Thursday, April 26, 2007

More Attacks on Charter Schools

How many days left in this year's legislative session? Charter school advocates won't be able to rest easy until the General Assembly declares sine die on May 9th. Today two amendments were added to the School Finance Act bill. One amendment cuts 3.5 million from charter school capital construction. This means charter schools would split 5 million dollars instead of 8.5 million dollars. Five years ago this capital construction fund was created with $5 million. As the number of eligible charter school students increases, the per student amount decreases.

The second amendment added to the bill would eliminate those who have charter school governing board experience from serving on the Charter School Institute and would also prohibit someone from serving on both the State Board of Education while working for the Charter School Institute.

This last minute attack on charter schools was the discussion when about 60 charter school leaders from Colorado met this afternoon during the National Charter School Conference. In addition, many conference attendees from Colorado report hearing people from across the nation talking about the "special place in hell" email of Rep. Merrifield.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

National Charter School Conference Highlights

Today at the National Charter School Conference in Albuquerque I heard a few things worth passing along:

* A Fordham Foundation study found that, on average, charter schools are funded at 78 cents on the dollar when compared to their local school district.
* A workshop speaker quoted Colorado State Senator Peter Groff as saying that charter schools are taking in a significantly higher number of low-performing students than their non-charter school counterparts.
* Ted Kolderie, the person behind the first charter school law in the nation, Minnesota in 1992, was inducted into the Alliance for Public Charter Schools' Hall of Fame. The legislative sponsor of this bill said that Ted Kolderie repeatedly emphasized that this is "about the children--not the adults!"

Monday, April 23, 2007

W Denver Prep Charter School

W Denver Prep was featured in today's Rocky Mountain News. The charter school had 181 students vying for 100 slots for next year's sixth grade class. I can see why parents are so interested in this charter school: it's a success by all accounts!

W Denver Prep focuses students on preparing for college. This starts even before they enter sixth grade when the principal, Chris Gibbons, meets with parents in their homes. It's a big commitment for families to choose this educational program because there are longer school days, a longer school year and lots of homework. Each homeroom is designated by the college their homeroom teacher graduated from.

I've visited W Denver Prep and know that their staff is extremely committed to the success of their students. Everything in this charter school is about the student's learning. It's not the students who switch classrooms, the teachers do. Students are encouraged to develop exemplary character traits. In "morning circle" students are publicly commended for achievements. This means their self-worth grows from authentic accomplishments; not the artificial "fluff" I've seen in some schools.

It's great to see Denver Public Schools embrace schools such as W Denver Prep. This charter school is definitely a shining star in DPS!

Friday, April 20, 2007

More on Windels and Merrifield...

Over at Face the State, there's an article reporting that Rep. Merrifield's ex-wife teaches at Globe Charter School in Colorado Springs! Hat tip to Face the State. http://facethestate.com/node/391

Today's Rocky Mountain News has a guest editorial written by Jessica Peck Corry titled, "Windels Hurting Schoolkids, Her Party." Corry cites an email exchange between Sen. Windels, Chair of the Senate Education Committee and Kim Miller, President and Founder of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins (the #1 rated public high school in the state). Miller is calling on Windels to resign due to her blatant bias against charter schools.

If Windels were to resign, would it be a psuedo-resignation like Merrifield's? Rep. Merrifield had the following to say to a charter school parent after he was copied on an email to Sen. Windels:

Rex, just wanted to set the record straight. I have handed over responsibilities of chairmanship of the Ed. Committee to my vice-chair for the rest of the session. I will continue to be chair and work for the good of ALL Colorado students as diligently and with as much passion next session as I have always done.

Fortunately this year's legislative session is over May 9th. Charter school families will be wise to carefully monitor next year's bills!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Power of Choice

Colorado has a choice enrollment law and public charter schools. This is a great way for parents to make sure the school they choose is the one best suited for their child's educational needs.

The trick is to educate parents early. Many new parents don't even think about educational needs until their oldest child is ready for Kindergarten enrollment. By then it can be too late to get the child into a good school.

School district's have different "open enrollment" periods. It's also often a complex process completed within a short window of time. Parents would be wise to check out their school choice options when their child is 2 or 3 years old, if not before.

Some charter schools allow parents to put their child on a lottery list two or more years before the student is ready to enter school. Many of the older charter schools in Colorado use a waiting list and so parents sign up their newborn when Dad leaves the delivery room. I know one charter school where Kindergarten students are all born before February because the waiting list exceeds open slots by that time of year.

Parents should check with their local school district to find out about their Open Enrollment policy. Parents can also research neighboring schools and school districts. The Open Enrollment law allows parents/students to cross district boundaries.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Education Jargon

Ever notice that people involved in public education have their own lingo? Whether it's acronyms or over-repeated phrases or buzz words, the education community is full of jargon!

