Charter School Alternative: Thinking Outside the Box
Family North Carolina MagazineNov/Dec 2006
With parents increasingly concerned about the academic quality and moral suitability of traditional public schools, many are turning to that often shunned by government agenciescharter schools.
Simply put, charter schools are public schools without the red tape. A charter is free to choose its own direction and educational emphasis because it operates independently of most state regulations and district standards. The school and state establish a performance contract, called a “charter,” by which the school is required to abide. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded mainly through taxpayer dollars that are distributed by the State Board of Education according to the per pupil allocation set forth by the local school administration. Despite enjoying the autonomy of choosing their own direction and emphasis, charter schools are still tuition-free and must accept students on the same nondiscriminatory basis as any other traditional public school. Each school is organized as a nonprofit educational organization with its own board of directors to oversee the operational details of the school. There’s no doubt that many charters have blossomed nationwide, despite being denied financial perks enjoyed by conventional public schools. According to the Center for Education Reform, well over one million children now attend 3,977 charter schools across America, an increase of nearly 400 schools since the 2005-2006 school year. Although charters are often the brunt of criticism, research shows that they often provide a better overall learning environment than comparable public schools. Faculty from at least two North Carolina charter schools attribute their school’s success to what they consider the primary goal of this education alternative: creating an atmosphere free of bureaucratic entanglements where students can grow and achieve in new and innovative ways. And that starts by parents, teachers, and communities thinking outside the box.
Situated between Minnesott Beach and Grantsboro in Pamlico County, the township of Arapahoe might seem an unlikely place to boast one of North Carolina’s first charter schools. But after consolidation threatened to close the town’s 150-year-old public school in 1996, community members took advantage of the newly approved charter school law and launched Arapahoe Charter. The community never set out to convert the school into a charter, according to Jennie Adams, a math teacher at Arapahoe who has served on the board of directors for six years. Circumstances simply coalesced to present the opportunity. “I have no clue right now, just sitting back here ten years later, how in the world we did it,” she said. “We were trying to find ways to try and keep our school open since we were just a small community school and this was the last of the schools in the county that was not being consolidated.” Parents, teachers, and other community members allied to prevent the school from being closed, Adams said. “Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were trying to get some facilities; the county schools wouldn’t rent us facilities. The public opinion was absolutely divided and mixed, and we had public hearings and nasty things said about both sides.”
Bob Kennel, who helped Arapahoe Charter raise the necessary funds to open, said that construction funding was a big concern. “The problem was obviously facilities,” he said. “Because of the late start, we began the first school year with K-8 classes scattered in three churches and a rented church camp for four months.” Kennel also emphasized the level of support the community offered. Eighty-six volunteers cleared seven acres of land in order to erect pre-built steel buildings to accommodate the students and faculty.
In Wake Forest, Franklin Academy had a less tumultuous beginning. According to school administrators David Mahaley and Denise Kent, the school was founded on the principle that increased funding is not a cure-all for public education woes. Rather, appropriate stewardship of resources and sound financial policies go much further in ameliorating funding hurtles. “Our chairman of the board saw the opportunity to open a charter school and demonstrate that it’s not so much that schools need more and more and more fundingit’s that they need to be good stewards of what they’re given and be able to develop and build a program that functions off the state allotment, which is essentially what we’re doing,” Mahaley said. Another reason that Franklin Academy was founded was to provide an alternative to Wake County’s traditional public schools, according to Kent. Far from indicating a lack of interest among parents in charter schools, Franklin Academy alone serves nearly 1,100 students and has a faculty of 79 teachers and 9 teaching assistants.
“Our waiting list this year for kindergarten is about 200,” Kent said. “One-hundred students are on a waiting list for first grade, and middle school averages about 50 to 75 kids per grade. So there’s definitely a need in this community for us. With our waiting list alone, we could open another charter school.”
Resources and Funding
One of the many advantages offered by charter schools is local handling of resources, a fact that Mahaley and Kent are quick to underline. “If you look at one of the areas where money is just way out of control [in public education], it’s in building costs,” Mahaley said. “It’s evident in Wake Countythat’s been a hot topic. But just look across the state and really the nation: money is thrown into building.”
There’s no doubt that financing for school construction is burgeoning across the state. According to a preliminary report by the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, total construction needs in North Carolina will be nearly $10 billion over the next five years, a 57 percent increase since the last survey in 2000. Forty-four percent of that budget is devoted to new school construction.
