LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I cannot say enough good things about it, but here are some of the things that I have been most impressed with:

1) Our Charter is a Spanish Immersion school, and the first International Spanish Academy in Utah. Each class is given 50% instruction in English, and 50% instruction by NATIVE Spanish speakers. In fact, we have more teachers from Spain than any other school in the nation. I'm still amazed at how quickly my girls are picking up the language, with no ill effects on their grades. In fact, their grades are better than when they were at the public school.

2) As Kathryn mentioned, funding is harder to come by, which is why each family is required to volunteer 30 hours of service to the school, whether it's helping in classrooms or coaching teams, or organizing after school art classes. If a family fails to meet the required hours, its grounds for dismissal. I love this because parents and families are so much more engaged and have a real vested interest in helping the school run well.

3) I love that the teachers are not on contract. This may be a little precarious for teachers, but again, as Kathryn mentioned, this helps ensure the BEST teachers are recruited and that they work hard at sharpening their skills. There is not one "bad" teacher at our school, which is a real relief!

4) Two years ago, 30% of kids in the state of Utah did not pass their reading benchmarks. Sad, huh? Thanks to an AMAZING reading intervention program, our school only had less than 1%. That's an incredible statistic, if you ask me. We also have a wonderful math intervention program.

5) I can't overlook the fact that I LOVE school uniforms. I know some don't like them, but I notice such a difference in the atmosphere at our school, compared to the local elementary. Everyone seems more respectful, and let's face it, that is a dwindling virtue in our society. Besides, having four daughters, I'm glad to not have to play the you-can't-wear-that-to-school game with them.

6) Because it's not a "public" school, they can cap admissions, which means my kids won't get lost in the shuffle, due to overcrowding.

Even though I drive 40 miles every day to get my kids to and from school, for me, it's worth it to have them go to that specific school. Not all Charters are created equal. There are some in our area that are having big problems, and parents are pulling kids out and sending them back to their local schools.

If you're looking into a Charter school, the most important thing to do is to research the school board and the administration. They have a lot more flexibility than a public school, and if the right people are not running it, it will fail.

Like I said, I can't say enough good about our Charter school. I count myself lucky that we hit the lottery 2 years ago because I feel my kids are now getting the best education they could possibly get.

Camille said...

I am really looking forward to hearing the conversation here. I have two (4 and 2) children who will be heading into school (or homeschooled) in what seems like the blink of an eye. I would love to hear from moms what they love/hate about each option.

Abbie said...

Oooooo, ladies, this is good. I can't wait for the homeschool forum!

Valerie said...

I think that no matter what school you let your children attend, they will excel if you are INVOLVED in everything they are doing and learning. I have friends who have kids in Charter, and in public and in private and honestly all of the children seem to be doing really well and learning and excelling in their school activities. My one friend can't afford a private school so she made the decision that SHE would pick up the slack and teach her child the things where she felt the public school wasn't focusing too much on. She does extra reading, math, and work book stuff with her child.
I personally really enjoy the LDS private school my son goes too, however it can get pricey. I am not sure what we will do when our second goes to school becuase it can get very expensive. It think they key is just being completely INVOLVED no matter what schooling your child has.

Diana said...

My kids here in AZ attend a wonderful charter school. They've had wonderful teachers every year. They encourage high parent involvement and the majority of parents do volunteers hours and hours of their time helping in the classroom. Class size is 20 and my favorite is their options of schedules. There's regular day schedule or part day 7:30 to 12:30 or 11 to 4. Which gives families the opportunity to spend more time together. For my research of schools I looked at and looked at the schools in my area. Your guest's comments resonate with the experiences I've had with our charter school.

Melissa said...

I like what Valerie mentioned. My kids are in public school and doing well because I'm involved. If I weren't, I'm not sure what would happen to them (especially my girl who needs a little more guidance). Our district just cut the budget by millions and our class sizes went from 20:1 in K-2 to 33:1. It's ridiculous. I am a credentialed public school teacher, and I want to "stick up for us", but I can't stick up for the administration or our state government. I'm a SAHM right now and nothing I see that's going on makes me want to return to public ed. There are fabulous teachers in public ed, but they are going to burn out fast. It's really depressing.

I recently became acquainted with a local home school academy that my friend is using. I am impressed with the curriculum, and I learned that the state pays for all the materials! I'm not sure why our public schools can't have the same great curriculum and materials?? Anyway, I look forward to that discussion on this forum. I am not ready to work full time which in essence is what a home school mom/teacher does. But I'm not saying it's out of the question. :)

How do you find charter schools in your area?

Alicia said...