When I first got involved in starting a charter school, it took me awhile to understand what people were talking about. To this day it still bugs me when people in education use a phrase over and over because "everyone who's anyone" is using the phrase. Currently that over-used phrase is "push-back." It's not that someone disagrees or has a different opinion, instead there's "push-back."

Another "favorite" that's been around for a long time (too long) is the misuse of the word "around." Educators say they're "addressing issues around school reform" rather than "related to" or "associated with."

So those of us in charter schools are going to agressively meet AYP and use HQ teachers because of NCLB; comply with our LEA's interpretation of IDEA and ECEA in order to serve our Sped population; take CSAP, ITBS and NWEA to measure student achievement; provide IEPs, ILPs and maybe even ALPs to meet individual student needs; comply with OCR, Title IX and everything else "around" ED; so that we can, too, belong to the "educator's club of jargon."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Accountability in Charter Schools

What's the ultimate form of accountability? Someone choosing a school. If they don't like it, students don't advance academically or if they simply don't like the dress code, people can vote with their feet and leave the school.

In addition to competing for the customer (student), charter schools are subject to all the same forms of accountability found in conventional public schools, such as the federal measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, CSAP and state accreditation. Charter schools have an additional accountability component in that they must renew their charter every 3-5 years. This is typically a higher-stakes review and a look back to see if the original charter is being implemented.

Most charter school operators believe in the philosophy of charter schools adhering to a higher level of accountability. Most welcome the examination of what they're doing because they are accomplishing their goals. Charter schools that are not educating students or accomplishing the specific goals outlined in their charter shouldn't be renewed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Charter Schools Meet Parent Demands for Smaller Schools

A study done by the Center for Education Reform, Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools: 2005 Data, reports:

On average, charter schools enroll 297 students, about half of the number attending conventional public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003-04, the average number of students per school was 438 in primary schools, 616 in middle schools, and 758 in high schools. Research indicates that smaller schools typically are more advantageous for learning, depending on the programs being used and what is expected.

And

The number of charter schools operating in 40 states and the District of Columbia in the fall of the 2005-06 school year stood at 3,617 with more than a million students enrolled.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Look at Colorado Charters from the National Perspective

Last week I attended the National Charter School Showcase in Washington, DC. It was a reminder to me of why Colorado's charter school community is healthy and efficient.

Some states limit the number of charter schools that can be approved. Other states require that charter school teachers be licensed. Some of these charters look very much like a traditional public school, but with the charter school label stamped on it.

Colorado is different. We have two authorizers (school districts and the state Institute), which allows for a better chance for charter school applicants to get approved. Colorado allows for the automatic waiver of 13 specific laws such as teacher licensure, tenure, and principal licensure. State policy also provides funds to charter schools for capital construction purposes. It's state policies like this that make Colorado's Charter Schools Act the eighth best in the country (40 states have Charter School laws).

The Charter Schools Act was carried in 1993 by then state Senator Bill Owens (R) and state Representative Peggy Kerns (D). Both parties joined together to pass this major piece of school reform--largely due to the significant number of parents who came down to the Capitol to support the legislation.

It was very apropro that Peggy Kerns served as a founding board member of the Charter School Institute and Governor Bill Owens appointed most of the first board. Their collaborative efforts created a legacy of school choice in a state that values parent involvement.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Just for fun, go to http://www.fox.com/areyousmarter/features/index.htm and take the online quiz to see if you're smarter than a fifth grader! Just be glad you're not taking the 10th grade math CSAP!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Why Start a Charter School?

The reasons why parents start charter schools is as diverse as the parents themselves. Here's my story.

The year before we started our first charter school, we had kids in 5th, 3rd & 2nd grades. Our oldest had tested into a self-contained, gifted classroom. His teacher had told me that in junior high he wouldn't learn anything academically; instead, he would learn how to adjust socially. He had deep pockets of knowledge in subjects his class had studied: the rain forest, China, etc., but not a broad knowledge (e.g. he didn't know what the heart did).

Our 3rd grader hadn't learned how to read until he was in his second semester of first grade when I bought Hooked on Phonics and taught him myself. I can distinctly remember the first Parent/Teacher conference that year when the teacher made me feel like I was a bad parent because my son hadn't learned how to read yet. In fourth grade, I'd told my son one evening to write better on his homework because his teacher wouldn't accept a messy paper. He told me I was wrong; guess he was right because she didn't care.

Our 2nd grade son also didn't learn how to read until late in his first grade year. In fact, the Special Education teacher approached me to talk about his learning difficulties and suggested he be evaluated for Special Ed services. After we started our charter school I learned that when a parent formally requests Special Ed evaluation, staff has 45 days to get it done. I requested this evaluation two consecutive years and it was never done by the District.

