Tue, Jun. 20, 2006
CHANGES IN EDUCATION
Charter schools joining mainstream
HIGH SCORES, SPECIALIZED CURRICULUM DRAWING INTEREST IN AFFLUENT SUBURBS
By Dana Hull / San Jose Mercury News
A decade ago, charter schools existed largely on the fringes. Many were start-ups operating out of rented church basements -- alternatives to failing urban schools that struggled to teach the basics.
Now more than 200,000 California students are enrolled in 574 charters -- independently operated public schools that have wide latitude in what they teach and how they teach it.
While charters are still most popular in big cities and among low-achieving students, they're starting to take root in bedroom communities and affluent suburbs, creating stiff competition for regular public schools and drawing students from highly regarded private schools as well.
``We shop around to find the right mechanic for our car, but a lot of time we don't take the same approach when it comes to choosing schools,'' said Wanny Hersey, a skilled pianist and principal of Bullis Charter School in Los Altos. ``Once parents realize that school choice is out there and that one size doesn't fit all, they can evaluate different programs.''
Bullis was founded three years ago by parents outraged after their neighborhood elementary school was closed during a budget crunch.
The K-6 school lacks a permanent campus; it's housed in a dozen portable trailers on the parking lot behind Egan Middle School. But families are flocking to the young school's small classes, rich drama and instrumental music programs and individual learning plans for each student.
One measure of parent interest: 180 students applied for 40 kindergarten slots available this fall. Sustainable cooking, public speaking and conflict management are among the electives. Numerous projects, including an environmental education partnership with Hidden Villa, a 1,600-acre wilderness preserve in Los Altos Hills, are in the works.
For Steve Johnson, moving his daughter Sophia, 12, from a private school to Bullis last year was like moving from a house to something that really feels like home. Sophia graduated from sixth grade last week.
``She has learned faster and better here,'' he said. ``It's challenging, but she's rising to the occasion. I wish they would expand.''
Charter schools are by no means a magic bullet for the numerous challenges of public education. Some stumble, fail to meet community expectations, lose students and ultimately close. The California Charter Academy, a statewide chain of schools, fell to pieces in 2004, and a state audit found millions of dollars in questionable spending.
Some schools never make it through the approval process. RAICES, a proposed K-8 charter school in San Jose's Alum Rock neighborhood, recently had its petition rejected by the Santa Clara County Board of Education.
``The curriculum hadn't been thought through, and it felt slapped together,'' said Bill Evers, who serves on the county board and is generally supportive of charter schools. ``The charter didn't look ready, and I couldn't in good conscience approve it.''
The research on charter schools is also mixed. A May report by EdSource found that charter elementary and middle schools were more likely than non-charters to reach their goals when it came to improving test scores, but that charter high schools lagged.
There are 18 charter schools in Santa Clara County serving more than 5,400 students. Roughly half were founded to help struggling students from low-income families. Two more are scheduled to open this fall, and others are in the planning stages.
Downtown College Prep in San Jose got enormous statewide attention when its standardized test scores shot up 90 points in 2004-2005. It focuses on students who would be the first in their families to go to college; the vast majority speak Spanish at home. Entire classes go on field trips to colleges and universities.
But charters are also drawing families who are frustrated with the teach-to-the-standardized-test pressure facing many public schools, as well as parents shopping for specific programs.
``With No Child Left Behind, many schools are focusing just on reading, writing and arithmetic,'' said Caprice Young, president of the California Charter Schools Association. ``Parents of all kinds are looking for schools that still offer music and science and a diverse, enriched curriculum. Charter schools are a direct response to that.''
In Silicon Valley, the charter school movement has largely grown by word of mouth -- parents talking to other parents at soccer games and birthday parties.
However, local school districts, which can approve or deny charter school proposals, are not always as enthusiastic as parents.
``The fact is that getting a charter approved is still difficult, and a number of districts have signaled `Over my dead body,' '' said Eric Premack, co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento.
Other districts are wholeheartedly in favor: Cambrian School District in west San Jose converted four of its five elementary schools to charters so each could have more autonomy. Charter schools are governed by their own boards, have fewer regulations and work rules and have greater flexibility when it comes to raising and spending money, hiring staff and developing curriculum.
The first years of a charter school are reminiscent of dot-coms in the early days: It's a mad scramble to find classroom space, and charters often outgrow their facilities within weeks. There's enormous energy and excitement, along with near-constant retooling.
``It's like a full-time start-up job. This is pretty much my obsession,'' said Barbara Eagle, a parent who has helped drive Discovery Charter School, scheduled to open this fall in Campbell with a student body drawn from 25 public and private schools. ``It's really hard, but I knew we could do it.''
Contact Dana Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-2706.
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