Amanda-what school do your kids go to? I am just curious. I love that some charter schools have requirements for parent volunteers. It's hard to have 27 kindergarten students with no aide or parent volunteers.

As a public school teacher, I am generally an advocate for public schools. However, like everyone knows, there are some teachers in the public school system that really should not be there. (Can you think of any, Anne?) I always feel bad for the students in those classrooms. If my child was in one of those classes, I don't know what I would do.

I think Charter schools can be a great asset but some charter schools leave a lot to be desired. I think the important thing is to do your research! Some charter schools in Utah don't require a teaching degree at all. I think if you want to be a teacher you need to have training. I love that at Amanda's school the teachers are not on contract. I may get burned at the stake for saying this, being a teacher myself, but I think a teacher should prove that they can teach in order to have a job. Seems like a no-brainer to me. You can't teach, you shouldn't have a job teaching. Duh. Unfortunately that is not the case in so many public schools.

Anne, do you remember that pod-cast about schools in New York where the teachers are just put in a holding cell instead of being fired? I think Danielle shared it? That was a good eye opener.

To make a long comment short-I still am an advocate for public schools but understand Charter schools are a better fit for some students. And not all charter schools are created equal! Research, research, research! Make the best decision for YOUR child.

Steph said...

We'll be starting a home school/charter school hybrid with my kindergartener this Fall. It's probably the same one that Melissa was referring to. It's more home school than charter school, so it probably doesn't have a place in today's discussion, but I just had to chime in and say that I'm so glad that we have choices when it comes to our children's education.

Jesslyn said...

Our oldest will be school age in 2 years and we're already researching our options. The ideal for us is charter, home school or some combination thereof.
1. Until last year my husband's niece worked in the NY public school system and those holding cells Alicia mentioned are called "knitting rooms", because that's what many of the women did all day. It is one of the most psychotic wastes of funding EVER! And people wonder why our public schools can't succeed.
2. That same niece's sister is finishing up her teaching degree here in UT. She's too far into it now to change but she was completely disillusioned when she realized she wasn't learning teaching - she was learning crowd control and how to follow the state rules for education. She's planning to just keep right on going with her own education so she can teach at a university.
3. One of the things that made my husband and I sit up and take notice of the home school crowd, is that year after year they are consistently ranked highest in terms of level of education reached. And the co-op options to blend with charter schools and other groups is brilliant for diversifying the way in which their taught. Either way, the technology and tools available today means hubby and I don't have to settle when it comes to our daughters' education. And I really like that. Many countries have zero option outside the government run programs.

Tia said...

I've done evaluations on all of the charter schools here in Oregon. There is a HUGE HUGE range. Some are top-notch, high-quality educational facilities. Some are full of unqualified "teachers" that follow teaching practices that are well-known to not work and actually can be detrimental to children. I agree with others who say DO YOUR RESEARCH.

I think many people who love charter schools forget that they are frequently better due to self-selection (much like private schools). Parents who actively work to get their children into a charter school are already so much more involved than many public school kids. The public schools are also forced to deal with mainstreaming - which is hugely controversial. In any case, it's hard for a teacher to have both TAG kids and severely austic kids in the same room (and trying to get everyone to meet AYP goals). I don't envy any teacher.

jeanine said...

My oldest goes to public school... he has a FANTASTIC teacher. I couldn't ask for someone better. The classes are small and he is thriving. I feel blessed that the public school in our community is so good.

Nikki Douglas said...

Thanks so much for opening this discussion! I haven't done a lot of research on charter schools yet mostly because I assumed they would be way too expensive as my husband is still in graduate school. But I should do some research. I did notice that one near here is completely free as long as you live in the school district! looks like a good resource to find some charter schools, searchable by state. But I know that's just one of many sites.

My husband is a teacher and he says one of the biggest factors in if it's a good education for your child (apart from parent involvement, because that is #1) is the ability of the teacher to tailor the curriculum somewhat to the needs of the student. So it makes sense that in classrooms with a smaller size, if the teacher has good training and wants to do their best, that whether it was charter or public it would be a good education. I stand in awe of how the one-room school-house teachers did it years ago with lots of different age range and education-level students all at once. That would be a fascinating study to learn how they handled that. I wonder if there are any books on the subject? So I wonder if on the whole in today's world you could use classroom size as a benchmark--if public schools are high and charters are lower, that might be one key to use in clueing you in to what might be a better education. Just some of my thoughts.

Jonesy said...