That's the academic side of my motivation to start a charter school. There were also several episodes, such as:
  • The Principal telling parents who were brainstorming alternatives to bloody, gory Halloween costumes worn by elementary school-aged children, this after a young man in Denver had been shot Halloween night, that she would be making the Halloween party policy. I asked if even though this involved my children and my tax money, I'd still have no say? She said I was correct.
  • This same Principal told me that every child "magically" hits a point in life where all of a sudden they learn to read. Until then inventive spelling and "pretending" to read is just fine. She said children learn to read after exposure to words, such as putting the word "clock" near the classroom clock.
  • At the last Back to School Night we attended at this neighborhood school, all three of my kids' teachers said there is no longer a reason to teach spelling because now we have spellcheckers on computers. Parents were aghast and asked about the times in life where an individual needs to write something by hand? Same answer.
  • During the semester my son wasn't learning how to read in first grade, his entire class had a semester on "pigs." They made a pig cookbook, had a potluck comprised of foods made with pig products, "wrote" in pig journals, and even had a pig in the classroom in a dog kennel.
  • At the time, the District's 3rd grade curriculum was entirely about Native Americans. The first few programs or presentations we parents attended, we thought, "this is nice." After winter break, we were sick of the same curriculum! Imagine what our children thought about it day after day?

There were many times during our battle for that first charter school, I felt like I was grasping for a lifeline for my children. I honestly believe one son would have eventually dropped out of school were it not for the change in his life at our charter school. (This son is now a U.S. Marine Corp Corporal!) I do not have a background in education and didn't know what was "normal" or "right" (like many parents). I didn't know it wasn't normal for my son to be adding and subtracting double digit numbers before Kindergarten. It wasn't until a few months into the first year of our charter school that I realized not all teachers yell at their students on a regular basis.

During the first year of our new school I heard numerous comparable stories from other parents. In fact, these experiences bonded us together and assured that our school would be successful! Our children's futures depended on it!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Some Positives for Charters after the Infamous Anti-charter Email

Public charter schools have gotten some good press out of the exposure of Merrifield's venomous anti-charter school email. This morning's Rocky Mountain News has an excellent guest editorial by Terrence Moore, the principal at Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins.
http://blogs.rockymountainnews.com/denver/speakout/2007/04/charters_under_siege.html

On Thursday night, Dr. Moore's school was highlighted on the 10 p.m. news. It was nice to see this hard-working group of administration, staff, students and families get recognition for their accomplishments. In their fourth year of operation, Ridgeview Classical became the number one public high school in the state (according to their SAR rating). Their 2006 SAR rating again ranked them at #1, for the second year in a row.

Additionally, Ben DeGrow has written an article for the blog, Edspresso. http://www.edspresso.com/2007/04/colorados_fight_over_public_ch.htm

I think the crux of the public discourse related to the Merrifield email is whether or not parents should have a say in their child's education. How did our society get to the point that this is even debatable? Parents can choose to make their child wear a bicycle helmet, participate in a particular sport or apply sunscreen; but not select an educational program that meets the needs of their child?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Charter Schools ARE Public Schools

"Charter Schools ARE Public Schools" is a slogan I saw at a national Charter School Conference several years ago. A significant portion of the general public believe charter schools are private schools and can charge tuition. Quite the opposite, charter schools are public schools in everyway the traditional public school is.

Charter schools are not exempt from testing their students with the state assessment, adhering to state accountability laws, complying with the separation of church and state, and educating students with special needs. Whereas choice schools (magnet/option) schools within a school district can have enrollment requirements, a charter school cannot. This means a district-operated performing arts school could require an audition for enrollment, but this is not permissible in a charter school.

Most often, within the charter school community people refer to "public charter schools" rather than simply "charter schools." It is more accurate!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Charter School Hero -- Jerry

One of the best things about the charter school community is the incredible people associated with them. Today I am writing about Jerry.

Jerry is a middle school English teacher. In fact, he taught my daughter when she was in junior high. I give Jerry credit for igniting the love of reading in her. He has that effect on students because he invests his time in his students. Jerry routinely takes small groups of students to lunch (with his own money) in order to get to know them better. He does this because he truly cares.

Jerry teaches students in a relaxed, but focused, classroom. He's studied different techniques, such as Quantum Learning, to make his classroom more engaging for students. In fact, Jerry is always open to learning new strategies and taking suggestions.

Jerry is a non-traditional teacher, though. He's not licensed. He has 2 or 3 Master's, but has never taken formal education courses. Jerry is proof that a teacher's license doesn't really mean anything about the quality of a teacher. He's one of those "naturals" that are easy to spot, even in a quick visit to the classroom. Jerry is an incredible asset to his charter school. I'm sure more students than just my daughter will remember him for the rest of her life as being an awesome teacher!