Unlike traditional public schools, charters receive no funds for construction, often forcing local communities to resort to raising funds independently in order to provide adequate facilities. But Mahaley emphasized that, at least at Franklin Academy, such techniques are never used. “We’re not going out and raising funds,” he said. “We’re not doing what many other schools may choose to do.”
Thanks to fiscal discipline, Franklin Academy has paid off its two elementary school buildings. “We are made to live within our budget,” Kent said. “There are no exceptions on that.” Similarly, Arapahoe Charter was able to develop a 52,000 square foot education facility for significantly less than many public schools spend for comparable construction. “Our total facility costs are less than eight percent of school budget,” Kennel said. Arapahoe was inevitably able to develop an education facility for $37 per square foot and a gymnasium and community center for $24 per square foot, significantly less than new school construction for public schools.
A number of groups now exist to help charter schools grow and flourish. One of these organizations, Imagine Schools, has played an important role in the development of Kestrel Heights School located in Durham. This nonprofit group brings a four-tiered system to the educational process. The organization stresses competent faculty, an inter-disciplinary curriculum that challenges students academically and edifies them morally, a safe school atmosphere, and parental involvement as necessary components of the education journey. They have over 50 school partners in nine states and the District of Columbia, and are currently developing schools in seven other states.
Tim Dugan, director of Kestrel Heights, said his charter partnered with Imagine Schools in order to procure the resources necessary to have a top-notch program and suitable education facilities. “Imagine Schools does a lot more than just bring money to the table,” Dugan said. “We’re now part of a network of schools. We now have some support, whereas in the past, if we ever ran into a problem, we never really were able to pick up the phone and say we need some help.”
Kestrel Heights first opened its doors in 1998, but the school did not join the ranks of Imagine Schools until several years later. Being part of the school network has allowed Kestrel Heights to benefit from experts in the corporate office who are available to assist with such issues as testing, curriculum, and security, according to Dugan.
“There is strength in numbers,” he said. “It’s given us an opportunity to reach out to other charter schools that are part of the Imagine Schools network, and we can learn from one another and help one another out. A lot of us are going through the same kinds of growing pains and problems.”
Some parents might be concerned that charter schools lack the extra-curricular opportunities of traditional public schools. After classes end for the day, however, charters offer students a plethora of after-school activities. At Arapahoe Charter, students can join a wide range of sports, including volleyball, boys and girls soccer and basketball, softball, and baseball. The school has a line-up of 14 games every season and participates in the Crystal Coast Athletic Conference.
Franklin Academy offers a variety of sports activities and clubs, in addition to a literary magazine, a school newspaper, art programs, karate instruction, environmental clubs involved in recycling, and much more. The school also takes part in the National Junior Honor Society. Mahaley works hard to involve students in the approval process for extra-curricular activities by requiring them to submit a written proposal prior to approving a club. “Give me a proposal, and I’ll read through it and see about approving it,” he said. “It’s great, because the kids want it. It’s something that really is student-led, and I think that’s a tremendous benefit.”
“School and Parent”
Another difference between charters and traditional public schools is parental and community involvement, mixed with a good dose of local control that allows teachers and administrators to effectively run the school. As former public school teachers, Mahaley and Kent see a dramatic difference between conventional public schools and Franklin Academy on discipline alone. “One of the noticeable things is that a lot of schools talk about having zero tolerance discipline policies,” Mahaley said. “Here, we really hold true to that. There are things that are unacceptable. That’s part of coming to this schoolyou agree to follow the rules and procedures. Our purpose here is pretty straightforward. You get that mission very clouded when you get in these larger schools.”
Discipline issues are systematic in public schools, Mahaley added, while the flexibility offered by charter schools gives teachers and administrators the leverage to handle behavior problems effectively. Jimmy Lee, who also taught in a traditional public high school prior to joining Arapahoe as a language arts teacher, points to parental and community involvement as the biggest benefits of charters over public schools. “Unlike traditional schools where the administration puts a wall between school and parentthey do everything they can to keep parents out of the schoolwe do everything we can to try to get our parents to come participate,” Lee said. “We have a lot of parental involvement here that you just don’t see in traditional schools.”
David Bass is a research assistant with the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
Copyright © 2006. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.