I agree that parents who look into alternative choices (charter, private, home) tend to be more involved, which may be why most are quite successful. Either way, I like being involved with other parents who are as engaged as I am. I also agree that you can have positive experiences in public schools as long as you are involved in what your kids are doing and learning. I don't agree with sending them to school, though, only to have to give them more work to do at home because the school isn't doing a good enough job--that just seems asinine to me. Not that parents DO that, but that they HAVE to do that.
Nikki--All charter schools are free. They are run through the public school system, unlike private schools.
Alicia--My girls go to North Davis Preparatory Academy in Layton. Again, we LOVE IT!!!

Amanda aka Jonesy

Jonesy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle's Messages said...

I am a parent (children almost 3 and almost 1) and appreciate this discussion about alternative schooling. Every child is so different and his/her needs are so unique, it's hard to place everyone in the same type of environment and expect the same results (thank you NCLB).

I am also a teacher. I taught for 5 years in the local public schools in Utah and currently teach for an online school, Washington Online (online public school/homeschool hybrid -

Just a note on the Nikki mentioned (our school, Washington Online, uses the K12 curriculum). Although the K12 company does have a charter school in Utah - it is largely a "home school." Meaning - the children are taught by the parents in the home, using the K12 curriculum (which is both online and sent in books, materials, teacher manuals, etc). It is an AMAZING, award winning curriculum, and it works for LOTS of children.

Also, many of the Charter schools that use K12 - are partially run by K12 (ie - the K12 company gives the charter school financial support so that they will use their curriculum). This is not true of the online public schools that use the K12 curriculum.

There are also a few other "virtual public schools" in Utah, Washington Online for example that use the same K12 curriculum ( - and other states as well). If you research K12, please know that it is NOT a school. It is a curriculum taught by parents. You can purchase this curriculum on your own - OR enroll in one of the public/charter schools that provide it FREE of charge.

So, if you are looking/wanting to homeschool and need somewhere to you don't want to come up with a math, reading, writing, history, science, art lesson for each child every day - K12 can help. Just do your research on the schools that provide this curriculum, because each school is different in how it is run and what it requires.

Sugar... said...

I completely agree that it all depends upon geography. When we moved we were deciding upon two completely different areas/school districts within the SLC area, and one had an amazing school district, the other one left much to be desired. We ended up moving to the first one, and my kids attend the public school. The elementary in our area is AMAZING. It is so great that we have all these options of homeschool/charter just in case we are not so lucky to end up in a good school district. We all just want what's best for our children, but I do think that most of us have this thought of "charter is better", when that is not always the case. Nothing could tempt me to take my kids out of their current public school, so it is all about researching and not just assuming that charter or home is the best choice no matter what.

Mrs. Olsen said...

I'm a current sahm and I have taught in both a traditional public and a charter school. The public school I taught at was in Highland, UT. We had great parent support and I considered it a very good school. The charter school I taught at was in inner-city LA. It was a 5th-8th grade school and kids would come to us from traditional public schools on average at a 2nd-3rd grade reading level. The great majority had not intentions of going to college and were more likely to talk about their family's gang. By the time they graduated from our school, they were almost all on or usually above grade level, most had scholarships to private high schools or were admitted to an charter high school. They also had goals for which college they'd like to go to and how they were going to get scholarships to to that school. Additionally, any time someone visited our school, they without fail mentioned how respectful and well-behaved our students were. That's not something you would hear at the public school these kids came from.

The way I see it, charter schools make the most difference for the very low-income families who want their children to get a good education but have to send them to the awful public schools that are usually found in low-economic areas. That's not to say that other children can't benefit from them, there's just not the same discrepancy.

I live in Alabama now and there's an fight on the state level about charter schools. It drives me nuts that the state teachers' association is the one heading up the fight against charter schools. I know it makes it more difficult for teachers to keep their jobs, but that should only affect the ones who aren't good. Like I said, I'm a former teacher and I think that if I wasn't able to help the kids the way I should, I shouldn't be teaching. That's how it is in any other profession anyway. Ok, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, I'm a big proponent of charter schools! I hope when my oldest daughter starts school in a couple years I'll have the option to send her to a charter school. If it's not an option, I'm looking into home schooling, so I'll keep an eye out for that discussion! :)

Kimberly said...

When it was time for us to send our daughter to Kindergarten, I started researching all the charter schools in our area. I found two that I loved, and would have been overjoyed to send my daughter to. However, we are not in the school district for a single charter school. (Our district has 2 elementary schools, one Jr and one High school.) I filled out the information anyhow and after the lotteries, found out we were 22nd and 31st on the waiting lists. I will still apply every year on the off chance that no siblings or in district students want to attend, but the chances are super slim. Bummer.
Great topics. I am looking forward to the one on homeschool. I have friend with 4 littles who just started homeschooling her oldest this year. My daughter has a great teacher for Kinder but there are 29 students in her class. It's a bit ridiculous for a K class to have that many students.